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Japan's Psychedelic Baker Turns Bread into Astrological Art and Drinks Immortality Cider

"There are a lot of connections between the world of yeast and the universe," says Junpei Katsumi of Paradise Alley Bread & Co.

by Reed Dunlea
28 March 2019, 2:48pm

Photo courtesy of Ryosuku Kikuchi

This bread tastes like heaven, but eating it might feel sacrilegious.

It twists and turns into beautiful, doughy tangles, stenciled with flour to create striking pictures on its crust. The dough is often baked with charcoal powder, resulting in a jarring black color. The shapes are based on celestial maps, with contours mimicking the paths of astral balls of gas and rock.

“When you think about time on a human calendar, it doesn’t make sense. It’s better to live your life based on the universe’s calendar,” says Junpei Katsumi, 43, its baker. “My bread reflects the movements of the stars and planets.”

Whether this bread is food or art, or a mix of both, is up for debate.

Katsumi, 43, was born—and still lives—in Kamakura, Japan. He is thin and quiet, with round black glasses and a wispy goatee. His pondering expression doesn’t change much beyond the hints of a smile that occasionally appear at the corners of his mouth. He speaks about his bread and his process passionately but quietly, drawing you in to his trance-inducing meditations on baking.

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Photo by the author

His life is bread. Or more specifically, yeast.

“The word ‘yeast’ [酵母] in Japanese is very similar to ‘mother’ [母]. When I make new yeast, they are babies, but they will be mothers soon, too. Baking bread is like cremating thousands of yeast babies,” says Katsumi. “Then you eat it, and it becomes your body. You can live again. It’s a full circle.”

And thus, the cycle of life and nourishment continues.

Katsumi’s mother gave cooking and baking lessons in their family’s home in Kamakura when he was a child. Katsumi started helping her with the classes, and learned how to bake bread, when he was seven years old. He was inspired to turn his breadmaking skills towards making bread art pieces as a way to celebrate weddings and other significant gatherings with friends. Eventually, he started leaving his pieces at temples and shrines as well.

Way before activated charcoal became a detox and Instagram trend in the US, Katsumi was using charcoal made from local bamboo to give his bread its iconic black color. For particularly special occasions, Katsumi bakes bread with charcoal he got from a dead ginkgo tree he found at Kōtoku-in, a Kamakura temple that is home to the city’s famous Great Buddha statue.

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Photo courtesy of Ryosuku Kikuchi

“I just started making the pieces more and more,” says Katsumi, who now presents his bread art at store openings, concerts, galleries, and other cultural events around Japan. His pieces are so distinct, and his passion is so apparent, that Katsumi has become a mainstay around Japanese creative scenes.

"We’re sitting backstage and the door opens up, and this huge platform is carried in by like three people, with this sculpture or something on it. It’s something that looks like bread—all I can really see at first is the white flour on top. But I realized it was some sort of astrological chart."

“Everybody knows Junpei, and everybody’s psyched on his bread and trips out on it,” explains Hisham Bharoocha, a visual artist and musician who performs as Soft Circle. Bharoocha first saw his bread art while playing drums with Japanese experimental rock legends Boredoms. “There was a solar eclipse show that Boredoms played, and Junpei did this flour stenciling on his bread. It looked like it was silkscreened. It was so graphic and so sharp, but really cool that he made this edible object.”

Ryan Sawyer, who plays drums in Gang Gang Dance and also drummed with Boredoms, recalls seeing Katsumi present one of his pieces at a Boredoms show in the Chiba prefecture of Japan.

“We’re sitting backstage and the door opens up, and this huge platform is carried in by like three people, with this sculpture or something on it. It’s something that looks like bread—all I can really see at first is the white flour on top. But I realized it was some sort of astrological chart. It was a star chart for that day, which aligned with the performance we’re doing that day,” says Sawyer.

“Everybody left, and I’m sitting there staring at this piece of bread. All the planets are some sort of piece of other bread, sitting in the bigger piece. So this kid grabs Saturn or whatever, and started eating it. I’m like, ‘What the fuck are you doing!’ But there was red bean paste in it, and I realized it was also for consuming.”

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Photo courtesy of Ryosuku Kikuchi

So, Sawyer figured he’d have a bite as well. “It tasted like a cool, slightly sour, badass bread. The red bean paste was super heavy, too. It was so good!”

Katsumi doesn’t only present his bread at events. He opened Paradise Alley Bread and Co. 14 years ago inside of Nokyorensokubaijo, a farmers market that’s been providing produce to the locals of Kamakura since 1928. “Basically, the same families have been here since it started,” says Katsumi.

Ninety years sounds like a long time for a farmers market to exist, but time moves a little differently in Kamakura. The former capital of Japan is a short trip south by commuter train from Shinjuku Station in Tokyo. The city is littered with Shinto shrines and surfers. It is the same town where California Governor Jerry Brown disappeared in the 80s to study Zen Buddhism. On my quick journey from Tokyo to Kamakura, two older men with glassy eyes separately told me to follow my gut when I got there.

Katsumi’s bread embodies the slow and spiritual vibe of the city.

Sitting in Paradise Alley, I take bites of anpan (a sweet bread filled with bean paste) and rolls filled with cream cheese, miso, and olive. It’s some of the best bread I’ve ever tasted. Katsumi casually puffs on a joint he rolled—not a particularly common sight in Japan. We pass around a plastic jug of black cider, which Katsumi has been re-fermenting from a bottle a friend had given him.

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Photo by Reed Dunlea

Katsumi’s friend owns a charcoal business, and claims to have found a fossil frozen in the mountains outside of Kamakura containing Bacillus F , an ancient bacteria that was reportedly first discovered in the permafrozen brain of a woolly mammoth fossil by a Russian scientist named Dr. Anatoli Brouchkov from Moscow State University. Brouchkov estimated that the bacteria survived 3.5 million years in freezing conditions, and thus offered a potential clue to the workings of eternal life.

Brouchkov was so convinced of the immortal powers of the bacteria that he told VICE he was injecting himself with it. As he explained to RT, “If we can find the mechanism, how that bacteria stays alive, then we probably would be able to find the tool to prolong our own life.”

Dr. Brouchkov, however, is skeptical that the bacteria Katsumi is baking with could actually be Bacillus F. “Bacteria is everywhere. However, no permafrost in Kamakura,” Brouchkov said in an email. “I have no idea how some baker in Japan could get it.”

But Katsumi points to the time it takes for his cider to ferment as evidence of the unusual properties of the bacteria he claims to be using. Katsumi says that while most of his cider usually ferments in roughly one month, it only takes two days when using the batch he believes to contain Bacillus F. He bakes it into his bread as well.

“I can feel my body and my mind trying to evolve,” says Katsumi. “Because it has this powerful bacteria, it makes a big change in your stomach, and it eventually changes your mind.”

“This bacteria doesn’t die in the cold or the heat. Other bacterias die while baking, but this one doesn’t,” says Katsumi. “So this changes the whole story of bread. People eat the bread, and it’s protected from the stomach acid. It stays alive.”

Katsumi says that when ingesting this bacteria, you can feel a strong and unusual effect, similar to that of psychedelic mushrooms (which he has also baked into some of his breads, but does not sell at Paradise Alley).

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Photo courtesy of Ryosuku Kikuchi

“I can feel my body and my mind trying to evolve,” says Katsumi. “Because it has this powerful bacteria, it makes a big change in your stomach, and it eventually changes your mind.”

It is those changes, especially the unexpected ones, that draws Katsumi to breadmaking. He sees parallels in the spontaneity.

“When something happens and I make things with yeast that I don’t expect, it’s the same as life. You can make choices, but unexpected things happen. In life, when you do things, you work for what we imagine or hope will happen. But sometimes unexpected things happen, and that’s the most interesting part,” says Katsumi.

“When you bite a piece of bread, a lot of things happen in your body. There are a lot of connections between the world of yeast, and the universe. I try to show those connections through my bread.”

And with each bite, life goes on.

This article originally appeared on Munchies US.