For a city of its size and density, Tokyo is disproportionately lacking in great sandwiches. Let us be clear: We’re not talking about ethereal Japanese-style sando, with their soft white bread and fillings like omelet, strawberries and cream or even ridiculously expensive wagyu fillets (although those are a perfectly valid and wonderful form of sandwich). We’re thinking of hearty sandwiches that power you through endless Zoom meetings: baguettes, toasties, wraps, banh mi.
Fortunately, there’s the Chipper’s pop-up at BathHaus, where Kohsuke “Chan” Yamaoka turns out simple, well-made sandwiches every Tuesday evening.
Located in the quiet Hatsudai neighbourhood, BathHaus was the brainchild of its previous owner, who wanted to combine the things he loved – sentō and craft beer – in a single space. (He sold it in 2020 to a small design company, which now manages it.) Sentō, or public communal bathhouses, were once the watery, beating heart of local neighborhoods, but their numbers have steadily dwindled over the last few decades thanks to private baths becoming available in almost every household. There are ongoing efforts to preserve some of these communal bathhouses – for example, attracting younger customers with events, or redesigning the space – but usually, once a sentō closes down, it’s unlikely to ever open again.
In this sense, BathHaus is an unusual but new and welcome addition to the neighborhood – it opened in 2019 – and obviously has a younger target audience in mind. For one thing, traditional sentō don’t typically have fluorescent orange noren curtains, or rubber duckies in their cypress baths. Nor do they have delicious Japanese craft beer on tap. (One of our favorites is the CBD-infused “Slow Motion” IPA from Shizuoka.) Some people come from across town just to soak in the baths, but it has its fair share of regulars who live or work nearby. It’s a popular weekend morning stop with runners, who drop by post-workout for coffee – or cheeky 10am beers.
As Chan tells it, starting a pop-up here was pure serendipity. It was early 2019, and the Awajishima-born barista/sandwich-slinger had just returned from a working holiday stint in Melbourne, where he’d fallen in love with the art of sandwich-making. The year abroad was the eventual result of a radical change from his previous white-collar job at Fuji Xerox. A quarter-life crisis forced him to take a long, hard look at what he wanted his life to look like – essentially, nothing like a salaryman – and he ditched the necktie and briefcase for several years of barista training in Osaka under Takayuki Ishitani, two-time winner of the Japan National Barista Championship. Chan had always wanted to live abroad for a while, though, and a working holiday visa was the perfect excuse to do just that.
Great sandwiches don’t have to be complicated, but as with anything in life, they require care and attention.
Upon returning to Tokyo, when he and a friend walked past the newly-opened Bathhaus, they dropped in to check out the space. They chatted to the owner and boom: Chan scored an invitation to start a sandwich pop-up at Bathhaus. He’s been here every Tuesday evening since.
Today, there’s a slow trickle of customers, mostly regulars who know and love Chan’s sandwiches – or “sangas,” as the Australians like to say. Every week sees a different sanga. His signature chicken schnitzel with shiso leaf, a lush Cubano, a Godfather-inspired lamb meatball sanga stuffed with shoestring fries. Today’s is a tuna melt. When we walk through the door, he’s chatting to a middle-aged woman and her dog. According to Chan, she’s the daughter of a family-run diner just down the road from BathHaus, and a familiar face here.
“Did you cycle here?” She turns to us, eyes twinkling. “How wonderful, your bike must go so fast.” She’s here to pick up some tuna melts and a cheeky beer, because it’s her day off tomorrow. She practically skips out of the door with her paper bag. We order a tuna melt, and Chan smears an eye-popping dollop of butter on top before letting the sandwich slowly crisp in a hot frying pan. Another regular arrives: a thin, bespectacled man in a black turtleneck.
“Hey, I haven’t seen you since, what, the end of November?” Chan says. “This is Zakizakizaki,” he tells us. “He’s a cafe-stagrammer. You should follow him.”
“Where on earth did Zakizakizaki come from?”
“It’s not a very interesting story,” replies Zakizakizaki. “The ‘Zaki’ comes from Yamazaki. I got to know Chan when he worked as a barista at a workplace cafe I used to frequent. Once, his colleague wrote ‘Zaki’ three times on my takeout coffee, and the name stuck.”
He turns to a pink-haired man at a table behind us, who’s busy scarfing down a tuna melt.
“How’s the sandwich, is it good?” The man nods, his mouth full. “Oh, thank goodness.” Zakizakizaki turns to us, continuing, “I recommend his sandwiches to everyone, you see.”
“So you’re basically doing PR for him,” we say through a mouthful of tuna melt. It is an impeccably crisp, cheesy toastie: a creamy tuna filling flecked with dill and studded with tiny cubes of tangy-spicy homemade jalapeno pickles. The bread has a solid crumb, great flavor. It’s from Katane, a beloved French-inspired local bakery in nearby Yoyogi-Uehara.
“Yeah, I’m like his marketing manager,” he says with a perfectly straight face. “No, I just really want to support Chan, because he makes delicious sandwiches. He needs to open his shop already.”
“Alright, this year,” says Chan, laughing. When we first met him two years ago, he was hunting for a suitable space to start his shop; he still hasn’t found the right one. “This year for sure.”
Great sandwiches don’t have to be complicated, but as with anything in life, they require care and attention. You can taste it in Chan’s sangas, which he tweaks often based on customer feedback. It’s all about the details: a dusting of scallop dashi powder on a chicken schnitzel for extra umami, a spritz of water as the bread toasts so that it stays tender even as it crisps, porchetta made from scratch. (This last for his glorious tortilla breakfast wrap, a thin tortilla stuffed with hash browns, an oozy-yolked fried egg, lettuce, avocado and porchetta. It’s our favorite so far.)
BathHaus is exactly the sort of relaxed, low-key place we love having in our backyard. We hope Chan opens his sandwich shop soon, but until he does, we’ll be eating his sangas here on Tuesday evenings.
Note: For those looking for a worthy sandwich during the rest of the week, here are a few suggestions: pastrami sandwiches at Freeman Shokudo, homemade bacon and sundried tomato baguettes at Camelback Espresso, haggis toasties at Deeney’s, banh mi at Bánh mì Sandwich or Bánh mì Bà Ba, and lobster rolls at Luke’s.
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