The Japanese Cake that Studio Ghibli Brought Back to Life (and where to get it!)

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In 2013, Hayao Miyazaki released "The Wind Rises," a film about an aerospace engineer and inventor who pursues his dream of designing the perfect aircraft while the world around him collapses into World War and tragedy.  Cheerful, right?  Certainly, Miyazaki's intent was something deeper than to rekindle interest in pre-war desserts, but a single scene (pictured above) helped to revive a lost dessert in Japan: the Siberia Cake.
In the film, the main character is returning back to his room and buys a couple of slices of Siberia cake, later offering it to two small beggar children.  If you are wondering what the heck Siberia cake is, don't worry, you are not the only one.  Many Japanese moviegoers wondered the same thing.  It is hard to believe that something that once was so popular faded from memory so quickly, but thanks to Ghibli, it has started to make a comeback.
So what is Siberia Cake exactly?  Simply put, it a cake with yokan (bean paste) layered between Castella cake.  Its origins are somewhat obscure, but it is likely that the cake was invented in the Kanto area (Tokyo and Yokohama area) and became popular in the Taisho Period (1912-1926).  Unlike other pastries introduced in the post-Meiji Restoration (post-1868) modernization of Japan, Siberia cake was made from desserts already firmly rooted in Japanese society.  Yokan had been around for hundreds of years, and castella cake was introduced by the Portuguese in Nagasaki as early as the 1600s.
What about the name, "Siberia Cake?"  Like the origins of the cake's design, the name is also obscure.  Some speculate that it was borrowed from the idea of Russian cake, which is characteristically layered.  Others suggest that it looks like the trans-Siberian railway, with the railroad track running through the frozen tundra.  Still others say that it was just a name to remind folks of cold Siberia when they are trying to eat a dessert on a hot day.
Whatever the reason, the name stuck, and Siberia cake was a popular dessert in the early 1900s.  After the war, Siberia cake fell into obscurity, and it was not something that was easy to find until Ghibli director Miyazaki decided to work it into his movie and later, as a special dessert option at the Ghibli museum (pictured below).
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Some bakeries throughout Japan have taken to making Siberia cake again, but it is still relatively obscure.  Your best bet when trying to find a good Siberia cake is actually convenience stores and supermarkets.  The major bread and pastry manufacturer, Yamazaki, has made Siberia Cake a staple product, and it can be found among the other packaged pastries (like in the pic below).
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One of the best parts of Siberia cake is that since it has both Japanese and Western flavors, it is appropriate to pair either with coffee or green tea.
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I hope that you all find some time to enjoy this wonderful cake that found new life thanks to Ghibli!

Mike B