A year in baking
26 January 2020 - the day after my 39th birthday. As we headed home from visiting what I thought was going to be our new home, taking measurements for furniture that I thought we would be needing, I felt my girlfriend begin to pull away, teasing that distance that exists in the things we choose not to say. Over our two years together, I had come to appreciate that my role in our partnership was to have patience and to allow the space for her to communicate what she was really thinking and worrying about.
We had been to this same place numerous times before, where weeks and months of blissful togetherness were suddenly upended in a cycle of withdrawal, despair and, eventually, honesty. But this time was different. By the following morning, my friend, my partner, the love of my life, the person that I had started 2020 with plans to propose to in the warmth of the Tokyo spring, somewhere in the midst of falling cherry blossoms, was gone.
Alone in our home, my home, as the global media documented the rising tide of COVID-19 cases across Asia, a few corporate clients began reaching out, requesting guidance on risk mitigation plans in light of the emerging situation. I didn’t want to work. I didn’t want to get out of bed. I let opportunities go and found myself lost in the fog of unanswered questions, self-doubt - let’s be honest, self-hatred - and the growing darkness that came from realising each and every hope and desire that I would come to mourn over the coming months.
Over the course of February 2020, the number of COVID-19 cases slowly crept up in Japan. We watched as the tragic microcosm of the coming global crisis played out on the Diamond Princess berthed in Yokohama. Case numbers grew in Hokkaido, and then spread. By the end of February, schools across Japan were being ordered to close and transition to remote learning. And I stayed lost in the fog, desperate for answers, but also desperate to try and avoid the all-consuming darkness that I knew I was capable of embracing, or, maybe, creating.
At the age of 39, diagnosed with Bipolar II disorder in my mid-30s, I’d experienced enough in my life to know that that particular blend of influences and factors in my life were capable, even likely, to push me, lead me, draw me to a place where in my mind there was nothing but darkness and despair, where the very notion of a tomorrow didn’t exist. Even with the proven combination of anti-depressant medication and a long-term therapist-patient relationship, I could feel that familiar, almost reassuring, cloak of loneliness, the loss of hope, the thought of saying goodbye to everything and everyone, to help ease the burden on the world, my friends, and myself.
Me, myself and lockdown
I didn’t realise at the time how life would lead me beyond those moments of darkness. None of us did. Few amongst us would have guessed we’d still be living so deep within the grasp of the pandemic more than a year later. My own career in crisis and risk management frequently required me to prepare clients for worst-case scenarios. This was the first time that I found myself applying the same style of assessment framework to my personal and professional life together. As with so many of my clients in the past, I had greatly underestimated the full potential of this worst-case scenario. As the COVID-19 situation developed, I realised I never factored in the possibility of losing my would-be fiancé at the same time as a global pandemic brought our lives to a grinding halt.
My guiding memory then was of my previous period of depression, the weeks unable to leave my apartment, the pure hopelessness upon waking up to another day, the burning desire to let it all go and put an end to the pain and hurt that had become everday. Those memories and the love and respect I couldn’t ignore for my grandmother, my godchildren, my friend’s children were the ingredients that forced me to scramble, to ask for professional help, to fight hard to keep an eye on the light that exists in life.
The Great Japanese Bake Off
I never really had a sweet tooth, but ever since my twenties in London, where office culture is often dominated by tea and cakes and biscuits, I began to fine-tune one particular cake combining banana bread and carrot cake into something relatively healthy and tasty. And, for the past 15 years, whenever I’ve had access to an oven, this particular cake has been the cake I bake for friends’ birthdays, or just to give to them when I want to cheer myself up, as much as them. Since moving back to Tokyo in 2015, I’ve baked one of these cakes every month or so to surprise a friend with. And they’ve always gone down well.
So, one April morning in the creeping shadow of a darkening mental state, I started baking. I baked with the idea that perhaps I could convince friends of mine to buy a cake and help me raise some money for those who were likely to suffer the most from the economic fallout of the pandemic. Those who work part-time contracts, the self-employed, the single parents, those who would be the first to bear the brunt of the economic pain. Perhaps I could sell 30 cakes and raise a few thousand dollars to donate to a local charity. It felt good to be working through the familiar motions of preparing the cake. And it helped ease my mind, letting me think about what I might call this project and how I might get the word out to my friends. With all my own consulting projects cancelled as corporate clients prepared for the worst, and the pandemic restricting any possibility of visiting family without putting them at risk, this was the simplest way I could see to pull the emergency brake on a cycle of negativity and anxiety that was quickly filling my days. The reality is that by the end of 2020 my consulting businesses revenues were down over 75% compared to the previous year. But unlike those I was hoping to help, I was eligible for government grants and in a position to apply for banking loans to help see me through the foreseeable future.
On 15 April 2020, one week into Japan’s State of Emergency, Let Tokyo Eat Cake was born in the form of an Instagram page with a simple idea: I would bake my banana-carrot cake and deliver it personally to anywhere in Greater Tokyo for the price of JPY 3,000, all of which would then be donated to the Second Harvest Japan charity supporting food banks across Japan. The very first cake was delivered to my brother, who subsequently shared my project with his social media followers. And so it began. Within a week, I was baking eight cakes a day on my plug-in electric Hitachi oven, whilst trying to fit in deliveries across Tokyo throughout the day.
Fortunately, in Japan, we were never subject to an outright lockdown, rather we were requested to limit our non-essential trips out of the house. I decided that if I took the necessary precautions in baking and delivering, wearing masks both in the kitchen and out on the street, the risk was one I was willing to take to support those in far greater need. I also knew that this might be the only thing that would keep me in the light, looking ahead rather than looking back. Seeing the happiness, surprise, and gratitude when delivering cakes to an unsuspecting recipient, or having a brief conversation with an old friend when handing over a batch of cakes, helped to remind me that things might be alright, that we, me, you, could work our way through this pandemic, through the loneliness, the uncertainty, and whatever else may be coming our way.
100 cakes and more...
By the third week of my cake baking adventure, I had baked, sold and delivered over 100 cakes. With each cake selling for JPY3,000 and all proceeds going to charity, I’d managed to raise JPY 300,000 for Second Harvest Japan. I’d delivered cakes to old friends, new friends, friends of friends, and remarkably, even to people that I had absolutely no obvious connection to. All of a sudden, I was delivering cakes to people who had been browsing Instagram searching for cakes and decided to support the initiative. Every person I met to deliver a cake to shone a little more light within me. Looking back, it is almost as if each delivery, each meeting, was helping to bring back a little bit of colour to back into my being.
After delivering 100 cakes, I realised that this was something I could, and in fact should, continue for as long as people were willing to buy my cakes. A website was born, and, as the pandemic rolled on and businesses across the country began to suffer, the interest in Let Tokyo Eat Cake continued to grow and orders began to stack up in my small kitchen. Everyone was incredibly understanding - for a large period of 2020, most customers were waiting around four weeks between ordering and receiving a cake.
I was limited by the production capacity of my plug-in oven, but, more than anything else, I was constrained by my decision to deliver each cake in person. Whilst I could bake up to 10 cakes a day, the time it took to deliver each cake by scooter meant that I would normally spend around three hours a day on the scooter, weaving my way through traffic, backstreets, highstreets and everywhere in between. Many people offered to help with baking and deliveries over the course of the project, but I knew that each delivery, each time I got to witness a surprised smile or feel the warmth of someone’s gratitude, kept me going in spite of all the challenges at home and around the world.
And I captured as many of these moments as I could. Each and every delivery I made, I would ask the person standing in front of me whether I could take a photo of them holding the cake. I could share that beautiful moment with the person who had ordered the cake for them, and with the rest of the world. Plus, it let me record my journey of recovery throughout 2020. Along the way, I began to embrace the power of social media under the guise of helping others. I had always resisted and felt uncomfortable with social media, but it became a tool to not only engage with a wider audience to help support charities in Japan, but also to communicate a brief moment of positivity. I realised I could actually communicate and engage, rather than just watch and look and compare.
On 19 June 2020, one of the people most dear to me, Daisy Dumas, wrote an article on Medium about Let Tokyo Eat Cake. The morning I read the article, I rode my bike and felt waves of tears, gratitude and relief. Daisy’s words released months of self-doubt and loathing that I had embraced in the aftermath of my relationship. It was in no way the end of the long road back from heartbreak, but it helped me see the pain and damage that I was holding on to. Not long after the article was published, the Australia Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) published the article on their website leading with a photo of myself and my 98-year old grandmother. Overnight, my Instagram followers tripled in number, and I began to receive messages of support and kindness from strangers around the world. As simple as it might seem, but the mere act of someone taking a few moments to reach out and tell me that they appreciated what I was doing meant the world to me. I have always thought that the small things in life often matter the most, and, while I was embarrassed to be almost 40 years old and putting my days into a project that reminded me of school bake sales, each cake, each delivery, was a building block in the right direction. The messages I received reminded me just how powerful a small act, five minutes of your time, can feel to the person receiving it. I cried and cried with relief and wonder.
As of the end of March 2021, I’ve sold and delivered over 600 cakes, raising over JPY1,300,000 for Second Harvest Japan. Thanks to the help of friends such as the actress Makiko Watanabe, I’ve delivered an additional 230 cakes or more in weekly deliveries to Children’s Cafes that provide free healthy meals to children from families struggling financially. I’ve delivered cakes to every ward of the Greater Tokyo area, and seen more of Tokyo than I ever thought I could. I’ve collected six penalty points driving my scooter and had to spend a day completing a driving safety course to avoid a suspension. I’ve had one minor scooter accident and one bicycle accident. I’ve delivered cakes to people further afield in Kyoto and Kochi on the rare occasions to travel in 2020. I’ve delivered cakes on behalf of supporters from Australia, New Zealand, the UK, Canada, France, Hong Kong, China, Thailand, USA, India, and more. I’ve unexpectedly delivered cakes to friends that I hadn’t seen in nearly ten years. I’ve had awkward cake deliveries to people that it turns out I matched with on a dating app and never replied to (the lesson is don’t try and force yourself to date just because you’re broken hearted). I’ve delivered cakes to people who have subsequently become good friends, filling 2020 with the light and life it was so lacking.
I’ve just enjoyed a long overdue 40th birthday party in Tokyo, and realised, as I looked around at those who celebrated with me, that I’ve made real friendships full of love and warmth while learning a new way to float when depression floods all I know. Thank you to everyone that has helped me along this way, family, friends, new and old, far and close, and those strangers that have taken the time to reach out and help someone. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
All thanks to a cake.