Here's a little summary of the storyline and charachters for those who haven't read but want to. (SPOILER ALERT!!)
Yakitate!! Japan (焼きたて!! ジャぱん, meaning "Fresh Made Japan") is a manga serialised in Shogakukan's Weekly Shonen Sunday, by Takashi Hashiguchi (橋口 たかし Hashiguchi Takashi). 15 tankouban have been released so far. An anime is currently being produced by Sunrise, and was broadcasted on TV Tokyo from October 2004.
It is a tale about Azuma Kazuma, a boy on his quest to create "Japan", a national bread for Japan itself. He heads to Tokyo to expand his bread-making horizons at the giant bread-making chain Pantasia; and continues with Azuma's exploits with his other coworkers. The title of this series itself is a play on words; Yakitate translates to "freshly baked", but Japan has a double meaning. Besides referring to the country of Japan, "pan" is the Japanese word for "bread" (a borrowed word stemming from Portuguese "pÃ£o"). This mimics the style of the names of other varieties of bread in Japanese, such as "furansupan" (French Bread), "doitsupan" (German rye-based bread), "itariapan" (Italian bread), etc.. Besides the desire to create his Japan, Azuma Kazuma also possesses the legendary "Solar Hands". These hands are slightly warmer than normal human hand temperature, which allows the dough to ferment faster. This gives him some advantage in the beginning of the series, but in the end it's his genius that shines through. Although the story has baking as its main theme, the parts that generate the most interest are the outrageous puns in the story. Especially notable are the puns made by the judges, who go to great lengths to prove a single point about the bread that they tasted. The series in general also pokes fun at the shonen genre's tendacy to be melodramatic over mundane tasks. While the characters might create the most extreme breads, most of them are actually real, or are at least based on real bread. Hashiguchi employs a bakery consultant, Kouichi Uchimura (内村 浩一 Uchimura Kōichi). Uchimura creates bread similar to the bread in the manga, and some of the bread in the manga are actually his invention. Uchimura runs a bakery called Pan no Mimi in Kyoto.
Azuma Kazuma (東 和馬 Azuma Kazuma) - Male protagonist, a bread artisan who dreams to make the perfect Japan. He doesn't seem very bright but when it comes to bread he's a genius. Azuma also has the "Solar Hands", which are exceptionally warm hands that allow the yeast to ferment faster and better when he is making his bread.
Kyousuke Kawachi (河内 恭介 Kawachi Kyōsuke) - Coworker and sidekick to Azuma, from the Kansai area. Initially the character that is informative to Azuma, but ends up being the fall guy as the series continues. Considers Azuma to be his rival. Has trained himself to have "Solar Gauntlets", which are like solar hands developed through physical training.
Tsukino Azusagawa (梓川 月乃 Azusagawa Tsukino) - Granddaughter to the owner of the Pantasia chain, and understudy to Matsushiro Ken. Seems to have a crush on Azuma, though it is never expilictly stated.
Ken Matsushiro (松代 健 Matsushiro Ken) - Manager of Pantasia Southern Tokyo branch. A burly man with an afro. He also likes to tease Kawachi.
Ryou Kuroyanagi (黒柳 亮 Kuroyanagi Ryōu) - The head at the main Pantasia branch. His straight-laced no-nonsense attitude belies his very silly quirk of making strange pun-based reactions to the delicious bread he's eating. He used to be the student of Ken, but Ken drove Ryou away with his behaviour.
Kai Suwabara (諏訪原 戒 Suwabara Kai) - Kuroyanagi's understudy. A serious bread artisan, who left the swordsman path of destruction to follow the path of life-giving bread.
Kageto Kinoshita (木下 陰人 Kinoshita Kageto) - A worker at Pantasia Southern Tokyo branch. Though all the characters talk about making new kinds of bread, Kinoshita is usually the one who ends up doing all of the work at the store, while everyone else is involved with bread making competitions. At first glance he doesn't stack up bread makers like Kawachi and Azuma, but Kageto seems to have the strange ability to work so fast it looks like there are several of him at once. He's also talented at copying bread.
Pierrot Bonnaz (ボルネーゼ ピエロ Borunēze Piero) - A world class clown working as a bread judge. Heir to the throne of Monaco. Can speak 135 languages.
Here's an overview of the story arcs as well:
The story starts with Azuma's childhood when he learned how to create a bread that tastes better than rice in order to prove his grandfather wrong. Fast-forward a couple years…
The Pantasia Entrance Examination Arc
This is the initial arc where Azuma goes to the Pantasia Main Branch Store expecting to get a job only to discover that he has to compete for it in a series of exams. Azuma also starts at a disadvantage as he loses almost all of the ten points he needs to avoid being disquilified. It is in this arc that Azuma meets Kawachi, Kuroyanagi, Tsukino and Suwabara Kai. Shortly after the competition, Azuma and Kawachi get jobs at Pantasia's Southern Branch store. A few stories take place there as they meet Ken Matsushiro and Azuma competes against a skilled but pampered baker named Mokoyama.
The Rookie Tournament Arc
This story arc features a fierce tournament between all of the bakers that were hired by Pantasia that year. When Azuma and Kawachi learn about it, Kawachi declares Azuma his rival and begins intense physical training to gain solar gauntlets, which are sort of artificial solar hands. This arc introduces Tsukino's sisters and reveals that there is a secret animosity between them. Several rivals return and new ones are introduced as Azuma and Kawachi enter the competition. The story climaxes in a bread battle between Harvard Graduate Kanmuri and Azuma.
The Monaco Cup Arc
Azuma, Kawachi and Suwabara travel to Monaco to take part in an international bread competition which will determine the fate of the Pantasia franchise. There they meet Pierrot, the clown judge, as well as the lion-headed King of Monaco who is holding the competition. But in this competition, St. Pierre is bribing judges and pulling out all the stops to win, including trying to kill Team Japan (Azuma, Kawachi and Suwabara) on more than one occasion. There is also a subplot about Pierrot, who is an orphan looking for his true family.
The Yakitate!! 25" Arc
The story arc currently runnning through the manga in which St. Pierre has finally bought out Pantasia, and owner of St. Pierre has challenged Pantasia to a final bread-making competition which is set up like a game of Othello
Hope this helps those who wanted to know more about the series.