Text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
First you hear his song, a long-drawn tune reminding of a lament and made up of the words “ishi” (石) “yaki” (焼き) and “imo” (芋/いも) meaning, respectively, “stone”, “baked” and “potato” and referring to the way they are cooked. Then you see the smoke from the chimney of the improvised stove in the open back of the miniscule truck and the actual truck while it is moving very, very slowly almost following the melancholic melody. And when it passes, you see the fire in the stove and the red paper chochin lantern with the same words “石焼きいも” or simply “yaki-imo” (“焼いも”) “baked potatoes”. Even today, even in some of the most modern areas of the world’s most modern mega-city, the baked potato street vendor is the liveliest proof that the night falling is an autumn one and the summer has long gone.
The potatoes in question, which are actually sweet potatoes, came to Japan when they also came to the rest of the world, in the end of the 16th century, probably from China through Okinawa, the islands in the marine border between Asia’s superpower and its most eastern frontier. Their first major base was the Satsuma area in modern-day Kagoshima of Kyushu Island and it was there that they took the name “satsuma-imo” (薩摩芋) which is still used to describe them. And at some point, one hundred years before the Great Famine of Ireland in which potatoes played a major role (but for the opposite reason) the satsuma-imo saved the people of 18th century Edo from starvation, thanks to the insistence of the scholar Aoki Konyo (1698–1769) to have them planted all over Kanto when rice crops failed; as a reminder of that, elementary school pupils participate every autumn in “imo-hori” (いもほり) digging for potatoes, even if only symbolically.
Of course since this is Japan, things must have their unique characteristics: the skin of the yaki-imo-ya-san’s sweet potatoes has a deep purple color which, in some varieties continues well into their flesh while besides the simple baking on stones, they are also a very popular flavor for ice-creams and the main ingredient of a desert called “daigaku-imo” (大学いも) or “university potatoes” which consists of the potatoes being cut in small pieces, getting caramelized in syrup and served with baked sesame seeds; the name probably comes from the fact that this is how they were offered in the cheap restaurants around the campuses of the first universities built in Japan after the restoration of the Meiji Emperor. Still in the shitamachi, the old neighborhoods of Tokyo people still prefer the simple baked potatoes, engaging in a rather odd transaction with their seller: yaki-imo don’t really have a price –you just tell the yaki-imo-ya-san how much you have to spend and they give you the quantity they want. And although some might say that they are somewhat pricey (the ones sold in the supermarkets are indeed cheaper) some things don’t have a price –they have value.
This letter would be lacking without the yaki-imo-ya-san’s song: you can hear it here
(Audio file: Japanese Wikipedia page)
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.