That distant music creeps closer, carrying the hopes of hungry children.
“The ice cream man! The ice cream man!”
Well, there is no ice cream man in Japan for kids to waste their allowance on. There is no ice cream man, but children (and adults) look forward to a different kind of mobile entrepreneur.
An obnoxiously loud whistle approaches, like a landlocked tug boat steaming down the street. When you hear it, you know.
“The Sweet Potato Man! The Sweet Potato Man!”
The whistle is the stone oven on the back of his truck, roasting sweet potatoes that live in the collective heart of Japan. A lot of people claim he’s growing too expensive nowadays though. But I was his first foreign customer, so he gave me a steep discount. 200 yen.
I’d been wanting to try a yakiimo (baked sweet potato) ever since I saw–well, heard–the Yakiimo man drive through my neighborhood. But I never had the chance until recently when I caught him plowing right for me.
I flung out my hand, surprisingly excited about trying sweet potatoes since I don’t even like them. “Choto matte kudasai!” Please wait a moment! I’d just wanted to try a humble piece of Japanese culture and planned to throw the thing away after a few bites.
These though, are not those nasty orange lumps mom cooks for holidays. I enjoyed my yakiimo. Though even at my discounted price, 200 yen is still pretty expensive for a potato.
There used to be other mobile venders, though most have gone the way of the carrier pigeon. The sentakuhanki (laundry pole) man’s tune is remembered by all my older students. They all start singing it whenever I mention him. The tofu man was popular for a while too before loss of habitat drove him to extinction. And only a very few noodle men still roam the streets, an endangered species.
But the Sweet Potato Man fights on, keeping the tradition of mobile tuber vending alive for another generation. At least until the end of the day when he dumps all his extra sweet potatoes in the river because he doesn’t want to encourage people to think they can get one for free.
Just don’t get him confused with the other, far more obnoxious Sawadake Man. If you live in Japan and sleep late, you may well be awoken by the cry of “Ta-ke-yaaaa, sawadakeeee!” from a loudspeaker atop a grungy old pickup.
When you hear it, know the sawadake man has come. He collects your old junk. This is not a government service. He does…well, no one seems to know what he does with what he collects. Recycle it? Repair and resell it? Hoard it? Whatever he does with your old junk, he rolls around town collecting it.
It’s a convenient way to get rid of stuff, and you’re helping a cause. Whether it’s a good cause or not depends on the Sawadake Man, I suppose. He is a mystery. There are even books about the question of:
“Just what does he do with it all?”
I don’t know, but he gives you toilet paper for it. True story. I’m not making that up. So if you’re ever in Japan, have an old TV you want to get rid of, and forgot to buy some TP. It’s an option.