The Sweet Potato Man: Mobile Tuber Vending In Japan

Yakiimo Man

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.

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10 Comments on “The Sweet Potato Man: Mobile Tuber Vending In Japan”

  1. Artemis
    June 18, 2013 at 1:39 pm #

    No sweet potato man in my neck of the woods that I know of – although it’s pretty darn rural out here. (This is a shame since I really like sweet potato. In New Zealand we call it kumara.) We do however have an old lady who roams around the town in her old pick-up truck selling all manner of other vegetables, and playing loud enka music whenever she passes by the residential areas to let people know she’s coming.

    • introvertnathan
      June 19, 2013 at 12:47 am #

      Haha, sounds fun. I never liked sweet potatoes until I tried the yakiimo. Japan made me a convert.

  2. samokan
    June 25, 2013 at 7:47 am #

    we call it the venerated “Camote”. We call it Camote in the Philippines. It’s too darn expensive here, I eat when its there but I am not really a fan of it, it makes you fart lol 😀

  3. buildingmybento
    June 26, 2013 at 5:57 am #

    Thanks for liking my post about fishing in Tokyo! Are you a fan of (urban) fishing?

    Oh, THESE trucks. I first heard them in Akasaka, Tokyo in late October or early November a few years ago, and immediately became anxious. Then hungry, then anxious again. The unusual recording and the glacial pace in which the truck moved are ingrained in my noggin, but dang do I wish they were around in other parts of the world (the trucks, that is).

    Yaaaaaaaaaaaki imooooo are a pleasant street snack in China as well, but the eerie factor of the mobile sweet potato vendor is right up there with the bizarre high-pitched hums of the kerosene trucks in Amman, Jordan.

  4. tokyo5
    June 30, 2013 at 2:49 am #

    The sweet potato man, tofu man, kerosene man, laundry pole man, roasted chestnuts man, etc all used to be a much more common sight when I first came to Japan … unfortunately less common now.

    “chin-don-ya” were common back then too … nowadays, many Japanese young people have never seen them!

  5. Leah
    January 7, 2014 at 8:36 am #

    I was tickled to read about the Sweet Potato Man! Keep up the good work!

  6. Alejandra
    February 21, 2014 at 1:36 am #

    Good post. I certainly appreciate this website.
    Keep it up!

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