Crickets Come to the Door
Insects appear several times in the 72 microseasons and many Japanese romantically like to think that this proves the country’s special cultural affinity for bugs. While our ancestors might have adored the chirping of crickets in the deep autumn, most grown-ups in modern Japan are afraid or repulsed by these critters, as I discovered as a child when I proudly showed the bugs I caught in the fields to my parents.
With rapid economic development and urbanization, crickets stopped coming to our doors long before I was born in the 1970s. Instead, what heralded the coming of winter in the danchi apartment complex where I grew up as a young child was the appearance of street food venders outside our doors.
In the early fall evenings when mothers are out shopping for dinner ingredients, the yakitori vender would set up their stall in front of the supermarket to lure the shoppers with the smell of chicken roasting on a stick and sizzling soy sauce on charcoal. When darkness falls, the ramen hawker would appear and play the recordings of the familiar charumera (a wooden instrument like an oboe) tune late into the night.
Street venders immediately put me in a festive mood, and my favorite street food in autumn are the stone-roasted sweet potatoes. They are called ishi yakiimo in Japanese, and the venders sell piping hot reddish-purple Satsuma sweet potatoes from the back of mini trucks. “Pota-toes, pota-toes, sto-ne roasted pota-toes. Freshly roasted! They’re sweet and delicious potatoes” came the luring calls. The conversational tone of the vender’s song clearly targeted children, and we used to flock around the trucks and beg our mothers to buy the potatoes.
My mother, though, didn’t like sweet potatoes. “After the war when there was not enough food to go around, we ate a lot of sweet potatoes,” she sighed dramatically and said. “I’ve already eaten my life’s worth of sweet potatoes.” My father and grandparents had experienced the same sweet potato-overdose so they also avoided them.
Even in the face of this opposition, my insistent begging would occasionally pay off and my mother or grandfather would buy me the ishi yakiimo. They did this out of pity because they knew how much I loved eating potatoes. My love for eating potatoes was such that they jokingly called me “imo-nechan”, which literally translates as “potato sister”. The same word is also slang for “country bumpkin”, which added a witty Edo (Tokyo) twist to the joke.
“Street venders are hakuri tabai (high turnover, low profit), and it’s not right to just buy one thing from them,” my grandfather would say. So even though we only needed one, he would order 3 potatoes from the vender. “They would make very little profit if we buy a single item, because they have to pay for the wrapper and the bag.” my grandfather explained. In the working-class neighborhoods of greater Tokyo where my grandparents worked and my parents grew up, the local community supported the street venders with this unspoken code of conduct.
Recently, I read in a Japanese newspaper that our once forgotten traditional sweet potato snacks like stone-roasted potatoes and dried potatoes are back in popularity, especially among young Japanese women. They consider these treats to be healthier and more satisfying than a regular snack. This is great news for an imo-nechan like me, because I can now stop at any convenience store in Japan and buy some dried sweet potato snacks called hoshi-imo. Hoshi-imo are not very pretty in appearance –the uglier greenish ones taste the best– but they are delicious, so I urge you to taste them if you haven’t already done so.
As for contemporary street venders in Tokyo, I don’t think they depend on selling in volume to make a profit, but I still can’t help myself from buying more than I need. Many Japanese people think it’s impolite to just blatantly receive money, and to me, buying a few extra is like tipping in the West. I simply give them away to my neighbors on the way home and it works out for everyone. I imagine that my elders that have passed on are happy to see that their Edo working-class spirit is very much alive in me.