Kamatani also found success, but by taking a different route. For her, she felt that the old-school image of the snack bar had to change. “Young women like sweet potatoes, but they have this ‘old-fashioned’ or ‘lame’ image, and people think, ‘I want to eat some, but it’s embarrassing to buy some,'” she said. declared.
To subvert that reputation, she focused on onkochishin – an idiom meaning “learning new ideas from the past” – and began his adventure with a sleek, tricked-out pink VW campervan in 2018. Fast-forward to 2021, and his business has become a permanent (and still pink) showcase in the trendy district of Omotesando in Tokyo. “All sales staff, imo [potato] imo girls and boys, are influencers,” she explained. “They are cool, fashionable young men and women.”
Despite Kamitani’s modern approach, she recognized the appeal of these old-school salespeople. “I do not think so [they] are going to go away,” she said. “Because they’re ‘rare’, there are customers who are fascinated by that sense of scarcity and want to buy from them, so there’s some demand.”
For those who want to, starting a yaki-imo truck is relatively easy. Unlike other gourmet businesses in Japan, no food license is required – only a permit to sell from the truck. There’s even a company called Yaki-imo Kobo (Yaki-imo Workshop) that provides information to potential sellers and sells everything they’ll need to set up a mobile shop, including tapes of the song yaki-imo.
“I think there’s a growing appreciation and nostalgia for food vendors that will keep them going,” Rath said. “The yaki-imo seller is one of the harbingers of the seasons… Hard to imagine a cityscape without them.”
For Tanaka, the secret is simplicity: roasted sweet potatoes are naturally sweet and can be eaten directly over the coals. It’s nutritious, filling and “a great snack alternative to junk food,” she said. “Yaki-imo is and always will be a heart-warming treat that holds many fond memories.
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