The other day we heard the wailing of a somewhat sad melody floating through the air in Harajuku. “Baaaaaked potatoes,” cried the singer, “potatoes baked on hot pebbles!” We knew right away that a potato vendor was selling warm treats from his yatai, a Japanese mobile food stand. Quickly, we ran to buy some, only to learn that they had just sold out! And while we were watching the new batch being made, inhaling their pleasant aroma, we wondered about how exactly this works with all these traditional stalls selling food? That is why today, PingMag takes you on a tour of Tokyo’s food bars on wheels.
Written by Ryoko
Translated by Kevin Mcgue
Even without the baked potato theme song, we could have easily spotted this vendor by the red paper lantern gently swaying in the wind on the back of his truck. We learned that the vendor usually sets up shop around Akasaka, and was in Harajuku for the first time. The vendor was especially proud of his wood burning stove for baking sweet potatoes. Nowadays, many stands use gas ovens or – even microwaves – to bake potatoes! It is getting rarer to see wood burning stoves. But that is not the only reason the vendor is proud of his stove: he made the stove and the chimney system himself. “I’ve had this old stove for a long time,” he said with pride, “but it still works great, and the potatoes always come out soft and sweet.” Yummy!
Lots of freshly baked sweet potatoes!
The vendor stokes the fire…
… and while out walking his dog, this boy decided to stop for a hot potato.
Of course, we asked about the baked potato theme song that plays on a loop, announcing to customers all around that the potatoes are ready. Just who created this song? “Oh, I recorded it myself on my own tape recorder,” the vendor explained. “I remember thinking that I wanted that kind of feeling, and I just made up the words and the melody on the spot, but I couldn’t tell you exactly when and where I did it.” Interesting!
Next we found a stand selling baked potatoes near Sasazuka Station in Shibuya. Unlike the vendor we met earlier, this one had all sorts of price signs posted all around his lively truck. He offered samples for tasting and all sorts of free extras. And we must say that the vendor’s bright pink hat and apron caught our eye! We asked him about his stand.
“I use a gas stove, which is fed by a gas tank outside the truck,” he said while keeping an eye on the cooking potatoes. “In principle, it is the same as cooking with a gas range and frying pan at home, but we add a layer of hot pebbles and cook the potatoes on top of them.” We asked about the theme song and learned that this dealer also recorded his own!
Just like in a bakery, there are some little bite-sized samples for you to taste.
Maybe his pink hat and apron are this vendor’s clever trademark…
In search of more interesting food carts, we went to a part of Tokyo that never sleeps: Shinjuku. As we suspected, we found lots of stands around the station that operate long after the trains stop running. There seems to be lots of ramen, noodle soup, and oden stands with lots of businessmen, small groups of women and students stopping for a bite to eat before heading home. Laughter was pouring from one of the carts, so we stepped closer – and found the vendor having a good chat with his customers.
Not all carts stand on level ground, but no one bothers.
Look closer – how did these tags get there?
We explored the area a bit more and, near Shinjuku City Hall, we found some more. There was a vendor preparing to open up a cart serving both oden and ramen. Although he was busy with so many tasks, we got to ask him how a food cart is run.
Oden cooking in broth…
… and ramen noodles waiting to be cooked.
“Making a food cart like this is rather simple,” the vendor explains. “The cart serves as the base, and the roof can be made from wood and plastic sheets. I am renting this cart, but I added the gas range, electricity and so on. I got the cooking utensils at a that specialised shop.”
A generator to run the lights…
… and a gas tank to run the cooker.
“I have a ten kilo gas tank to run the cooker,” says the vendor, “and a generator to supply electricity.” Everything is completely mobile! And this vendor runs his food cart every day of the year except in rainy season. So every day, he opens his shop around 4 in the afternoon, and keeps running until 9 in the evening. Sometimes he runs it as late as the early morning, depending on how busy he is.
Thanks to all of the vendors who kindly helped! Be sure to try their fare!