Kenichi Nakayama is the end of an era. Now anyone with enough money can buy a set of “yaki imo” gear and overnight become a “yaki-imo” man. Not so with Mr. Nakayama. I love this old guy, and when my story came out on him four years ago, I tried to find him to give him a few issues of the newspaper, but he wasn’t at his corner. Perhaps he finally retired.
Here is my story:
Kenichi Nakayama is thinking of retiring. He’s been selling yaki imo, roasted sweet potatoes, from his two-wheeled cart for over 40 years, and now at 79, he says, his legs just aren’t what they used to be.
With the cast-iron roasting box, a day’s supply of firewood, and 30 kilograms of potatoes, his cart is as heavy as a sumo wrestler. “It’s like muscling Konishiki around! I work up a sweat,” says Nakayama, a small wiry fellow with thoughtful eyes, a quick toothless smile, and a deeply tanned face—creased and weathered.
Nakayama used to roam through Tokyo’s neighborhoods, pulling his load up the steep slope to Yasukuni Shrine, or venturing down to Shinbashi. But some years ago, he learned it’s best to sit in the same spot and let people come to him. He used to sing the evocative yaki-imo song to attract customers, but he’s jettisoned that tactic too. His regular customers know where he’ll be and when he’ll be there.
Nakayama sets up shop, as he has for decades, on a sidewalk in Aoyama in front of the parking lot that was once (and will be again) Kinokuniya supermarket.
The ishiyaki technique, stone roasting, is Nakayama’s forte. His roasting box contains river pebbles—brown and black, smooth and shiny, in sizes from pea to walnut. Under the roasting box is a small compartment with a live fire that Nakayama constantly tends. His firewood is free. Like other yaki-imo vendors, Nakayama gets his wood from recently demolished houses or shops around the city. He carries a folding saw to cut this lumber to the proper length for stowing on the cart.
With a small wooden paddle Nakayama scoops furrows into the hot pebbles, fills the furrows with fresh potatoes, then rakes and pushes the stones until the potatoes are half-buried. The river stones will cook the potatoes at 70 degrees centigrade—the optimal temperature for converting potato starch into sugar, explains Nakayama. The slow constant heat brings out the sweetness, he adds.
Waiting for the potatoes to cook, Nakayama sits on an empty 18-liter soy sauce can with boxes of potatoes stacked beside him on the pavement. Some vendors let their potatoes roast on a wire grill above the heated stones, he says feeding another piece of old Tokyo to the fire. This mushiyaki, steam roasting, method is easier, he admits, but potatoes don’t taste their best that way.
In about 40 minutes his potatoes are ready. If they’re not sold immediately, he keeps them warm, wrapped in newspapers, in a special compartment above the roasting box. They’ll keep for several hours.
Nakayama hails from Kyushu. As a very young man, he attended the Yokaden, the prep school for the Navy Air Force. He then joined the Tokotai, the Special Attack Unit of World War II, the suicide pilots known as “Kamikaze.” He went on several practice runs, but when it came time for his first and last mission, “There were no planes left to fly,” Nakayama says with a shrug.
After the war, he came to Tokyo and knocked around at different jobs until he found his niche. When Nakayama first started out, yaki-imo work was much more competitive. “Each vendor had his own territory,” he recalls. “And if you wandered into another’s turf, there would be trouble.” That doesn’t happen anymore.
“I used to bump into four or five yaki-imo guys around Aoyama. But they’re gone,” he says adding a board to the fire.
Around each wrist and forearm Nakayama wears an old grey sock with the toe cut off. The socks protect him from burns on the edge of the roasting box as he leans in to turn the potatoes or stir the stones. “Beni azuma potatoes from Shikoku are the tastiest,” he says. “Early in the season, good beni azuma come from Kyushu, Shikoku, or Hamamatsu,” he explains, “but after October, the Kanto potatoes become tasty. Now I use Ibaragi potatoes mostly.”
Nakayama always buys his spuds from the same shop. His customers expect a tasty potato and he’s got to provide a consistent product, he says pointing to an opened box. He can tell at a glance if a raw potato is up to his standards—a dark mauve skin and a shiny surface means it will be delectable. “Some customers, mostly the older ones, like a firmer potato,” he says. “But the young women want a softer one. I don’t know why.”
Nakayama has experimented with different types of potaoes. Idaho potatoes are good, he admits, but if they don’t sell right away, they lose their flavor. Murasaki imo, the purple sweet potato, however, he covets. “They are very delicious,” he says wistfully, “but hard to come by in the Kanto area.”
Yaki imo season runs roughly from October to May. In warmer months, Nakayama used to sell ice candy—popsicles in milk, orange, melon, azuki, and lemon flavors—along popular riverbank areas such as Futagotamagawa. Riding a bicycle equipped with insulated coolers, he’d sell 500 sticks a day. But it wasn’t profitable. “I had to buy dry ice, special boxes to keep everything cold,” he says shaking his head. “And every two or three hours I had to let other vendors have their turn.”
Nakayama now sells potatoes the year round. People who love yaki imo will eat them anytime, he says. He charges a flat rate: 400 yen for a small potato and 500 yen for a large one.
Pulling his cart up the long slope of chic Omotesando street from Harajuku used to be easy. When he was younger, he didn’t notice the climb nor the weight of his cart. Now he’s got to ask a passerby to lend a hand.
Nakayama would like to retire. “But my customers would be inconvenienced,” he says poking at his fire with a stick. “There’s no way around it—I’ve got to keep on working for awhile.”