Merchants on Wheels
By “Awake!” correspondent in Japan
THERE is a bias in his gait that inclines him somewhat to the left of a straight line but the pair of legs that carries him is strong. His smile is infectious, his manner kindly and his cries of “Yakiimo!” are familiar to all. He has left the country farm and joined the throngs of merchants on wheels in a big city some two hundred miles (320 kilometers) from his home.
Yakiimo is hot sweet potato. The sweet potato is plentiful in winter months; so the Hot Potato Man turns to this work for his livelihood until spring, when he returns to the rice farm. His mobile shop resembles a huge boxlike contraption that is made from metal and wood. A wood fire in its interior heats small, smooth pebbles held in a metal container. It is on these stones that the potatoes are cooked. The smell of the wood from the cart’s chimney and the aroma of the potatoes as he occasionally lifts the lid to see how they are cooking stimulate the gastric juices. Rain or shine, you can be sure to hear the megaphone or prerecorded tape calling for you to buy “Yakiimo!”
There are other merchants selling fruit, seafood, Japanese hotchpotch and numerous other things. And then there is the delivery boy, peddling a cycle, or, perhaps, revving up a motorbike. He is to be seen in all towns and cities, wending his way through even the heaviest traffic, with a mountainlike pile of delicacies in bowls and boxes balanced deftly on one shoulder. How does he do it? Well, sometimes he doesn’t, as a sorrowful face peering up from a pile of noodles and broken bowls may testify.
Merchant with a “Commercial”
Attracting children and adults alike by his amusing entertainment is the seller of sweet corn. His live commercial is a winner. He arrives in an extremely small open-backed truck. His corn on the cob is roasting and ready for sale. This particular man is wearing colorful shorts, tabia socks and thong sandals, a happi-coat and a headband to keep his brow free from perspiration. His jovial face and manner have you smiling before his performance begins. Having made a final check that the corn is roasted to readiness, he jumps down from the back of the truck and starts to sing and dance in the street. He sings that his corn is from Hokkaido in northern Japan. He chants how delicious and sweet it is and from there he seemingly makes up the words of his song depending on his audience. For the benefit of the housewives who have put down their work to watch him, he trolls, in polite Japanese, that they are as sweet as his corn. His antics as he dances excite the children and some of them venture to join him. Needless to say, he soon sells all that was roasted and prepares to move on, leaving his audience happy and munching.
Beauty and Practicality
In contrast, a merchant who does not have to do anything to attract a crowd of customers is the vendor of flowers. Why is a gimmick not necessary in his case? In Japan men and women alike have a great love for flowers and, where possible, they like to have them in their homes, particularly in the entranceway. The street vendor is approved by the populace because he sells his flowers cheaper than does a regular flower store. He will arrive in an autobike that is pulling a barrow. The potted flowers will be arranged on wooden shelves that rise like stairs. The whole is covered with thick transparent vinyl that is removed when he begins his “pitch” to the assembled throng. Someone will notice his arrival and spread word of his presence. Presently (depending on the season), cyclamen, chrysanthemum, pinks, flowering cactus and a host of other plants are being admired and purchased.
What does this next peddling merchant have to offer? Bamboo poles! What do you do with them? It is the custom here to hang laundry on them. Shirts, blouses and yukata (cotton kimono) give the appearance of standing with their arms outstretched as they are threaded onto them with the daily laundry. Bamboo poles are also used to hang the futon (mattresses) on to freshen in the air. This peddling merchant usually makes his rounds on the weekend when things are quieter and so manages with his natural voice box to sing out his cry of “Bamboo Poles!”
Pets for the Children
Habitually, when the children have finished school, a favorite traveling merchant will appear on the scene. What is it that appeals to the little ones? He is hawking goldfish. It is amazing that he has the strength to pump his bicycle along with all that water on board. He is very careful and needs to be. Consider what would happen if he were to take a tumble! As soon as he sings the word “goldfish” children begin to gather. Adults will congregate, too. Small flat nets on a handle are provided, and presently there are shrieks of laughter when the fun begins in trying to catch a tiddler or two. Just when you think you have netted him, the fish jumps and speeds to the other end of the tank.
Japanese homes in general do not allow much room for pets, so it is rare that at least a small goldfish tank is refused to a child. All year around this trade is profitable because watching fish adds to the sense of tranquillity that appeals to Japanese people.
Traveling Soup and Bread Shops
Another man just rings a bell and lovers of genmai pan know his sound. “It’s not the bell, but the way he rings it!” is an exclamation made by many. Genmai means “whole rice,” and the Japanese word pan, actually taken from the Portuguese language, means “bread.” Genmai pan is not cooked in the same way as ordinary bread. This yeast dough is shaped into individual portions and steamed, not baked. Sweetbean paste is sometimes added to the centers. Now and then black sugar is added to the dough. However, plain genmai pan seems to remain the most popular. The bread is inclined to be a little on the heavy side but the mild flavor makes it easy to eat.
The old man who sells genmai pan wears a tall, spotlessly white baker’s hat and his white tunic also is a token of his cleanliness. The genmai pan man’s summoning bell, beaming smile and clean appearance help to make his bread the choice of the noon hour for some.
In the late evening when the majority have gone to bed, a couple of long, low howls on a tinny horn lets you know who has arrived without your getting up to look. He tries to be as quiet as possible so as not to disturb people unnecessarily. Since his tiny truck moves at a snail’s pace, his red lantern and advertising flag can be seen swinging from the back of his van from a long way off. This movable noodle shop travels the streets. We call his noodles “ramen.” They are thin noodles, served in steaming hot soup containing long green onions, thinly sliced. Students often study late and hot noodles in a disposable bowl satisfy them before they turn in for the night. These noodles are said also to settle the stomach after an all-evening drinking spree.
The tofu maker is also a merchant on wheels. Tofu is soybean curd that is said to have been made first in China. The making of these bean-curd cakes begins while everyone else is still sleeping. The result of the craftsman’s hard work is a 12-ounce (340-gram) square cake of white tofu.
This merchant now prepares a large double-layered wooden box, which he straps onto the back of his bicycle. As the lower compartment of the wooden box is partially filled with water, it is lined with a rust-proof metal. The regular and toasted tofu is put into the water. The box’s top compartment contains thin slices of deep-fried tofu. With a small horn tied around his neck, the tofu merchant mounts his bicycle and begins to peddle through the neighborhood of his choice. The blowing of his horn announces his arrival and before long he is busy serving his early-morning customers. For many, tofu is an essential ingredient in miso shiru, the soup served with breakfast every morning.
In the main all these vendors have something that is peculiar to them and fitting to their personal traits. Their similarity consists in their being pleasant folk who add color, fragrant odors and strange sounds to the streets of Japan.
a Mittenlike Japanese socks. The big toe is separated from the other toes to facilitate the wearing of thongs.