Sweet potatoes (satsumaimo) in the Japan Times, plus an update


This month's Japan Times article is about sweet potatoes*, which are called satsumaimo in Japanese. Satsumaimo means "potato from Satsuma", referring to a region of southern Kyushu which at one time was very powerful and influential. In the article I wrote about how the sweet potato played an important role in saving the people of the Edo (old Tokyo) region from starvation, and how there are still several Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples dedicated to honoring the sweet potato. There's also a recipe of course, for ringo kinton, a wonderful sweet-sour dish. (And the recipe for the daigaku imo or "university potatoes" mentioned is right here.)

I also talk about the cry of the ishi-yaki-imo-ya or stone roasted sweet potato seller. I looked around on YouTube and sure enough, some people have uploaded videos where you can hear some ishi-yaki-imo-ya in action.

When my family moved back to Japan from the US (where we'd lived for a year; prior to that we lived in the UK for 4 1/2 years) when I was 11, we lived for 2 school terms in Mita, an area in Minato ward in central Tokyo, while our house in Hachioji was being renovated. Mita was and still is a place with many foreign/expat residents and several embassies, and the apartment building we lived in was right opposite the Italian embassy. I don't know who was in charge there, but they apparently hated quite a lot of things about everyday Japanese life. They lodged a complaint with the management of our building about unsightliness of the futons being hung out on the balcony railings (Japanese people like to air out their futons every sunny day if possible), not to mention the laundry. (I guess because laundry hanging out is associated with poor tenements in Italy?) Another thing they objected to was the ishi-yaki-imo-ya's sing-song announcement on his loudspeaker. The building management had no spine, and issued an edict to all residents of apartments on the embassy side to refrain from putting out their futons (which the residents revolted against, and only about half complied with). Bt the ishi-yaki-imo-ya ignored the requests to pipe down the announcements, thus risking an international incident. Good for him, we all thought. I loved rushing down from our 5th floor apartment to buy some piping hot potatoes wrapped in newspaper from him.

Anyway, I hope you check out the article!

(*I know a lot of people call them 'yams' in the U.S. too, but I find this very confusing since another totally different kind of root vegetable is also called yam, so I stick to sweet potato.)

Personal update

I've been home now for a few days (they let me out on Tuesday, and it's now Friday). The operation went very well, and while I still have quite a lot of pain I'm doing ok. I'd like to thank you for all of your wonderful well wishes! I'm quite overwhelmed. I'm going to be allowed until January to heal up, then the doctors will evaluate my need for radiation therapy and so on.

While my body is getting better, unfortunately I received some really bad news literally 10 minutes after getting home. My father, who lived in New York, had passed away over the weekend. I was in a state of shock and panic for a couple of days - I knew I couldn't travel right away, and Max was all set to go on my behalf - but my sister Meg, who lives in Florida, has been an absolute star and been able to handle things as best she can. I'm hoping I'll be well enough to travel to the memorial service in a couple of weeks. My father's death was sudden, though not quite unexpected - he had a serious case of diabetes, but was doing quite well recently. We think that he passed away suddenly without pain, so that at least is a relief. I will try to write a bit about my father at a later time. (Oh, and I know there are quite a few fans of my mom who read this site - she and my father split up years ago, so she's not grieving or anything, though she said she's much sadder than she thought she'd be.)

In the meantime though, I'm going to try slowly posting again, though the pace will be rather slow. Writing is actually therapeutic for me. Please don't worry that I am in deep mourning or anything like that, although I am of course very sad. It may sound cold, but I was never that close to my father, unfortunately. (If you read this I guess you got an inkling of that.)

What a year it's been. I'm really hoping for a much quieter 2012. ^_^;

P.S. My father loved sweet things, including ishi-yaki-imo.

Filed under:  fall potatoes winter writing elsewhere japan times

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My thoughts are with you. Get well soon and if it helps you to write, I will gladly read!

I'm really sorry to hear about your loss and want you to know my thoughts are with you as I know how you feel.

I'm really sorry to hear about your loss and want you to know my thoughts are with you as I know how you feel.

Hello Maki,

I'm sorry to hear about you dad. I also wish you get better soon!! ^_^
When I hear someone has passed away, it reminds me that we need to take care and value the loved ones that are still with us and never miss a chance to say how much they're important to us.

Please take your time but I hope to hear from you and your lovely recepies soon!

Best regards from a great fan!

Kathe Colomba

I just finished reading "Accidental Butter". Your family sounds a lot like mine except we never moved and no one in my family ever apologized. I am sorry about your dad. Mine died about a month ago and I, like you, was not close to him. My husband said he felt the average IQ of hell probably dropped a few points once he died. He was a mean, bitter person (my mom wasn't much better). So I understand about you not being very sad at your dad's passing. That's okay. We feel what we feel.

Anyway, hope you get to feeling better soon. Praying for your recovery. I enjoy your posts immensely. BP

I hope you heal quickly. I'm sorry to hear about your dad. Will keep you and your family in my thoughts.

I'm so sorry for your loss, Maki, but am glad that you are doing pretty well. Please get well soon!

And thank you for bringing back my own memories of satsumaimo wrapped in newspaper - it was one of the best things about cold weather in Japan :)

Dear Maki,

I'm really sorry to hear about your loss.

Get well soon!


I am a pretty new follower of your blog. Loved reading about the sweet potatoes! Wishing you my best for a speedy recovery and good health on 2012. Look forward to your future posts.

Best wishes to you on your recovery, Maki, and I'm sorry to hear about your father. Here's hoping you can make the memorial, but most of all, that these health issues resolve as quickly and painlessly as possible!

Oh, I was shocked and sadden to learn of the sudden passing of your father, especially with you recuperating from surgery yourself. It must be especially difficult to mourn the loss of your father when you live away. All the best to you and your family.

Thank you for sharing the satsuma imo article. My son attends a Japanese school in California. The other day his teacher taught the kids about the difference between satsuma imo and yams. Now satsuma imo is a favorite food! After roasting them like a baked potato, I slice into rounds and grill with a bit of olive oil, salt and pepper.

The yaki imo san's cry and driving down streets in a truck remind me a bit of the ice cream man in the US. Of course, yaki imo is a much healthier treat!

I wish you well for your recovery and sorry for the loss of your father. I continue to enjoy the updates of your post.

My condolences for your loss, Maki.

While I appreciate the way you write about food you know and love, the way you bring together all the parts of your life in writing about it. It's clearly therapeutic for you to do this, but you manage to do it in a way that's always fascinating to read. I believe I've only come to your sites specifically for recipes only a couple of times. I return for so much more!

I wish for good health for you and for a calmer 2012.

Maki, dear, this has been a tumultous year for you. Will be sending you wishes and thoughts for a peaceful, joyful 2012.

Re sweet potatoes/yams, here in the U.S. southeast, they are considered two different things, but some people don't know the difference and use the words interchangably between the two vegetables.

As said by an earlier poster, please know that i read everything you write with pleasure and thoughtfulness.

Best regards,

I'm very sorry to hear about your father. Close or not, losing a parent is not an easy thing.

May you continue to recover and feel back to your normal self soon!

So glad to hear your operation went well and am very sorry to hear about your father. Wishing you a speedy recovery to attend your father's memorial. Wishing you all the best and great recovery.

Love you Maki! You are amazingly strong!

First of all, I hope your recovery is quick and complete. Best wishes.

Talking about yaki-imo is very natsukashii for me. I lived on Kyushu for about four years, and the winters could get chilly. On the way home from work I'd often buy a couple of sweet potatoes (I think they were only about 100 yen each) and use them as edible pocket warmers.

I can't imagine not airing out your futons every chance possible. I guess the Italians slept in western beds and didn't have tatami, or they would have understood about the threat of dani.

Best wishes to you Maki. Sorry to hear about your father.

Maki, my thoughts are with you during your illness. I take to heart what you said about being glad you are not sick in the US. I admire that you seem to be keeping your spirits high!

I am very sorry about your dad, although you seem quite grounded about the situation.

I read the story about the cream. I have so many emotions about that story, which you told with heartfelt beauty. The end was very touching; sometimes life provides us with these little touches of luck and love (sadly, not often enough!).

Thank you for your devotion to us, your readers, and we, your million worldwide fans, are always here for you.

I'm glad to hear you are out of the hospital but so sorry to hear about your father. My best wishes are with you and your family.


My thoughts are with you right now, I hope you make a good recovery. I have been reading your posts over the last few days and you have inspired me greatly.

I hope that knowing you have so many supporting fans who adore you for enriching their lives in some way will bring you happiness and a speedy recovery.



I'm sorry to hear about your Dad. This is a really hard year it seems for everyone. You and your family are in my thoughts. I really wish you the best and hope you can find some time to grieve and move on with everything that is happening to you. You are a strong person Maki and truly someone that I look up to. I mean I had a pretty bad thing happen to me recently but to see how you can share your pain with the world and still find humor in things amazes me. Stay strong. Ganbate!


Sorry to hear about your father - I was in the same boat re sudden death and distant relationship. Think of the good moments you've had and nourish your spirit with those; let the rest go.

Get well soon

2011 has been very weird for me too (also a lot of illness & unexpected events), and I'm looking forward to the new year much more than I usually do. I hope you'll be feeling better soon.

I quite like that ishi-yaki-imo-ya chant, it sure beats the guy coming round to collect old iron here.
Surprised about the attitude of the Italians... if you're a guest in another country you ought to respect that country's habits, regardless on whether you agree with them or not (at least that's how I feel about it). Quite the nerve to make everyone else adjust to them.

I'm very sorry about all your personal health issues, I wish you the very best in your recovery!! May it be quick. Ganbare!!

I wanted to thank you for this post. I just moved to Japan a few days ago and am still settling in, trying to wrap my head around the fact I'm even here. I saw this article a day or two after moving and thought it was such a cute, authentically Japanese thing, so I hoped I'd be hearing the Yakimo-man's cries eventually winding through the streets of my neighborhood. Eventually came a lot faster than I'd expected- I heard the music through my window and burst into laughter. Really? He's here! I ran out of my apa-to and chased him down. Now I sit here, reading your website and happily eating a yakimo feeling like I've made some minor step in appreciating and experiencing authentic Japanese culture. What a lovely thing. Also, far healthier than icecream! ;)

My thoughts are with you and hope your strength improves day by day.

I lost my father-in-law a few weeks ago and I share your pain. As with you it was a surprise but not completely unexpected.

Hoping 2012 brings us all new strength and happier, quieter times.

I'm so sorry for your loss and your mother's.
I'm so pleased to read your post again.

Today is a day of mixed feelings.

A father love can be like this : cinders and bitter taste on the outside, soft and mellow inside.
It looks like you did find your father's warmth.
Even the tiniest bit is nourishment for a daughter's heart.

Please continue to write your bitter-sweet texts.
And take good care of yourself.

I'm so sorry about your father... Feel better Maki-san :)

My mother and father used to raise Satsuma Imo in Hawaii. We fed the greens to the rabbits and we ate the tubers after mother threw them into the hot charcoals. They were delicious with the charred exteriors and sweet interiors. I bought some from a sidewalk seller in Nara much to my diappointment he sold me an old,dried out potato which was not only overpriced but tasteless as well.

The ishi-yaki-imo truck comes around regularly to our Okinawa neighborhood and I always smile when I hear his voice over the speaker. I never had a neighborhood ice cream truck growing up in the States so I like to think this makes up for it a little bit now.
So sorry to hear of your loss and your recent medical troubles but thank you for still taking the time to share these blogs and stories with us. I'm a new reader but will be a faithful one from now on!

One of my first memories of "daily life" in Japan was shortly after I arrived in Japan and was staying with my then-boyfriend now-husband's apartment in the danchi, waking to the cry of the yaki imo truck rolling through the neighborhood. A couple of days later, after finding out just what the truck was, at the sound of the same song, I put on shoes, ran out the door, and found the gentleman selling the imo. My Japanese was pretty poor at the time, and I fell upon the honesty of the seller as I held out a handful of yen, trusting him to take what was the actual price. He did, and I ran back to the apartment with steaming hot imo wrapped in newspaper.

On a different note, I'm very sorry to hear about your father. My condolences to you and your family. I hope that your recovery goes smoothly, and you have very little need of radiation or chemo. Hang in there, and know that I and many others will be keeping you in our thoughts.

Sorry to hear about your father - even if you weren't close it is still not easy losing a parent.
Wishing for you to get well soon and have a healthy, happy, prosperous 2012.

I've just been following your blog(s) for a month or so, and I rarely make comments, but I want to say to you your work is inspiring and I'm holding many good thoughts for you.I'm so sorry about your father and I wish you a happy and healthy 2012.Gambatineh! (hope I spelled this okay..)

My family was complicated. I try to remember that they were probably sad and hurt as children & inevitably grew to be the people they were. & I forgive them & imagine them sitting in the palm of my hand. I hope that you can softly put your sad memories down & concentrate on your own life & the healing that will come.

I'm sorry about your dad!

You are a very strong person and I hope you get well soon!

Maki, what a combination of good news and terrible news. I am glad your surgery went well, and I'm awfully sorry for your loss.

Yesterday, as I made turkey soboro from our Thanksgiving leftovers for bento lunches this week, I thought of and prayed for you. I hope the thoughts and prayers of your well-wishers help lift your spirits when you're extra-tired or discouraged. Thanks for sharing your life with us!

Great to hear that your operation went well!

I'm selfishly interested in your good health as I love reading your posts...take care!

Dearest Maki-san,

I, too, am a new follower of your blog and so sorry to hear you are going through so many difficulties at this time. May you be blessed to bear what is. Thank heaven for such a wonderful Guy!

Thought you and your readers might like this tender little Yakiimo song my son found for me a year ago on YouTube:



I'm sorry to hear of your loss, and I hope you feel better soon.


I am really sorry to hear about the difficult period you find yourself in, with the illness and the loss. I wish you all the best. Take your time, and be gentle to yourself!

About Italians and their complaints: I feel so ashamed, but this is just so typical for posh people, as the ambassador probably was. There is always people complaining about putting laundry outside if you happen to live in a posh area, because, as you rightfully say, it is associated with poorer areas, and also because Italy is so warm that there is a chance for things to get dry indoors as well, if you have a little space. Same thing about 'noisy' vendors: it is perceived as something typical of the lower classes. I'm glad there was considerable passive resistence against their arrogance!

So very sorry for your loss, Maki. What terrible news. But I'm glad to hear that your surgery went well. Sending healing vibes your way, for both heart and body. Get well soon!

Best wishes for a complete recovery Maki and condolences on the loss of your father. Out here in the Western Cape we have sweet potatoes that have been grown here since the 18th century and are still very popular.

wishing you a speedy recovery, and lifted spirits in this tumultous time.... But about the Asian sweet potato? they are not a Yam... but they are the best and the only sweet variety I will eat and I tell people if they can find them( usually only Asian stores) they will never eat a Yam again! Oh and by the way, to heck with the Italian Embassy if they don't like it they can always go! Best regards, Dan L.

I can empathize with your feelings, though my father died very suddenly. I was mourning the things we didn't get to say to each other.

I hope you make a speedy and easy recovery.

I follow your blog often and am a big fan! I am happy to hear your surgery went well and hope you recovery quickly! Just wanted to let you know my thoughts are with you and look forward to reading more of your posts soon!! :)

Glad you are home and your body is feeling better. So sorry to hear of your dad though. Your site brings me great happiness and know there are many of us our here wishing you the best in this hard time.

What a time you've had. Take care of yourself, and I look forward to reading whenever you post. =)

I'm glad your operation went well, and I'm so sorry about the loss of your father. Best wishes for a better 2012!

BTW, Mitsuwa Marketplace in New Jersey sometimes has a yakiimo vendor around this time of year. Delicious!

I'm so very sad to hear about your father's death. I'm so sorry to hear that. Best wishes to your family and all the best hopes for a quick recovery for you.

I read your blog from time to time and I just wanted to say thank you for sharing all that you have.

Sorry for your loss. I know this must be very rough for you. Here's hoping for peace in your family during this time and that you heal up quickly and well.

I am sorry to hear about your dad. This reminded me of my own father, who loved sweet things like yokan, and loved trying out new foods. He passed away some years ago.

(I was looking for a tamagoyaki recipe and ended up clicking around your blog. Roasted sweet potatoes bring back elementary school memories in Seoul of street vendors setting up shop near the school. So delicious in winter!)