Japanese Desserts: The College Potato (大学芋)

Around autumn-time in Japan is when the yaki imo (焼き芋), or roasted (sweet) potato, trucks start to ply the residential areas, as the drivers playing an eerie recording trying to either tempt or frighten human hunger pangs.  Sure, you’ve got the beautiful fall foliage, chestnut acolytes and a gradual decrease in purgatorial temperatures, but none of those things reminds me more that I’m in Tokyo than those mystifying lorries, err trucks.

Except that, I haven’t always had the great luck in finding them.  While living in Tokyo many years ago, my interminable walks normally took me through the commercial and/or high-rise districts, Shinjuku, Ikebukuro, Ginza, and Shimbashi (for some reason; well they did have cheap eats), but I have an inkling that heading towards Nezu/Asakusa/Yanaka/even Akasaka would’ve been better ideas to pinpoint the truck’s location.

Then again, as much as I love sweet potatoes, they’re quite easy to find around the world.  Not quite as common?  Daigaku imo (大学芋), the college potato.

Daigaku imo became an instant staple food for me while studying in Tokyo, and their super sweet nature has stayed with me ever since.  In essence, they are fried sweet potatoes, coated with black sesame seeds and sugar syrup.

According to the Research Institute of Japanese Potatoes – really – the college potato most likely came about at the beginning of the Showa era (1926 – 1989), when Japan had been going through a difficult economic period.  This was made worse by the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake, which almost completely flattened Tokyo.  In order for college students to pay their dues, many started to sell what we now know as the daigaku imo.

The sweet – on – sweet daigaku imo reminds me of a couple of northern Chinese desserts;  one is diced sweet potatoes fried in caramel that you’d dip in water to cool off, and the other is bingtanghulu, or sugar-coated fruit skewers.   Has anyone found college potato outside of Japan?  I haven’t yet, but there is a small consolation that deserves mention–

Although it says satsuma imo (さつまいも) yam flavor, the description mentions that it has a hint of black sesame as well, not to mention, look at the photo!  They were quite alright, and much more lenient on the incisors, but the last time I saw them was in 2006…perhaps you, the reader, knows where to get them.


I’d like to try daigaku imo in cheesecake form…how about you?

A Brief Tour of Some of My Favorite Tokyo Buildings

Of the many cities that I’ve visited around the world, Tokyo is easily my favorite.  I like how you can seamlessly bike all over the place, even if you can’t park your bike anywhere.  I like how address number 1 could be next to number 550 which can be next to number 78.  And, among many other reasons, I like the truly bizarre things that pop up from foundations – you know, buildings – and the things that stick out from buildings.  Funny though, before the 2, 080 feet-tall Tokyo Skytree was finished on February 29, 2012, I never thought of the city as a place with a prominent or skyline that could be recognized by a mere silhouette.  Of course, this is partially as a consequence of existing in an area prone to earthquakes.

Tokyo Skytree…Not a Favorite

Now, for the elephant in the room.  Since Tokyo was almost entirely destroyed twice – first, by the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, and then by US air raids during World War II – very few historic structures were left standing.  However, with the US helping to get Japan back on track right after the end of that war, new ideas, businesses and population booms flourished.

Thus, with leisure travel to the Japanese curtailed for nearly everyone currently outside of Japan, let’s take a brief (Part 1) tour of the city…

Huh, that’s not a building.  You’re right…but I am including this roller coaster – known as the Thunder Dolphin – as a result of its nuance.  Located next to the Tokyo Dome stadium – home of the Tokyo Giants baseball team – in Tokyo Dome City, the Thunder Dolphin is a steel coaster that has top speeds of around 78 miles per hour (~130 kph).  What I think is cool about it is that it not only passes through a sliver of a neighboring shopping complex (you can see it in the above photo, on the left), but it also goes through the center of the Big O Ferris Wheel!

The Thunder Dolphin was probably the most enjoyable roller coaster I’ve taken until now, but I really must check out Falcon’s Flight next.

When I first walked past the Shinanomachi Rengakan (信濃町煉瓦館 rengakan = “brick building”), I thought it was a government building, for instance a mint, or something else having to do with finance…or doubled as a  movie villain’s not-so-secret lair.

Nope.

The Shinanomachi Rengakan, a stone’s throw from the Shinanomachi metro station, forms the southeastern corner of the Shinjuku (district) branch of Keio University.  The curious structure was finished in 1995 (in Japanese), and today primarily houses offices of medical and media companies.

For Tokyo architecture buffs, Nakagin Capsule Tower needs no introduction.

The Nakagin Capsule Tower, which can be found close to the upscale Ginza and Shiodome neighborhoods, is one of the most iconic buildings in Tokyo.  Built in 1972 by architect Kurokawa Kishou (黒川 紀章), Nakagin Capsule Tower is the clearest realization of Kurokawa’s Metabolist architectural movement.  Metabolism stresses flexibility, convenience, and the concept that cities should be able to adapt to future changes; for each of the two towers, individual prefabricated “capsules” replete with a small bathroom, desk, and radio (in other words, everything the burgeoning salaryman class of the 1960s would need) were fed into a single column.

Maybe you can even check out the Nakagin Capsule Tower once international travel resumes.

Not far from the the Nakagin Capsule Tower, we have another shining the Shizuoka Press and Broadcasting Center (静岡新聞静岡放送ビル).  It was completed in 1967 by Japanese starchitect Kenzo Tange (丹下 健三), who also designed the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building – Tokyo’s current City Hall, Hiroshima Peace Park, the Fuji TV Building, and, stadiums for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, among many other edifices.

The Shizuoka Press and Broadcasting Center has one tower into which thirteen individual office modules are “plugged-in.”  At the time, space was left in between groups of 2-3 modules so that others could be connected to the central tower, though this growth never materialized.  Given how densely packed cities have become, might we see a Metabolist renaissance somewhere in the world?

Menacing, no?

This otherworldly edifice is called the Reiyuukai Shakaden (霊友会釈迦殿), or the Spiritual Friendship Association Hall of the Buddha Shakyamuni.  Easy peasy.  

The Reiyuukai sect of Buddhism was established some time in the early 1920s, and formally recognized by the Japanese government in 1930.  Although the Reiyuukai Shakaden was built in 1975, since its religious origins stem from the time of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, it stores hundreds of tons of water, in the event of another disaster.  Furthermore, it houses a concert hall, and additionally (at least, prior to COVID-19) offers free Japanese language and calligraphy classes.

Ever wanted to have your very own Polyvinyl Chloride (err, PVC) model of jambalaya, a squid shooting its ink towards a plate of pasta, or fugu?  Then, you just have to find the “Niimi Chef,” perched above the Niimi kitchenware world building, finished in 1961.  To the right of this 7-story structure (that is, if you are looking directly at the chef), you will find the Kappabashi shopping street, known for stores selling cups, bowls, shop signs, chopsticks, fake food models, and many other items commonly found in a (Japanese) kitchen.  In that sense, the Niimi Chef building is a landmark for me, a reminder that at last, I’m back in my favorite city.

ADDRESSES


Have you/would you want to visit Tokyo?  Which buildings would you include among your favorites?

Waiter, There’s Salt Outside Your Restaurant (Japan)

Years ago, before I went to teach English in Shenzhen, China, I happened upon a satirical video about the traditions of eating in a Japanese restaurant. What can one do, besides wax famished about those daily searches for good eats?

More importantly, what does Shenzhen have to do with this?…

Once settled in there, in order to spice up my daily Chinese meals, I went looking for Japanese food.  After stumbling upon a vertical “Japantown” in Luo Hu, the old commercial center of Shenzhen, I started to explore different floors of the building.  Seedy stuff – with discounts for Japanese businessmen – was located on the top floors, whereas just below those were restaurants.

Hungry, I alighted to find something that had been making me chuckle since watching the sushi video above:

Just what am I pointing to?

Salt.  Right outside of a Japanese restaurant.

The mound of salt is known in Japanese as 盛塩 (morishio).  Why was it there?  I asked the manager, and she didn’t know.  Though, one theory says that it was placed out front by the door sill in the event that your meal wasn’t salty enough.  Other possibilities include a nobleman being present in the restaurant, or that when you pass through the door you’ll be purified.  Another two mention that salt is placed there for good luck for the owner, or to keep evil spirits away from one’s abode (in Japanese).

Imagine at your own discretion, but please, the next time you reach for a bit of salt, think of your kidneys.

Morishio, “lucky salt,” outside of a Fukuoka Sushi Restaurant

Have you noticed this when you’ve gone out for Japanese food?  Have you taken advantage?

Language Learning on the Road, Guanajuato-Style (Mexico)

And you thought you came here to learn Spanish…

On the way to the small but bustling city of Guanajuato, capital of the eponymous state – known for silver mines and narrow streets – I noticed that some road signs on the outskirts were written in three languages– Spanish, English, and Japanese.

マジですか (maji desu ka- really?)

Is it that hordes of newlywed Japanese tourists are lining up to consummate their marriage at El Callejón del Beso (aka The Alley of the Kiss)?

違います! (chigaimasu – wrong!)

It’s all about the auto industry.

On January 1, 1994 NAFTA, the tripartite free-trade agreement involving Mexico, the US, and Canada, came into effect. In short (i.e. for the purposes of this post), globalization swung Mexico’s lower-cost and less-regulated doors wide-open to manufacturing. (On July 1, 2020 NAFTA morphed into the USMCA, though many of NAFTA’s original provisions still ring true.)

GM opened its first plant in Guanajuato soon after NAFTA was introduced. Years later, other countries such as Germany and Japan followed, with VW, Mazda, and Toyota as the primary brands. This is in addition to the maquiladoras, foreign-run factories, often by the US-Mexico border, which typically produce goods for the company’s home base.

Thus, with the increase in Japanese car firms in the state came the need for Japanese engineers, technicians, and executives, some with families. In 2016, a Japanese consulate opened in León, Guanajuato’s largest city, to serve the thousands of recent expats in Guanajuato and nearby states. Since 2009, more than 80 Japanese companies have been established in Guanajuato alone, hence the need for a consulate.

Now, given that Mexico is also known for coffee, perhaps coffee ramen isn’t too far off?