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?

Coffee Ramen: You Never Knew You Wanted It

Ten ingredients you may not want to see in the same bowl of ramen:

  1. Coffee beans
  2. Coffee noodles
  3. Eggs (and their yolks)
  4. Vanilla ice cream
  5. Bananas
  6. Gouda (inexorably processed, that is)
  7. Kamaboko (processed fish cake with mind-numbing preservatives)
  8. Kiwi
  9. Salami
  10. Ham

with a generous sprinkling of Japanese parmesan cheese, because that’s what you were missing.  Listverse, here I come.

Is this the antithesis of Tampopo, the Japanese movie about a woman trying to create the perfect bowl of ramen?  Probably.  But in a country where using Colonel Sanders as a buoy is so yesterday‘s news, I cautiously introduce you to coffee ramen.

Ohanajaya - Aroma Coffee Ramen1
Your guide to caffeinated calamity

The restaurant’s (it’s more of a kissaten, or coffee shop) name is 亜呂摩, or Aroma, and it’s located in Ohanajaya, Katsushika district, in the endless sea of black- and graham cracker-tinted hair specifically known as Tokyo, but generally known as Japan.  Rookie advice: don’t go on Wednesdays- that’s the off day.  I carelessly made the nearly hour long trek from Narita Airport first on a Wednesday, and got shot down.  The typhoon happening at the time made it that much more of a thrill, as umbrellas suddenly lose their will to live.

I despise kitsch
I despise kitsch

The chef was an older affable man, and used to having foreigners in his restaurant.  Not that the restaurant gets too many non-Japanese in the first place, but he’ll probably ask you to sign a guestbook,  Pre-consumption of said ramen.  He told me he changes the ingredients, or toppings might be a better word, every once and again, but don’t fret, for parmesan cheese is a staple garnish.  You can try it hot or cold, but because I wanted to make it back to my hotel without being slumped over the whole time, I tried it cold.

Oh, and I don’t even much like coffee.

Ohanajaya - Aroma Coffee Ramen3This is a great dish to make for your significant other when you’re about to break up with her/him.  Unless she/he digs this kind of stuff, then you’re sending all the wrong signals.

After all of the muted hype, it wasn’t half-bad; better yet, at the time it cost only ¥700 (which can be anywhere from US$6.40-8.50, depending on how skilled you are in the forex game).  The noodles were skillfully cooked, and the chef appeared humbled by his bizarre creation.  Sure, that pink and white ninja weapon is none other than kamaboko (蒲鉾), patiently seated atop banana and kiwi slices, and the coffee bean riding the egg yolk evokes Salvador Dalí, but the majority of the dish, true to its name, had the flavor of (sweetened) Boss coffee, which apparently keeps bringing ’em in.

Don’t cower out and eat the toppings by themselves.  That ham looks way too relaxed on the sidelines.  Take a piece, then scoop out some kiwi and egg, dip it into the murky broth and slurp to your heart’s content.  Fact is, I rarely eat any type of ramen, since most of the time I feel as if I’m in a salt mine while doing so.  Also, if you’re not too adept at using chopsticks, it would seem wise to eat ramen if you’re not wearing a shirt.

Is it time you experienced coffee ramen?  If you’ve already tried it, wouldn’t you want to know where to find life’s rewind button?