An ode to Japan’s musical trucks and the wondrous things they sell

By Fran Wrigley

The next time someone asks, “What’s your favorite thing about Japan?”, I know what I’m going to say.

When I was growing up in England, the only thing you could buy from a cute little musical van that drove around the neighborhood was ice cream, and for the approximately eleven-and-a-half months of the year when it was too cold to eat an ice cream, you had to make do with a “mix-up bag” (like pick ‘n’ mix, but without the “pick” part – that is to say, without the element of choice) which consisted of ten gummy sweets no one ever liked anyway.

Sure, in city centers and at events in England we have vendors selling fast food. But our burger and falafel trucks don’t drive door-to-door playing old-fashioned jingles like an ice cream van does. In Japan, however, there are a bunch of tiny vans, privately owned, that each specialise in one product and each have their own song. And it’s not just food, either. The things you can buy off the back of those little musical trucks are amazing.

Let’s take a look at five of the best.

1) Warabi-mochi

Warabi-mochi is a squishy Japanese sweet that’s coated in soybean flour. Despite the name, it’s not actually mochi, being made from bracken starch rather than glutinous rice. It’s often eaten in summer, and is sold from miniature trucks.

When a tiny warabi-mochi truck rolls around the neighbourhood, its speakers project the crackly voice of an old man singing about how delicious and cooling the snack is.

2) Baked sweet potato

When autumn rolls in, though, the warabi-mochi song is replaced by one that advertises a piping hot treat: baked sweet potato. “Ishi yaki-mo, yaki-imo, yaki-imoooooooooo” [stone-baked potato] goes the song, which is also sung by a groovy old guy (the same man, perhaps?!) When baked, the red skin of Japanese sweet potato turns a darker purple, and the white flesh goes golden.

3) Tofu

The tofu truck (or bicycle trailer!) is recognisable by its distinctive trumpet tune. That, and the fact it’s a truck that only sells tofu

Well, OK. It actually sells other products made from soy beans, too. But that’s still pretty specialised.

4) Laundry poles

Delicious sweets and fresh tofu brought to your door are one thing, but what about household items? A pole to hang your laundry outside is a household essential, but if you go to a shop to buy it, getting it home could be tricky. It won’t fit in the car, and you can’t walk it home, unless you want to carry it with a friend like some kind of terrible comedy act.

In Japan, there’s a specialised door-to-door truck for that. They are called saodake-ya, meaning “bamboo pole shop”, because (you guessed it) back in the day, the poles all used to be bamboo. And these trucks also have their own song, this one by a lovely lady singing “Take-yaaaaaaa, saodakeeeeeee!”, which means“bamboo seller, bamboo poles”.

5) Kerosene

Central heating not being the norm in Japanese homes, kerosene space heaters are a popular option. Accordingly, these trucks go door-to-door selling kerosene. This not only saves Japan’s ageing population from having to work out how to get a heavy bottle of kerosene home, but also provides us with another jingle, this time a children’s song.

Read more stories from RocketNews24. -- That’s the Power of Music – It Really Does Bring Joy to the World -- You’re not seeing things, that’s a cat selling roasted sweet potatoes -- Pandas as pets?!? That’s impawsible!!!

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While these can be fun, along with the garbage truck songs, they can also be extremely irritating at times, and never mind the trucks that blast loudspeakers asking for old electronics or bicycles or what have you.

6 ( +11 / -5 )

The food vendors are fine once you get used to them--they come around only infrequently, and are a tradition dating back long before there were trucks--but the junk collectors have run rampant of late. Four or five different companies have trucks circulating full-time in my neighborhood, their announcements going full-blast, and rarely do I actually see anything in their truck beds except a token item or two (probably put there before they set out on their rounds). They skirt noise pollution ordinances by avoiding roads less than 3 meters wide--the only real restriction, aside from time of day--but with all the tall buildings in the neighborhood, everyone is affected.

5 ( +6 / -1 )

If you have a baby, it's a given that those sodding junk collectors will come round blasting outside your house just as you've got the little one off for an afternoon sleep!

4 ( +4 / -0 )

Thank God, most of our garbage trucks in Fukuoka come at night. A bigger question for me, with this upcoming heat, when will Japan bring in your friendly neighborhood ice cream trucks?

2 ( +2 / -0 )

So when are we going to see kakigori trucks plying the streets of western Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu? Such trucks would be very welcome in places like Kochi on Shikoku, where August temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius plus over 60% humidity are not uncommon.

Speaking of these trucks, I remember reading about a large bakery based in Kyoto that sells baked goods with these small trucks. The bakery originally started in Hokkaido, but became famous before the Pacific War for carts selling baked goods pulled by donkeys around Kyoto. So much so that King Records even recorded a song in (I think) 1955 for the company that became very popular across Japan.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

I love them. They enrich the already wonderful nature of my serene neighborhood. lol!

-1 ( +2 / -3 )

Sweet potato the one I like. anyway, these days in London you get plenty of food trucks. street food has become a big fad. don't think they drive around that much though.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Noise pollution. I am okay with food trucks and the like but stay in one place and stop with the loud and annoying music. There is no need to drive around neighbourhoods blasting music at all hours of the day. I don't mind the garbage trucks because they help remind people to put out your trash but the guys collecting junk? Annoying and unneeded.

0 ( +4 / -4 )

Haihin Kaishu (recycle junk), or as we like to call them: junk beggars, who drive around your house five times a day, six days a week do get seriously annoying with their constant looped announcement. This is where it goes too far. Most Japanese have ears who are obviously deaf to this kind of noise.

2 ( +4 / -2 )

I used to work in the Kiba/Toyocho area and there was a hot dog/ice cream van driving around with the best music ever, sounded like a real cheapo keyboard reggae track with some guy going "aisu kreem daiyoooooo! hoto dogu, hoto dogu, hoto dogu pari pari pari" over the top of it. I always stopped him to get a hot dog even though they were average, it was just that his tune just me laugh.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

One I don't see or hear anymore is the 'chirigami-koukan' asking for old newspapers, magazines, linens, and cardboxes in return for couple rolls of toilet paper. Back then, the driver used to announce it live... "maidou onajimino chirigami koukansha de gozaimasu, furu shinbun, furu zasshi, boro kire, danbouru ga gozaimashitara..." once they started using recording they started to disappear.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

If you enjoy being disturbed by noise pollution while sitting in your living room, all of these things are great.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

In most developed countries these would be banned fo noise pollution, but I gotta say I quite like some of the tunes;

The best: Tofu and sweet potato sellers The Worst: "rajio cassetto, telebi, pasu-con, sentaki nado" you know the one.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

Why does everything in Japan have to play a song, or have a musical accompaniment? As for kerosene delivery to your door, I've seen or heard that the whole time I've been here. I'd use that service.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

That is by far the most generous use of the word "wondrous" I've ever seen.

Bracken starch, poles and kerosene. It's hardly Willy Wonka.,

0 ( +3 / -3 )

@ zteano .... 'chirigami-koukan' ...... once they started using recording they started to disappear.

I know quite a fee fellows who used to be in that line if business. They got endless cassette tape systems when they could afford them, it made for safer driving as they no longer had to hold the mic in one hand. And they got out of the business when the price they got for selling the old newspapers, etc. went so low it no longer paid for the gasoline to drive around, much less the toilet paper that the customers still expected to get. Some people were really rude and strident in bargaining to get as much toilet paper as they could and it became a really stressful job in addition to one that was no longer anywhere near profitable.

Where I live we also have trucks selling the little clams you put in miso soup but I hear them much less often than in the old days. There is also one that comes around selling fresh fish and a selection of other food items. Have never seen tofu or warabi mochi sellers in thus area though. And we can have kerosine for heating delivered but have never seen random sellers just driving around. Maybe because our winters are so bad that everyone has some kind of contract with kerosine dealers.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Around here, there's an extremely disgusting looking fellow in a beatup truck attempting to sell roasted sweet potatoes ... in July! As far as I can tell he's had very little luck in this neighborhood, possibly because of his charming habit of brushing his teeth by the roadside and spitting in the gutter. (I don't know why he bothers brushing his teeth, he barely has any.)

1 ( +4 / -3 )

How much gasoline do these kerosene trucks use?

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I’d love to see a bread van going round - selling all kinds of ‘decent’ breads. Just an idea. A Mr whippy would go down well too.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

this one by a lovely lady singing “Take-yaaaaaaa, saodakeeeeeee!”

Here, that one's sung by an old gent too.

The kerosene truck blares 'Yuki a kon-kon, arare a kon-kon' VERY loudly, I suppose to compensate for shut windows in winter.

Ramen trucks have a distinctive melody too!

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Many of the roasted sweet potato vendors are apparently former leftist radicals, refugees from the student turmoil of the early 60s (this according to a friend who was one of them, though he chose a different career path). They got into the work because it required no resume or other detailed examination of their histories, and offered some freedom from surveillance--many of them continue to be monitored by the Public Safety office decades after their last radical action.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

There should be laws against the amount of noise pollution these trucks spew out,, especially the annoying recycling trucks and the one's selling out-of-town farm produce. Absolute nuisance - and doubly for the election campaigning vans!

2 ( +2 / -0 )

These trucks are one of the truly annoying things in Japan.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Really? You forgot the Soba trucks? Well, there are lots of things to eat here in Japan. And I've tried every noodle that I can. But for good old fashioned eating, there's a dish that can't be beaten, when you try it from a kitchen where they are a Soba man.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

@serrano Good question. In the country, probably less than the people's cars would use if each household were going to get kerosene or the kerosene vendors would use going to each house on demand. In other areas, maybe more than it's worth, ecology-wise. In my experience (Kanagawa, Tokyo, and Saitama) it's easy to get contracts for regular checking and delivery of LPG bottles, but not so easy--in some areas impossible--for kerosene.

I would imagine that things are different in real snow country, though.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

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