The Sweet Potatoes of Kawagoe (Japan)

Kawagoe (川越), a roughly 30-60 minute ride from major train stations throughout Tokyo, is also known affectionately known as Koedo (小江戸/Little Edo), whereas Edo refers to Tokyo’s former name.  As Kawagoe made it through World War II only receiving minor damage, many of its most famous structures, the 蔵造り (くらくり/koora-zukoori), or warehouses, survived:

Old Town Kawagoe, Japan

For that reason, it is one of the gems of Saitama prefecture, and one of the reasons that I visited.

Alas, there was another motivating factor for the short-haul north of Tokyo– the 芋 (いも/ee-mo) , or sweet potato.

“Imogura,” the Kawagoe Sweet Potato Mascot

That freaky fella above is called いもグラ (ee-mo gu-ra).  It is one of hundreds (seriously) of ゆるキャラ (yooroo kyara), or mascots designed for companies/tourism bureaus throughout Japan.  There are even annual competitions among said mascots; if you want to forego nightmares for some time, don’t click this link (in Japanese).

Kawagoe is one of the sweet potato centers of Japan; this was particularly important for the region during the war, as other foods were quite scarce, and more susceptible to pests/extremes in weather.

Although I referred to the character 芋 to refer to sweet potatoes, that character can also mean potato, or country bumpkin.  You see, the other part of Japan best known for sweet potatoes is present-day Kagoshima prefecture, on Kyushu island.  A section of that prefecture used to be called Satsuma, which begets another way to say sweet potato, 薩摩芋 (さつま・いも/satsuma ee-mo).  More still, loanword enthusiasts would appreciate the term スイートポテト , which literally reads “suii-to poteyto.

Stroll through Kawagoe, and you’re bound to come across numerous food shops and souvenir stores vending this hardy tuber; sweet potato noodles, a sweet potato-centric set menu, desserts, ice cream, candies, and who knows what else?

Fortuitously, I found one of my favorite sweet potato snacks, daigaku imo (大学芋/ dai-gakoo ee-mo).  It means college potato, and is made of caramelized sweet potato sprinkled with black sesame seeds.  The sign showing its name is written in Japanese above, and the dish itself is photographed below:

My time in Kawagoe was rather limited – if judged solely by the food I didn’t get to try – so I must revisit.  That said, here are a couple more delights sampled on that day:

Grilled sweet potato-coated karintou (花林糖・かりんとう).  Karintou are sweet, deep-fried  snacks made of flour, yeast, and often brown sugar.  Though they often look like things you’d find crawling across the floor, to me, they’re delicious.

Termites!  No, no.  Actually, these いもかりんとう饅頭/まんじゅう (ee-mo karintoh-man-juu) were excellent.  Manjuu are typically made with rice powder, flour, buckwheat, and red beans (adzuki), but these used burdock and carrot powder for the outside, and sweet potatoes inside.


Are you as big of a fan of sweet potatoes as I am?

Japanese Oumi Beef (近江牛): Kobe Beef’s Ancestor

You may be familiar with Japan’s legendary Kobe beef.  The lofty bovine must be of the Tajima breed, have spent its entire life in Hyogo prefecture, and be treated to massages and a round of Sapporo beers to increase its appetite.  That last part may only be a half-truth, but if you’re into eating meat… I might recommend Sendai beef instead.  Slightly less marbling, but it still leaves you with a melt-in-your-mouth 食感 (shokkan), or mouth feel.

Sendai & Kobe Beef, New York Grill, Park Hyatt Tokyo, Japan

But if you want to dig deeper into the history of prized wagyu (和牛), or Japanese beef, you may want to start with Omi (Oumi/近江) beef.  Omi is the historical name for present-day Shiga prefecture, which also hosted the Japanese capital, in the city of Otsu, for five years.

For centuries, the consumption of meat in Japan had been taboo (especially after Buddhism had spread there in the 6th century), or consumed only by aristocrats and imperial leaders.  Moreover, given that much of Japan is mountainous and/or characterized by long winters, and that seafood was much more readily available (and took up no land, to boot), meat-eating wasn’t a particularly common sight.

To return to the topic, it is said that at the end of the Warring States period (~1467-1590), Takayama Ukon, an ally of Japan’s first unifier Toyotomi Hideyoshi, presented his victorious war chiefs in Hikone city, Omi province with cattle, thus originating the term Omi beef.

Omi Beef Set Meal, Hikone, Shiga, Japan (近江牛定食、彦根、滋賀県,日本)

Since Japan was effectively shut off to most of the world between 1603 and the 1850s, It would be almost 300 years until meat consumption flourished.  Once the Meiji period began in 1868, as Western countries started cultural exchanges with Japan, so, too were the Japanese introduced to Western clothing, scientific advancements, and food.

Coincidentally, when Omi beef was first exported, it shipped under the name “Kobe beef,” due to Kobe being the closest port at the time.  Only when Shiga’s Omi Hachiman train station opened in 1890 did exports that now shipped through Tokyo adopt the name “Omi beef.”

On May 11th, 2007, Omi beef was officially recognized with a seal of “Japan Geographical Indication.” by the Japan Patent Office.  Consequently, something can only be called Omi beef if it is raised in Shiga prefecture, by the shores of Lake Biwa.

Kouji: The National Fungus of Japan

If you have ever traveled to East Asia, visited a Chinatown, or studied Chinese and/or Japanese, you likely have come across the character 酒.  In Chinese, it is pronounced jiǔ, and in Japanese, generally it is さけ (sake) or しゅ (shu).  The character originally referred to wine, but now encompasses all liquor.  Harking back to when pubs doubled as places to spend the night, in China, 酒店 –  jiǔ​diàn –  means “hotel,” although it literally means “liquor store.”

Referring to the above photo, 甘酒, or amazake, can be translated as sweet liquor, or sweet sake.  Yet, written right below that word in the picture is the phrase ノンアルコール, meaning non-alcoholic.  How can that be?

A bit of backstory: the full name of the drink is 米麹甘酒 (こめこうじあまざけ) komekouji amazake, or malted rice sweet sake.  The key element of the name is the character 麹, aka 糀, which is koji/kouji, a fungus primarily used to ferment soybeans, in addition to aiding in the creation of rice vinegar and alcoholic beverages.

Kouji was first discovered in China more than 2, 300 years ago., and introduced to Japan around 300 A.D.  To create kouji, spores of a fermentation culture, called Aspergillus oryzae, are injected into rice that has been steamed and then cooled. After a couple of days of being stored in a warm place, as A. oryzae begins to break down the proteins and carbohydrates of the rice, the fungus begins to form.  Finally, the kouji is separated from the decomposition, ready for their task in preparing our favorite soy sauces, mirin, and liquor, among other products.

Indeed, it is the fermentation process that explains why the amazake drink isn’t mislabeled, and why kouji has become Japan’s 国菌 (こっきん) kokkin, or national fungus.


Among these two titans of international cuisine, it’s always fascinating to learn about the humble ingredients quietly playing their parts behind the scenes.

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