An autumn Sunday morning in suburban Osaka. I get up a bit later than usual (having gone to a house party near Takarazuka the night before), and make myself some coffee. It’s overcast, about 20ºC, a not unpleasant time of day to do some laundry, sit by the screen door (mosquitoes) and read the online papers.
Just about the time when I’m well into my first cup and have settled into a story about Tom Waits, the dog next door starts wailing and howling. Almost before I have time to wonder why, I soon begin to hear the reason: the laundry pole truck is coming, and judging by the noise, is only about half a mile away.
Because of the cramped space of a Japanese yard (plus the fact that most city dwellers live in apartments), clotheslines are unheard of. You hang your wash on collapsible metal laundry poles, which are propped horizontally on racks on your balcony. These poles are cheap. You can buy them at any household supplies store. I have three (one inherited), each about 8 feet long, and I can’t imagine ever needing another one for the rest of my life. Everyone has them here, as a matter of course (not too many people have dryers, although there are plenty of laundromats).
So knowing all that, how does one make a living by driving very slowly through residential neighbourhoods on a Sunday morning, trying to sell a mundane household item which everyone already owns? Well, like any determined salesman, you have to get everyone’s attention. Hence the looped, dirge-like recording blared at unbelievably high volume : “TaKEEYAaaaa…SaOOODAKEEeeeeee! TaKEEYAaaaa…SaOODAKEEeeeee!” This is followed by a heartfelt testimonial by what sounds like a little girl with adenoidal difficulties (Takeya is the company’s name; saodake ,竿竹, literally means bamboo pole, which is what everyone still calls them, in much the same way Canadians still talk about root beer in “tin” cans). Then the mournful wail is heard again, at a decibel level which makes you wonder if he’s trying to sell laundry poles to Ted Nugent.
Guys like this are a fact of life in Suburbia Nipponica. Winter is coming, so the Japanese summer dessert sellers (“WaraBIIIIIIIIIImoChi! KakiGO-o-Riiiiii!”) have changed over to selling roasted sweet potatoes (“OishiiYAAA-a-ki IIIIImooooo…..YA-KIIIIImooooo”) and soon the kerosene trucks will be blaring their theme song at twilight (apartments have no central heating; most people still use kerosene or gas heaters). Now, streetsellers throughout history have peddled their wares in this way, but they never had Japanese speakers tied to their carts.
Until recently, they didn’t use to here, either. One of my early memories of Osaka is of the old man pulling a ramen (Chinese noodle) cart around my neighbourhood near Harinakano Station on winter’s nights. Periodically, he would take out a chanter and play the short ramen-seller’s tune. You could hear him coming about a block away, which gave you time to go downstairs and buy a bowl from him, often meeting a neighbour going in the same direction. Times have not so much changed as mutated. These days, you can hear a ramen cart coming from the next station, and by the time it gets below my window and drowns out whatever programme I might be watching (or any thought I might have been having), I have long since lost any taste I might have had for a bowl of noodle soup. In fact, after that racket, I wouldn’t sample his wares if he were serving up filet mignon.
I think a lot of people feel the same way. But still the trucks come round, getting a little louder each year. It’s as though the peddler thinks, “all right, I’m gonna blare this until one of you comes out and buys something. Who’s it gonna be?” Of course, this is Japan, so no one would dream of complaining.