A summer night in suburban Kansai; the cicadas have finally wound down for the night, and the heat has let up somewhat, if not the humidity. Anytime between dusk and midnight (later on the weekends), trucks or carts wind their way around the neighbourhoods all summer, their distinctive canned music and chants wafting through the night air. Depending on the volume, they either give the Japanese a nostalgic feeling of bygone summer days, or they set their teeth on edge. The night vendors move, for better or worse, with the times.
Naturally, they were once all hand-pulled noodle carts, and the way the vendors announced their arrival – like all street merchants, even long ago in the West – was to call out a distinctive song, or play a short melody on a chanter. This is how they got their name: yonakisoba-san (夜泣きそばさん, from yonakisuru: to call out in the night). They are often incorrectly referred to as yatai, but that word (屋台, in kanji) refers only to the food and beer stalls which are set up – often with a few stools and a tarpaulin – near train stations, after the regular shops have closed for the night. Once upon a time, in the days before 24-hour convenience stores and nerdy pizza-delivering scooters, Japanese families listened for the approach of the yonakisoba-san when they felt peckish in the evening. Somehow, these vendors still survive, although dwindling in number.
But what do they sell?
First and foremost is ramen. Ramen is a bowl of Chinese noodles (Chukasoba) in a pork broth. It is popular all year round, especially among salarymen coming back from an evening of serious izakaya business with the workmates. Not so very long ago, the vendor pulled the cart while playing a tune on a chanter (the last one I saw was in 1995, and he looked like he’s been around since the Edo Period). Although the wooden cart is still pulled by hand, the music is now recorded, and travels a lot farther than the old chanter could. Whether this makes the vendor’s trudge any easier is anyone’s guess. A bowl of his noodles costs about 500 yen.
Warabi mochi (わらび餅) is a real traditional taste of summer. It’s usually sold from the afternoon till evening, rarely past 8 o’clock (although these days, some drivers will drive around blasting their speakers for as long as it takes…). It’s translucent gelatine made from the root of the warabi fern, cut into quivering little blocks and served chilled with a dusting of toasted soybean powder. It contains no rice – mochi refers to the consistency, not the ingredients. Although it sounds terribly good for you, it’s light, not too sweet, and refreshing on a summer night (or day). The same truck also sells kakigori (called a Snow Cone in the US). It’s a cup of shaved ice topped with flavoured syrup and eaten with a spoon. The most common syrup flavours are: sugar (for the purist), strawberry, melon, and lemon. (lately, the waribimochiyasan also sells cups of ice cream, but you can get that anywhere, and cheaper, so why bother?).
But the vendors are not limited to summer: in the winter, the sweet-sellers change over their wares: on the first day of autumn, the trucks turn from the long nasal tones of the “warabiiiiiiiiiiiiimochi” tape and switch to the slightly mournful tones of “yaki-iiiiimooooo” (roasted sweet potato). Some of the older trucks also feature the loud whistle of the steam from the roasting stove flue. This conjures up images of piping-hot freshness, I guess, although the pitch of it makes the dogs in my neighbourhood howl.