There are no ice cream trucks in Japan, but there are other types of musical trucks.
Growing up in Canada, I only had a few experiences with ice cream trucks. Most likely because I lived in the country side, and houses were not close to one another like in the suburbs. It wouldn’t be worth it for the truck driver to come all the way out to the boonies.
I saw them on TV all the time though, and I imagined what it would be like to hear the jingly song of the ice cream truck and run outside to see it surrounded by other kids looking for a cool treat.
So when I did actually here one near my house, I almost couldn’t believe it. Straining my hears to make sure I wasn’t just hearing things. Then when I was sure it was the ice cream truck, rushing to find some money and running out to the road.
The thing is, my house had a long driveway, and it was also on a corner. That means that by the time I had finished being sure what that sound was, gathering a few coins, and running barefoot down my gravel drive way, the truck had already driven past. Or I get the end of the driveway just in time to see the truck turn down another corner.
With an air of disappointment, I would look across the street at my neighbor, who had also rushed out at the hopes of a popsicle, only to be left in the wake of the dimming do your ears hang low. It’s not all bad though, a few times I did manage to catch it.
I’m thankful that some kind-hearted ice cream truck driver remembered that little farm kids also want to buy popsicles from a truck in the summer.
In Japan, I have not seen an ice cream truck, but I have seen other types of trucks. A lot of them are seasonal, and play music or have a recorded voice talking about what they are selling. I have a hard time understanding what the recording is saying though. It’s pretty scratching with exaggerated intonation. Without further ado, here are five different types of trucks that I have seen in Nagoya.
1.Baked sweet potato (ishi yaki imo)
I heard this one my first winter in Nagoya. There was music “iiiiiiishhii yaaaakii imooooo, yaki imoooo,” coming from down the street and a recording at the same time. Confused, I asked my husband what it was.
He casually told me it was the sweet potato truck. Huh? What’s a sweet potato truck?
The baked sweet potato truck only comes around in the winter. It is a small truck and drives really slowly through the neighborhoods. In the back of the truck is a wood stove that cooks sweet potatoes. And that’s it. No sauce or anything. Just a sweet potato. Skin and all.
Why would people go outside to buy a hot sweet potato, I thought?
The first couple times I heard it, I peaked at it from behind my curtain as it drove past, like a curious little munchkin. Then one day I wanted to try it. So I got my coins and went downstairs to stop the driver. He got out of his truck, turned the music down, said some things I couldn’t understand, and went back to open the oven. He let me pick out which one I wanted and wrapped it in newspaper. I paid him and went back upstairs with my new food adventure.
Asking my husband what I’m supposed to do with it, he said, “just eat it.” So I did.
In anticlimactic fashion, it wasn’t the most exciting. It tasted like a sweet potato. It was dry. Not bad. But not spectacular. Apparently, you’re supposed to eat it with milk, which I didn’t have. Though to be fair, it’s healthier than ice cream. I haven’t bought another one.
Now that I think about it, I don’t even know if I’ve heard the truck in the last couple years.
2. Jelly cakes and soybean flour (warabi mochi)
This one is a summer truck. The same as the sweet potato truck, this one plays music and advertises with a recording of how delicious the snack is. I’ve seen this one around my neighborhood and also at the beach on a hot summer day.
The snack itself is a type of gelatinous jelly cake that by itself is a tiny bit sweet. It comes with soybean flour on top. In my opinion, this one is tasty. It sounds a bit weird maybe, if you are not familiar with Japanese snacks.
Anyway, similar to the sweet potato truck, I didn’t know what it was at first, and after watching it like a weirdo for a few times, I finally decided to go buy some. The first time though, I decided a bit too late, and had to run down the street and around the corner to catch it. I probably looked like a fool, running down the street at night in my pajamas. But I got my treat and went back home to eat it.
Yeah. This one is obviously not edible. It’s literate kerosene. (The photo for this post is the kerosene truck)
This is another winter truck. It has a very familiar song. I don’t know the name of the song, and I can’t catch all of the words, but I think it is a famous song in Japan. Nevertheless, I can easily recognize when the kerosene truck is coming, and sometimes hum the song to myself. It’s quite upbeat.
You might be wondering why there is a truck selling kerosene.
Isn’t that dangerous?
What is it for?
It’s for keeping warm.
You see, some Japanese houses don’t have the best heating systems. And for some houses the only heater is a kerosene heater. It’s called a stove in Japanese, and you put kerosene in it, and it makes fire. And fire warm. It’s surprisingly common too. I have seen them in small offices in public places. They were in all the classrooms when I worked as an elementary school teacher.
Isn’t that dangerous, you’re probably still asking?
It’s fire after all. Sure it is in a contained space, and has vents and grills to prevent burns. But it’s still fire. There is also the potential for carbon monoxide poisoning. Yikes.
When I was teaching (and freezing) I was constantly shutting the window to keep the kerosene warmed air in and the cold air out. But the Japanese teachers kept following behind me and opening them again. The lower grade classrooms also had a wide fence around them so the little kiddies wouln’t burn themselves as they all crowd around the only source of heat.
Anywho, the kerosene truck drives around in the cold winter evenings playing it’s music, and people come out and stand at their door with their empty canister waiting to have it filled up. I don’t know how much it costs.
4. Garbage collection
I have two examples in this category. The first garbage collection truck that makes noise is the regularly scheduled trucks that come during the week to pick up burnable trash and recycling. They don’t play a song, but the make a ringing noise every few seconds and announce which way they are turning for people to be careful. I have heard that other people have heard garbage collection trucks that do actually play songs though.
The second truck that I have noticed is the one that drives around collecting large pieces of trash, like old A/Cs and refrigerators. This one doesn’t play music, but it makes announcements that it is doing the rounds collecting things.
If you have something you don’t need though, I’m not sure how you would go about it getting it to the truck. You can’t very well grab your old refrigerator in your arms and take it down to the street in time for the truck. Maybe you just go out, stop the truck, and tell them to wait while you lug your things out of your house. Maybe they will help you carry things.
This truck comes around maybe once a month or so, that I have noticed. On the weekends, it seems. It seems unreliable though because what if you have something you don’t need and you keep missing the truck?
Anyway, there is another day, once a month, that you can put your big furniture trash outside (with a special sticker and appointment for pick up) and someone will for sure pick it up. I’m not sure what the difference is between these two garbages that are collected.
5. Japanese nationalism
This last musical truck is one that honestly scares me a little bit.
I think they might be called uyoku dantai. They are trucks/vans/buses that are usually painted black and set up with loudspeakers. They play Imperial-style music or nationalist recordings that I can’t understand. Usually there is the Japanese flag, the war flag, or the imperial seal painted on the side. Sometimes they drive through cities in groups or caravans, and sometimes they park in places of protest, like a foreign embassy.
I don’t think all the vans or groups are the same, so some propaganda might be more about giving back power to the Emperor and others more about justifying crimes committed by Japan during WWII. Either way, I think they are all nationalistic to varying degrees, and use the music truck platform to convey their political views. The yakuza also use them as a disguise.
For a foreigner like me, they can be intimidating. I don’t hear them very often in Nagoya, though there is one spot where I would see them parked semi-regularly. I always feel afraid to walk past them.
Those are some of the interesting trucks I’ve seen in Japan that drive around playing music. Some of them are seasonal, and some of them sell food. Some of them help you stay warm, and some of them take your old unneeded furniture of your hands. Others can make your blood run cold. However, I have yet to see or hear of ice cream trucks. If I did hear an ice cream truck, I would be outside. Fast. For the novelty more than anything.
What are your experiences with the different trucks in Japan?
Have you noticed anything different than the ones I listed?
Leave your comments below!