The sweet potato truck is a familiar sight from fall to early spring. Haggard yet friendly old men drive through the suburbs to sell tuber treats from the flatbed of their mini-trucks while spreading a haunting melody and the scent of firewood. Contemporary art unit Yotta puts an absurd spin on the tradition with Kintoki, a tricked-out Toyota Century loaded with an oven, flashing lights and garish stainless steel trussing. The project is a send-up of decotora, crazy customized trucks that used to rumble across the landscape before all but going extinct in recent years.
Yotta consists of Yamawaki Hiromichi (31) and Kisaki Kimitaka (35), two freelance artists from Osaka who revel in the fact that, deep down, Japan is totally bonkers in an unassuming sort of way. The Kintoki car is part of their Ittekimasu Nipon series that reflects on Japan's national identity with a playful smirk.
We met them on the main drag of Akihabara amid the tourists and curious locals. The two were soft-spoken, gracious and giggly. Everyone was as relaxed as high school friends hanging out at the mall parking lot. People lined up to say hello and buy sweet potatoes. Passing cyclists rang their bells in appreciation. An egg timer went off every three minutes as a reminder to check the oven.
A guy in a rasta hat and orange sandals sauntered past, dreadlocks swinging in the spring air. "You guys selling sweetmeats?" he asked.
"No man, sweet potatoes!" Yotta called back. Rastaman passed with a grin and we went back to our interview.
Why you'd name yourselves Yotta?
Yotta is the largest metric prefix. You know, mega, giga and so on. Yotta's the biggest. Ten to the 24th power.
Japanese also has yota, the fool, a character archetype that goes back to the Edo period. A yota is a liar, a good-for-nothing, a twerp. So we're a couple of yota, bums cast out of society. We're hopeless but we do what we can.
How'd you get started selling sweet potatoes?
Sweet potato trucks are totally crazy. They've got music, a grizzled old driver, an open flame in the back of the truck! The craziest part is that it's perfectly legal. So we figured if we made art based on the sweet potato truck it would be protected by law.
So the police never give you any guff?
Japan is full of legal loopholes. You just need to find a way to make them work for you. For example, there's no laws against selling sweet potatoes in the street. If the police wanted to regulate us, they'd have to crack down on all the other vendors too. No way they'd do that.
I heard you were inspired by the viral video of the Gospel Sweet Potato truck.
Oh for sure. Society looks down on making noise in the street. These days you've got right wing noise trucks and politicians campaigning and that's it. But back in the day there were all kinds of food vendors running around, playing music and calling out. That's all gone now. So this project is our way to bring that culture back.
You guys are based in Osaka. Why come all the way to Tokyo?
Tokyo's an international city. It's got more people. If you want to get the word out, Tokyo is the place to be.
Where do you normally park the car?
During the week we go around Akihabara, Harajuku, Daikanyama and Uguisudani. On the weekends we're at the Okamoto Taro Museum in Kawasaki. We tried touring the countryside but it wasn't a good scene. I mean, the people were nice but we were taking away business from the local farmers and the real sweet potato truck drivers. So the city is best, so long as the roads are wide enough to park.
The cool thing about Tokyo is how every station has a unique vibe. Roppongi though, that's one place we won’t go back to. People there aren't in the market for sweet potatoes. And there's all the drunks.
How many sweet potatoes do you sell a night?
Depends on how hard we want to work. At events we can sell 100 or more. We need to sell 35 per appearance to make a living. We live off sweet potatoes. I mean, the money we make from them. Don't worry, we can afford actual food.
What's the trick to cooking them?
Keep the internal temperature at 70 degrees Celsius for an hour. That's about it! Each oven has its own quirks. We use a wood burning oven so the temperature's not constant like a gas stove.
Anyway, we researched techniques online and talked to truck drivers. Very serious fieldwork. It was a lot of trial-and-error, a lot of burnt sweet potatoes.
What's with the big exhaust pipes coming out of the oven?
A metalworker friend made them based on our designs. The oven is also custom fit for the trunk. There's a heat shield to keep the gas tank from exploding.
The other parts are either recycled from old decotora or are original imitations of authentic decotora parts. Ah, sorry if that's confusing. See, decotora themselves are completely custom, so there's no standard. People continue to tweek their rig and the art form evolves.
A copy of a copy.
Exactly! Let's talk about the parts. The light bulbs are called side markers--they mark the vehicle’s width. We’ve got a horn that runs of an air compressor but it's too loud to play so don’t ask! The truss on the side mirrors holds them in place. Around front is a magnetic hood ornament I made of the fairy tale character Kintaro. We use a type of sweet potato called kintoki. Kintaro, kintoki, get it?
Why mod a Toyota Century? Even a secondhand one must have cost a fortune.
You'd be surprised. They change hands often so it's hard for the seller to give an honest appraisal of the condition. You can get a used one for cheap. But new, they run something like 10,000,000 yen.
The Century is the crown jewel of Japanese automobiles. Even the Emperor rides in one! Selling sweet potatoes in one struck us as a funny juxtaposition.
Do you ever run into actual decotora on the freeway?
Yeah, sometimes. We've been in decotora magazines and hang out at decotora gatherings. The community is super friendly. The same goes for the ita-sha drivers in Akihabara. They come by to talk shop and swap modding tips.
The Okamoto Taro Award is given to those as passionate about socially conscious art as Okamoto himself. How did you win the grand prize and what will you do with the 2,000,000 yen reward?
We applied to the competition and what do you know, we won! Of course we're happy to be validated. The prize money amounts to what we spent on the car, so we broke even.
Seriously? What did you plan to do if you didn't win?
Oh, we would have paid off our debts eventually. One sweet potato at a time.
The cherry blossoms have bloomed which means it's time for Yotta to hit the road. But don't worry, they'll be back next fall. Just follow the music. Though honestly, it's easier to follow the flashing lights.
--Interview by David Kracker
--Photos by Dan Szpara