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Story Origin in Japan By JNTO on 5 October 2021

In Japan, sweet potatoes are known as Satsuma-imo (さつまいも), or just imo. Originally from South America, modern imo came to Japan via the Philippines before making their way to the Ryukyu Kingdom (modern-day Okinawa) in the 16th century. From there it entered Japan via trade routes with Satsuma Province (modern-day Kagoshima). Today, Japan produces a staggering 1.5 million tons of sweet potatoes annually, and Kagoshima remains the heart of Japan’s sweet potato production.

sweet potatoes or Satsuma-imo (さつまいも) sweet potatoes fields

Over the last 70 years, Japan has produced over 100 unique, local types of sweet potatoes. Some have thicker skin, different flesh colours (ranging from orange to purple), and higher sugar content, which make the texture, taste, and colour vary between types. Some of the varieties of sweet potatoes include Beni Haruka, which is known for its remarkable honey-like sweet flavour, Beni Kirishima which has a soft sweetness, and the “Purple Sweet Road” with its intense purple flesh and strong flavour.

sweet potatoes fields purple sweet potatoes

The Japanese love incorporating flavours in lots of other food. It is not difficult to find traditional sweet potato desserts like Daigaku Imo (deep-fried and glazed in syrup) or as quirky flavours of ice cream, cakes, biscuits, and chocolate. In Kyushu, it’s also the main ingredient in its native alcoholic drink: imo shochu


However, the best and most popular way to savour these sweet potatoes is to roast or grill them.


Eating a yakiimo
Eating a roasted sweet potato is one of the most quintessential autumn experiences you can have in Japan. The ideal yakiimo has a starchier, drier texture than the brown “Irish” potato, and can be considered fluffy. Roasted over hot stones or grilled, they become pleasantly sweet as they caramelise, giving off a subtle, nutty flavour that’s often described as sweet chestnut. 


grilled sweet potatoes Yakiimo

Since Yakiimo are already sweet once they’re baked, flavours or toppings are normally not added. A popular way to enjoy it is to pair it with a glass of milk to make the most out of the creamy sweetness. 


Yakiimo are already sweet once they’re baked


Where can you get yakiimo?

You can easily find them almost anywhere in Japan when the weather gets cool. Some prefectures are also famous for their local varieties – Tokushima Prefecture’s Naruto Kintoki variety is known for its golden-yellow hue with a chestnut-like flavour, and there is the famous purple Beni Imo from Okinawa, which is officially recognised as a superfood. Like so many popular Japanese foods, all sweet potatoes are incredibly healthy, rich in potassium and vitamin C.


the famous yakiimo festival in Shinagawa Yakiimo Terrace the famous yakiimo festival in Shinagawa Yakiimo Terrace

With special varieties of sweet potato spread across Japan, you can sample many of them in Tokyo at the famous yakiimo festival, held every winter at the Shinagawa Yakiimo Terrace. You can enjoy your piping hot yakiimo with a warm foot bath or seated comfortably at a kotatsu, a traditional Japanese table covered in a heated blanket.

the famous yakiimo festival in Shinagawa Yakiimo Terrace the famous yakiimo festival in Shinagawa Yakiimo Terrace

*Photos are from past events

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