THE roasted Japanese sweet potato has always been a favorite of mine. It is unlike any sweet potato we have here in the Philippines. It is seriously sweet and creamy, almost like it has been buttered. I seek it every time I travel and it is usually easy to find in convenience stores. Something about eating a piping hot sweet potato on a cold day is oddly comforting for me. Plus, watching all the k-dramas that show roasted sweet potatoes made me excited to have this as soon as I arrived in Japan.
This time around though, we couldn’t find it anywhere. By the third day, I was getting frustrated. My daughter went online to search and lo and behold, she found Kawagoe.
Kawagoe is a city in Saitama Prefecture, an hour’s train ride from Central Tokyo. It is a historic castle town that retains the feel of old Japan. They have preserved the two-story wooden kurazukuri architecture of its old merchant warehouses as well as numerous temples and shrines. Kawagoe, in its heyday, was known as “Little Edo,” the Meiji period name for Tokyo, as it was a wealthy trading hub of goods being sent to Edo. The early citizens built the kurazukuri warehouses to store the goods. More than 30 of these warehouses survive to this day and have been repurposed as museums, shops, and restaurants.
Back to the sweet potato. Kawagoe is largely agricultural and one of its most famous products is the sweet potato. The cobblestone streets are lined with shops selling every possible permutation of sweet potato. Chipped, fried, mashed, candied, sweet, and savory, you name it, they have it. On the day we visited, I had sweet potato mochi, sweet potato wedged with caramel sauce, fried sweet potato chips, sweet potato croquette, sweet potato ice cream, and roasted sweet potato with caramel brulee. To end my sweet potato day, we even had a whole kaiseki meal that featured sweet potato in every course, including the cocktail.
The sweet potato of Kawagoe is so famous that six million tourists a year descend upon this small town to have it. Six million! They even have an annual festival celebrating sweet potatoes. Walking around the town you see how the tourism numbers impact the lives of the citizens. There are hundreds of small shops selling arts and crafts, agricultural products, specialty tours and foodstuff. All these provide gainful employment and income to the community while generating local government revenue to maintain the historical charm and cultural capital of the city. This was community-based tourism at its finest iteration.
Seeing the success of Kawagoe made me think of our own government’s One Town, One Product program (OTOP) which has been running since 2004. OTOP Philippines is a priority stimulus program for Micro and Small and Medium-scale enterprises (MSMEs) as the government’s customized intervention to drive inclusive local economic growth. The program enables localities and communities to determine, develop, support, and promote culturally-rooted products or services which they can be the best or best renowned for.
In the 20 years that this program has been running, we still need to see the level of success that Kawagoe enjoys with its sweet potato. There are some places with successfully launched products – Davao with its durian, Camiguin with lanzones, and Benguet with coffee are some examples. The product development is still not enough to make it an economic anchor and sustainable enough to keep people gainfully employed year in and year out.
When you come to Kawagoe, you feel that it is a tourist town. As you delve deeper into its roots, you come to understand that the backbone of the town is agriculture. Their flagship product is the sweet potato, but they are equally proud of their farmed eel and vegetables. A lot of the stores sell every pickled vegetable imaginable. I was busy google-translating the labels and they are all under a government-supported farm cooperative. They are packaging, labeling, and marketing traditional pickles and preserves in a world-class way.
Here in Baguio, the feel is the same. A tourist town with an agricultural backbone. We need to support that backbone more and make sure that it gets the support it needs. If we lose that backbone, we will lose tourism as well.