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February 2004

Baking Sweet Potatoes in the Schoolyard

Yakiimo, baked sweet potato

Baked sweet potato, or yakiimo, is a favorite winter snack in Japan. The hot and tender potatoes taste delicious in cold weather and always make people want to eat more. Making a fire with a pile of fallen leaves and slowly baking sweet potatoes in them is a common sight in winter, and it's a perfect way to make excellent yakiimo.

At Itabashi Dai-ichi Elementary School (site is Japanese only), a public elementary school in Tokyo's Itabashi Ward with 258 students, sweet potatoes are baked every year as part of the annual school festival. In 2003 the festival, called Ita-ichi Matsuri, was held on the afternoon of December 6. The children spent an exciting afternoon out in the schoolyard, where a game area was set up, as well as many food stalls. But without a doubt, the highlight of the festival was yakiimo. Adults took charge of baking the potatoes, because it involves using fire. The children formed such long lines to get their share of the sweet potatoes that the adults could hardly keep up with the demand.

Stoking the fire at Itabashi Dai-ichi Elementary (Tsurukubo Elementary School)

At this school, sweet potatoes are baked by building a fire with firewood and fallen leaves inside an enclosure made with concrete blocks. In the schoolyard of this 130-year-old school is a large gingko tree that is more than a century old, and it sheds tons of leaves in late fall. There are also many deciduous trees around the school grounds, so by December there are plenty of leaves to burn.

Once the fire gets going, sweet potatoes wrapped first in wet newspaper and then in aluminum foil are put into the fire, and more leaves are placed over them. Heavy smoke rises from the fire. The important point is to bake the potatoes slowly and patiently, so that they are heated through to the center. If you get impatient and build up the fire too much, the potatoes will become charred and inedible.

Kids eagerly await their potatoes (Tsurukubo Elementary School)

After 20 or 30 minutes, if the potatoes feel soft when poked with a stick, they're done. The potatoes are very hot, so they need to be handled with care. Carefully peel the reddish pink skin with your hands, and up rises an irresistible sweet smell from the golden yellow flesh. "The potato was so hot I thought I might burn my mouth, so I blew on it as I ate," said Saki, a second-grade girl. Also in the second grade, Hiroshi ate yakiimo baked by his father for the first time in his life. "It was sweet and very tasty," he happily recalled.

Sweet potato baking was also held at Tsurukubo Elementary School (site is Japanese only), another public school with 551 students in the city of Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture. On December 5 a total of 500 people, including families of the schoolchildren, cleaned the schoolyard. After that, they used the 50 bagfuls of dead leaves to bake sweet potatoes. It was the first time for the school to hold the event, so everyone was especially excited. Some of the children had never experienced yakiimo baking before.

Kids enjoying their delicious yakiimo (Tsurukubo Elementary School)

Sixth-grader Sasaki Ryota was excited to see the piles of leaves being burned and "reborn" as 500 yakiimo. "You burn leaves that you don't need and make yakiimo with them - that's killing two birds with one stone," he observed, and filled his mouth with steaming hot sweet potato.

NOTICE: Since October 9, 2003, Japanese names in Kids Web Japan have been written in their original order: surname first.

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