Sango and Imo-kempi are two popular souvenirs in Kochi. Let’s take a look at their relevance today. Hōseki sango, or precious coral, are organisms living at 100m~1200m below sea level. They are quite different to the shallow coral reef that need sunlight and are thus quite brittle. Because of its unique sheen and firmness, hōseki sango are harvested for its decorative potential.
Almost 80% of all Japanese hōseki sango come from Kochi. The species that is the most unique in the waters around Muroto and Ashizuri is the blood red variety. Buyers from around the world and especially Italy come to Kochi to purchase the sango for crafting into jewelery. The brand attributed to it in Europe is called “TosA” and because of its natural colouring and quality they fetch exceptionally high prices internationally.
However, coral in Kochi and around the world are at dangerously low populations and ongoing trade is unsustainable and will threaten ocean eco-systems. All the more, at the recent CITES, an international conference on the trade of endangered species held in Doha, Qatar, countries voted down the ban on the trade of red and pink coral, noting that it will hurt local fishing industries.
On an interesting note, to mark this year’s Ryoma hype, artist Taizan Maekawa made a bust of Ryoma out of coral inlays which can be seen at the Ryoma pavilion at Kochi Station.
Imo kempi (or sweet potato chips) are crunchy sticks of deep fried potato that have been sweetened. To produce its unique taste and crunchiness, the kempi is deep fried twice and tossed in sugar water, after which it is then dried naturally.
The origins of imo kempi rest in the middle of Edo Period (1603-1868), when sweet potato varieties entered Japan from China. When it arrived into Kochi from Satsuma (now Kagoshima Pref.), they realised that the root vegetable is typhoon resistant and very suited to the soil and climate of Kochi.
During the Nara Period (710-794), offerings were made to the gods in the form of dog's skin, sheep's liver, and cow's fat. As time went by, these traditions shifted to offerings of rice-based sweets. Sticks of fried dog's skin, or kempi, was one of those that eventually turned into the sweet type, abandoning its canine origins.
Imo kempi in Kochi now is a variety that branched off from this unusual beginning. Now, you can see kempi everywhere in Kochi. With varieties like purple imo kempi, seaweed and strawberry flavours, and forms of kempi in slices and peels, it is hard to stop eating them once you've started.
Taken from vol.36 PDF