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Tea Leaves

Japan's street vendors preserve a fading culture

In towns and cities throughout the country, itinerant merchants help energize urban life

A seller of yakiimo, or freshly roasted sweet potatoes, parked near the Meguro River in western Tokyo, with his specially outfitted truck. (Photo by Edward M. Gomez)

When the 18th-century British writer and poet Dr. Samuel Johnson quipped in 1777, "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life," he had not seen bustling old Edo on the other side of the planet; not long thereafter, around 1800, the city that would become modern Tokyo boasted what many historians say was the world's largest urban population. Above all, what Johnson knew from London -- from the commerce of its River Thames port to the artist William Hogarth's booze-soaked "Gin Lane" -- was that the character, allure and lifeblood of a great metropolis may be measured by the vitality of its streets.

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