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Roast of the town: Dog running sweet potato stand in Hokkaido warms hearts

Ken the Shiba Inu dog is seen looking over his baked sweet potato store in Sapporo's Kiyota Ward on Feb. 6, 2020. (Mainichi/Taichi Kaizuka)

SAPPORO -- A Shiba Inu dog that "manages" a baked sweet potato store alone in a residential area of this city is building a loyal following that matches the breed's faithful reputation.

Ken, the 4-year-old Japanese hunting dog in Sapporo, the capital of Japan's northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido, is also warming foreign visitors' hearts as the story of the dog's unique work has been spreading through social media. Other canines are also benefiting from his activities as part of the store's profits are donated to an organization that works to prevent the culling of pets.

The store opened in November 2018 and was well received by people after it was introduced on a local TV program in 2019.

The idea for the stand came from Sonoto Murayama, 43, president of "Yotsuba no kai," which provides welfare services to people with disabilities, after it baked sweet potatoes for its staff three years ago. He also offered free hot sweet potatoes at a nearby facility for the elderly and built up a good reputation.

Murayama thought that his baked sweet potatoes could become a good money earner but he didn't have a place to set up a store except the premises of the facility he manages. He thought that a regular store would not attract enough customers in the residential area, so he assigned his dog Ken to look over the stand.

The handmade store contains a heater and opens at 11 a.m. on weekdays. The store is closed for an hour at noon and resumes operations at 1 p.m. until 3 p.m. Payment is through an honesty box where customers place 200 yen per potato into a hole in the wall of the store.

Murayama thinks that the store has gained popularity among foreigners as unmanned stands are rare abroad although they are a common sight in rural areas in Japan. Messages in foreign languages including English, Chinese and Thai are seen written on a notebook placed in front of the shop.

Since the autumn of 2019, Murayama has donated part of his store's profits to organizations that work to protect pets. The total amount of his donations has surpassed 80,000 yen. Ken was even dressed up in a red cap to look like Santa Claus as he delivered donations to a child welfare institution.

Murayama plans to open a website to sell goods related to Ken, including T-shirts, by the end of February. "The dog helps everyone. It would be great if similar stores appeared in Hokkaido," he said.

(Japanese original by Taichi Kaizuka, Hokkaido News Department)

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