Kazuo eats fugu livers like they're candy

Trip Start Mar 11, 2006
Trip End Aug 01, 2006

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Sunday, March 12, 2006

Oddly enough, or perhaps not odd at all, Tokyo did not seem loads different than Irvine or LA or San Francisco or most places in the States that I've been. Well, the people are exceedingly polite and the toilet seats are warmed, but otherwise, cuisine excepted, it was just like home. Sorta.
Our arrival and bus into town from the airport were smooth affairs after a few hit-and-miss attempts at balancing my big pack, little pack, and guitar without falling over. Our destination was the Keio Plaza Hotel where we were to meet Kazuo Ninomiya, a Cal alum from the 1960s. The good folks at University Relations at Berkeley passed along a rather brilliant tip to contact Cal alums through international alumni clubs and calcafe.berkeley.edu to get together for anything from a beer and round of Cal songs to, as we would find out, some of the best and most gracious hospitality we would find anywhere.
Kazuo, a fellow engineering alum pushing 70 years old but seriously looking and acting not a day over 45, kicked off our trip in style. Giving us a full apartment to stay in, dinner with his lovely wife Yuko the night we arrived, and a straight 5,000 yen bill (about $50) apiece to just go enjoy the town the next day with, we were blown away and nearly embarrassed by the extent of his and Yuko's generosity (and Cal spirit!).
The food was a recurring point of interest throughout Japan. I'm pretty open-minded about new things, even though my distaste for borscht labels me a picky eater to Mama, so I was excited to try whatever was set before me. But the real Most Improved Palette award goes to Ryan, who back at home subsists on pizza and Coke, and Skittles with the occasional sprig of parsley on a steak to round out his fruit and green roughage intake. To be honest, I wasn't sure how he was going to deal, but the very first night we both downed this lovely box of sushi and sashimi (best in Tokyo according to Kazuo), and for the sake of familiarity, the Japanese take on pizza. Ryan has got a mission to have a slice in every country we go to, I guess everyone's got to have a project :)
We did get to experience the full range of food in Japan. When we were out in the city exploring, trying to be mindful of the budget, we'd sometimes get down with some good ol' am-pm combini (convenience store) grub. One sublime moment found us on a park bench in an old playground with snow falling around us while I dug into a Japanese Lunchable of sorts and Ryan gnawed on what he described as a soggy hampocket. Contrast this with the dinner we shared with a group of about 7 Cal alums arranged by Kazuo where we sumptuously dined on the finest fried potatoes (best in Japan according to Kazuo), succulent shrimp, creamy chicken, and Kobe beef. The meal also came with some excellent beer and whiskey, which the consumption of probably contributed to our willingness to agree to our next culinary adventure: fugu.
Fugu is the poisonous Japanese puffer fish known to many of us through an episode of the Simpsons where Homer believes he ate bad fugu. The fish has to be prepared just right, cut with a precision narrower than the depth of a sheet of paper, or the poison contained in the blood and liver will get you. We agreed to go out for fugu with a few of the guys the next night, and while I was generally content to go into it as blindly as possible, Ryan took it upon himself to regale me with fun fugu facts while we were at an internet café the afternoon of.
"Hey Misha, did you know that fugu poison causes paralysis but you remain conscious so you can feel your body go into convulsions until it breaks and you die from suffocation because you can no longer move your diaphragm to fill your lungs?"
"No Ryan I didn't know that"
"Oh, and fugu poison is over 1000 times more deadly than cyanide"
"Is that so."
"And one fugu is potent enough to kill 30 adults!"
"Ryan, you know, I'd really rather not kn..."
"But don't worry, only 5-6 people die per year from fugu, more die annually from choking on mochi (rice cakes)"
Now afraid of poisonous puffer fish and rice cakes, we met the fellas a few hours later, where I learned another fugu tidbit: there is a Japanese saying, "Me and my friend ate fugu last night, today I carried his coffin". My spidey sense started tingling a bit when we turned off the main road and lit into this hole-in-the-wall joint where we climbed several steep ladder-like sets of stairs to a small room up top that was big enough for only the 5 of us. And soundproof. And without Kazuo there to reassure me that this was the "best fugu in Japan".
For dramatic effect, the fugu was delayed, following a chrysanthemum salad, mussels with sea urchin paste, and a mighty salty turtle soup. Then the big moment arrived, Ryan and I each filmed our last will and testaments on my camera, and we attacked the fugu sashimi (thin, raw cuts of the meat) like it was going out of style. Somewhat rubbery but rather tasty, it really grew on me. Next came miscellaneous fried fugu bits, with the exciting part coming when a bone pierced my cheek and I became convinced I'd just been injected, followed by a stew with tofu, veggies, and really miscellaneous fugu bits. The face was the best; we were instructed to kiss the fish before we threw it down the hatch. And just to make sure we wouldn't miss any lurking poison floating about, our waitress used the fugu stew water to boil some rice.
As I mentioned, both Ryan and I had been doing pretty well with enjoying new and interesting foods, but the one part of the meal that was particularly hard to stomach was the fugu drink they brought us: 2 fins, burnt to a crisp, dropped in a cup of hot sake, the oil discoloring the sake a murky yellow. Our hosts insisted that it had a very pleasant smell and taste, for which I award them the Teflon Tongue prize because Ryan and I both struggled mightily to get that down, it reminded me of Papa's stories of the fish oil that Babushka made him drink for health in Russia.
Of course, we didn't leave without a small scare. A little past halfway through the meal, my grip slipped and I dropped a frosty glass that shattered on the table. Everyone stopped and stared, Ryan informed me that I had fugu poisoning, and I could swear I felt the paralysis setting in. This was only exacerbated by Ken, who was Japanese but spent most of his life in the States, and was our translator of sorts. Ken was delightfully sarcastic and it really would have been delightful in any other case than him assuring me repeatedly that yes in fact I was fugu-poisoned and there may or may not be an antidote in my soy sauce.
As it turns out I was delightfully not, and we lived to likely do another stupid thing another day. Probably sooner than later that this rate, safe bet.

Moral of the story: Fugu doesn't kill people, people kill people.
Well, OK, fugu does as well.
As do rice cakes.
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Island Eye on

You have perfectly spent time...thanks for sharing your expressions.

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