Three days into this journey, I began to grow seriously concerned about the structural integrity of my waistband. And the day after that, I resigned myself to a bleak future of dieting, possibly culminating in liposuction. And all this from letting my wife plan the trip.
You see, travel in Japan is all about food.
Where you or I might plan a trip around historical sites, or art collections, or adventures, the Japanese dot their map with dishes. All talk is of regional delicacies: a particular sort of tiny river fish here, or a type of red bean and mochi dessert there. And it was all I could do to encourage my digestive piping to keep up.
The tone was set on our very first day of travel.
We landed at Tokyo Narita after a pleasant 12 hour flight via Istanbul. And we were up early the next morning for a long train ride to Western Japan, and the start of what would be a week of exploring some previously untouched travel territory.
“We’re going to be eating what?” I asked as we rocketed towards Hiroshima at 300 kph.
“An entire dinner based around fugu,” Tomoko replied.
In case you haven’t heard of this fish, it kills on average 6 people every year in Japan and poisons 20 to 44. Not in the water, but on the dinner plate. It is the only food the Emperor of Japan is forbidden to eat, for his safety.
The organs of the fugu contain a deadly poison called tetrodotoxin. It’s 1,200 times stronger than cyanide, and causes paralysis of the diaphragm and eventual respiratory failure, all while the victim is fully conscious.
Of course, this fish is a delicacy. Why wouldn’t it be?
Specially trained fugu chefs undergo at least 3 years of vigorous training before qualifying for a license which enables them to prepare it. The liver is said to be especially tasty, and so poisonous that Japan banned the serving of it entirely in 1984.
We had been invited for dinner by a friend of my wife’s parents, and she was planning to serve us Slow Death by Suffocation.
Was I wrong in assuming my in-laws liked me?
I had my introduction to this bloated killer at a tiny fugu restaurant in the city of Higashi-Hiroshima, about 30 minutes by local train from Hiroshima’s main station.
We started what could very well be our last supper with individual plates of fugu sashimi: delicate, translucent slices of raw fish, which we carefully wrapped around a few sprigs of green onion before dipping the corner in soya sauce and allowing the flesh to dissolve on our tongues.
Okay, that was a pretty good start. The fish itself didn’t have much flavour. It was light and lean, without any oiliness. And I didn’t feel my lips tingling with imminent paralysis, either. The meal seemed to be as much about the texture of the fish prepared in a variety of ways as it was about the taste.
Next, we were served a plate of sushi and sashimi, which included Shirako (the soft white milt or roe — ie. fish eggs — of the fugu). I wasn’t such a big fan of that one, but it wasn’t as bad as it sounds. We also had Kawa-sashi — fugu skin sashimi, which had a nice crunchy, jelly-like texture, a bit like raw jellyfish.
From there we moved on to Fugu Kara-age, which is thicker slices of the fish deep fried with a light batter. This was very good, lightly salted and crispy, with the batter in the oil complimenting and filling out the taste of the extremely lean fish.
Finally, the last course was Fugu-chiri. This was a stew of vegetables and thicker slices of fugu, cooked on a small gas burner at our table. With this one, the very light flavour of the fish was difficult to separate from the vegetables and dip. When the soup was finished, rice was added to the broth, along with any leftover pieces of fish, to form a warm porridge. It was the perfect note on which to end our meal.
Oh, and you’re probably wondering what we had to drink…
Yes, that involved fugu too. We sipped a concoction called Hire-zake, which is just a nice cup of warm sake with a fish fin in it. The fin has been dried and baked, and it’s left in the cup to add a strong, slightly smokey fish taste.
I’m told that the sake of the region is famous due to the slightly hard quality of the water used in its production — whereas in other regions, it tends to be the quality of the rice itself which makes a sake noteworthy. This hard local water seems to bring out the best in the rice.
So yeah, that was it. My first taste of the famous Japanese puffer fish, and probably not my last.
Despite my initial survival-related misgivings, dinner was excellent and I’m still alive. I’m not sure whether I should chalk that up to the skill of the chef, or to a double sighting of Doctor Yellow earlier that day.
Voice from another room: “Doctor what…?”
Yeah, I had no idea either.
We were standing on the platform of Shirakawa station waiting for our sleek N700 Series bullet train to slide up, when an announcement cut in. “Photographers please stand back from the edge,” it said, “and if you’re taking pictures, don’t lean over the gate.”
Of course the announcement was in Japanese, and that’s my rough translation. We barely had time to register what it said when a canary yellow bullet train rolled in, and every single person on the platform — with the exception of me and my wife — dropped their luggage, whipped out a mobile phone or full SLR camera, and started snapping photos like paparazzi at the back door of a boy band concert.
“What the hell is that all about?” I said.
“I don’t know,” she replied. “A celebrity, maybe?”
We were assuming someone famous was hiding out behind the lowered window shades. But no, this train itself was the celebrity. I only found out later that night that we had been standing in the presence of greatness.
There is only one Dr. Yellow. From the outside it’s just like all the other bullet trains, except for it’s vivid colour. But it plays a crucial role in a country that sees earthquakes on average every 5 minutes. This special train’s 7 carriages are packed with state-of-the-art diagnostic equipment which assess track conditions and spot deviations down to a level of 0.1mm, all while cruising the Tokaido line at speeds of up to 270 kph.
Dr. Yellow been described as “rare”, “mythical”, and “legendary”. And when Japan Rail held a lottery in 2014 to give 200 people a chance to get up close and personal with this canary-coloured hero, 45,000 pairs of people applied.
Doctor Yellow runs down the tracks once every 10 days or so, and his timetable is not disclosed in advance. Because of this, rail fans — of which there are many in Japan — believe that a chance encounter with him is good luck.
But of course we didn’t know any of this at the time. We were just bewildered bystanders, more interested in the frenzied behaviour of the fully grown adults around us than we were in the actual train.
Before we could even snap a photo, the Doctor slid silently into the distance, no doubt thinking deep thoughts about safety, track widths, and overhead wires.
And we got on our train too, and hurtled down the tracks at 300 kph for our appointment with the deadliest fish on a dinner plate.