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Monday, 29 December 2014

A Journey to Toxin in Japan

Written by Ting Rao
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It is almost 5 o'clock in the morning while we are climbing down the hillock. Hundreds of stone paved stairs spread under our feet, leading way to the serene harbor where a hectic day starts with the first light of dawn. On top of the steep slope, avermillion painted torii, the gateway to a Shinto shrine, stands silent still among clumps of low bushes and shrubs; at the end of the winding path, facing directly to the Kanmon straits, the city of Shimonoseki is still sleeping soundly under the flimsy mist, yet the first groups of fishing boat has already begun to celebrate the triumphant return from the harvest. The crispy summer breeze from the sea brings up to us a fresh smell mixed with algae and brine. After a short promenade, nothing is more appealing than a hearty breakfast in the wharf.     


Karato seafood market opens on weekends and only early birds can get the best fishes: hundreds of people have already lined up in the predawn gloom patiently. Unlike its better-known rival, Tsukiji, the wholesale seafood market in Tokyo which attracts millions of visitors per year, Karato market is more notable among the locals and those travelling from the warmer south. Almost all are here for one secret reason, the grisly little fish, fugu, a lethally poisonous pufferfish which only the licensed chef can deal with after rigorous training. Some fascinated observers even claim that it is the tingling and numb feeling on the tongue by the toxin that one should chasse after.   Of course there are numerous high-end restaurants in Tokyo or Osaka where visitors can get nine courses of fugu-ryori elaborately prepared from skin to bone, but nothing is comparable with devouring the succulent fish in its more atmospheric origin place at a much more reasonable price --- the city itself has been nicknamed “the fugu capital” for centuries.    


The bustling market is ready for foodies when door opens: there are diligent stallholders setting up white tables with delicacies, proficient cooks packing piles of sashimi bento boxes, sullen fishermen in rubber aprons and clumsy boots washing large chunks of tuna. With a few hundred yens, we are able to snatch a full bag of piping-hot fried fugu ribs, a shallow box of paper-thin fugu sashimi nicely packed with a pinch of grated radish, and a tall cup of hot fugu soup loaded with succulent fish meat in light scallion broth. Sitting on the rough stools alongside the sea, we forget for a second, in the savory smell, all those frightening rumors about the notorious fish, and no one here seems to care either. In fact, toxicity becomes seductive and irresistible, and the idea of mortality adds a splash of glamour to it. Just like how the Japanese poet Yosa Buson describes the forbidden love in his Haiku:


I can’t see her tonight,

I have to give her up,

so I will eat fugu.



©Ting Rao

Last modified on Wednesday, 31 December 2014

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