April 5, 1999
As some of you might know, the globe fish, sometimes known as the puffer fish, has one of the most deadly poisons known to man. Women may know some worse ones, but I can't speak for them. It is also covered with spikes which are very painful when touched. In Japan this fish is called Fugu (not to be confused with Fuku, the afore- (and oft-) mentioned word of many meanings), and it is an expensive delicacy that people make a point of not being afraid of eating. It is considered rude to hesitate or worry in front of the chef, because that is insulting his or her skills. In truth, the chefs who prepare Fugu are extremely well trained, and no one to whom I have spoken has ever heard of a case of Fugu poisoning. This is pretty amazing, considering that the tiniest amount of this poison can kill a person in a matter of hours.
So I learned about potentially life-threatening cuisine and what did I do? I mentioned to the head of the board of education (called "Kacho," or chief -- the same one with whom I had such serious discussions about the discipline problems) that I had never tried Fugu fish, and I asked where in Kiryu I could find some. He immediately suggested a place, and asked when I wanted to go. I had forgotten that asking about something in Japan is a polite way to ask someone to take you there. I hadn't meant that, but OK. So, last Wednesday he took me to the restaurant, where he happens to know the proprietor (literally "Masta"). I was then served Fugu fish in at least 6 different forms. First, there was thinly sliced raw Fugu fish (sashimi), then the tough outer layer of skin, boiled to make it edible, then boiled Fugu still on the bones that you are supposed to pick up ad eat like chicken, then the third layer of epidermis (I'm not kidding), which has to separated from the spikes with the utmost care. So, that's right, I ate one of the most poisonous and potentially painful things on earth in every way possible, and lived to tell about it.
The Masta really liked me because I liked whatever he put in front of me, so he started to give me a taste of everything he was making, which is when the really memorable event happened. This is a little bit gruesome, so if you are squeamish you might want to skip this paragraph. First, he reached into a fish tank, took out a live fish, and stabbed it with a knife in such as way as to immobilize it without killing it. Then, he sliced off the meat from each side of the fish without touching any of the internal organs, again leaving the fish alive and breathing on the cutting board. It was extremely impressive. The cutting board, I should mention, was about two feet from me (I was sitting at the counter). Then, he sliced the skin off of the flesh, and thinly sliced the flesh itself into sashimi-sized pieces. Then, he gave me some. Please allow me to repeat that the fish in question was still breathing. And I think it was looking at me. But, I took a deep breath and ate the sashimi. The Masta smiled. Then, he killed the fish. And if truth be told, it was damn good sashimi. And fresh.
I have heard similar anecdotes from friends, family, and guidebooks, but they always struck me as improbable. Now I know that people actually do that. In any event, the Kacho wouldn't let me pay for any of it; since he had asked me to join him, I was his guest, even thought it was my suggestion in the first place. This is normal Japanese custom, but in this case I mention it because I know that Fugu is very, very expensive.
Anyway, after Fugu two guys who were sitting next to us at the restaurant invited me and the Kacho out to a special kind of bar called a Snack (it was also at this point that the Kacho, using one of his few English phrases, said "Let's go bar hopping"). A Snack (pronounced snah-koo) is sort of a bar, but sort of different. Like in a bar, you are expected to order expensive alcoholic drinks. In a Snack, however, attractive young Japanese women in short skirts sit down next to you, pour your drink for you, laugh at your jokes, and try to make your evening more enjoyable. But there is nothing sexual about it (except for the innuendo). No physical contact is expected, although I have been told that a hand on the leg (of either party) is not unusual. It was a bit weird, actually, especially for me, since they couldn't even understand my jokes, let alone laugh at them. Fortunately, there is a Japanese invention specifically invented for such potentially uncomfortable situations -- karaoke. The Kacho sang a few songs, I sang a few songs (Beatles, Paul Simon, and Elvis, in case you are curious), and after about an hour we left. The two guys who invited us wouldn't let us pay for anything, of course, since we had been their guests. I have been told that half an hour in one of these establishments can cost $50 or more, so again this was a welcome offer.
My Kacho and I then went to another bar and then a sandwich shop, which is normal for this kind of evening. After nearly every event there is an after party, an after-after party, and then some food. We had a great time, though, and I didn't even have a hangover the next day. Which is a good thing, since it was a work day.
OK, now the "Flowers" part. Right now it is cherry blossom season in Japan, which a serious event. For about two weeks in the spring every cherry tree in Japan is in full bloom, and there are a lot of them. It is truly beautiful. There is even a special name for going out and looking at the flowers -- "Hanami" (hana means flower). People sit on blankets underneath the beauty and drown their sorrows in sake. Actually, the second part of that applies to just about every event in Japan.
There is also a night variation in which people go out after dark, shine lights on the flowers, then sit on blankets underneath the beauty and drown their sorrows in sake. You're beginning to see a pattern, aren't you? I went to one these night flower viewings last Sunday night and it was a good experience. There were food stalls to serve the drunks, I mean the flower watchers, and the blinding lights illuminated the flowers not too subtly, and it was cool.
Actually, while I have a tendency towards mockery (NO!!), you really have to see the plethora of cherry blooms here to believe it. It is absolutely spectacular. I mean, let's dig into the thesaurus a bit, shall we? It's sensational, fabulous, marvelous, thrilling, magnificent, splendid, gorgeous; it's an extravaganza, a gala, a veritable pageant of beauty!
Well, like I said, I do have a tendency towards mockery. But when all is said and done, the cherry blossoms are still pretty damn cool. But they don't taste like cherries. Trust me on that one.
OK, I know y'all are just itching to get back to your real lives, but I just want to add one note regarding a previous email. Somebody out there DOES know all the words (well, almost all the words) to America the Beautiful, and I'm damn impressed (and believe it or not, this is NOT another example of my mocking tendency). Kudos go to Allison, a better patriot than any of us. But I still say it's more fun to teach drunk Asians to sing about beer than about America. At least they like beer.