9. Fishy Yokohama
by Pencil Louis
Vince had never been much of a fisherman. Indeed, he found
the sport quite boring ... and, although never much of an
animal liberationist, he considered it very cruel to the
fish. This did not mean that he hadn't been on his share of
fishing trips. Fishing trips often meant a nice drive in the
country and a chance to down a few stubbies with the boys.
The only remotely tedious part was actually baiting a hook
and dropping it into the water. After a few drinks, most of
the company had forgotten about fishing in particular and
seafood in general.
Even as a casual observer, Vince had seen a fair number of
globe fish, blow fish, guppies or whatever you wanted to
call them. They were hooked, pulled in and then thrown back.
Apart from being the ugliest fish that he had ever seen, he
was assured that they were poisonous. They looked as if they
had a severe case of acne and they would be so puffed up
with air that they would float on the surface of the water
for a number of minutes before pitching and sinking out of
It was a fair bet that Vince's friends, the Matsumotos and
the Atsukawas, had never seen a live globe fish or fugu as
they called them. Yet, every year, for their end of year
bonenkai celebrations, they ordered some through the postal
order system. Vince could never get used to the idea of
posting food, not since a West German friend had once posted
him a pizza from his favourite pizzeria in an envelope
specially padded with bubble plastic. It had arrived five
days and 700 kilometres later and Vince hadn't even looked
in the package before depositing it in the bin.
He had seen the special omiyage order forms at every post
office. These were for special presents at Obon time in
August, Oseibo time at New Year, and St. Valentine's Day in
February. Polite present givers always made sure that what
they gave was consumable and this usually meant food. You
could post coffee, tea, soba noodles, crab, pickles, beef,
fish of all kinds including fugu, and numerous other items
at any time of the year.
To their credit, both the Matsumotos and the Atsukawas did
forewarn Vince that fugu was poisonous and that the cutting
of such a fish had to be done by an expert. They made a
great drama of how you were in fact challenging death when
you ate fugu.
Vince, however, had done a little research of his own and
was well aware that the only parts of the fugu that were
actually poisonous were the liver and the ovaries. The
testes of the male fish were also poisonous, although they
supposedly acted as a powerful aphrodisiac if you survived.
He had also read somewhere that fugu was only poisonous
because it consumed a special type of seaweed. Under such
circumstances, Vince was only too happy to eat some. He
delighted in trying new dishes and was especially proud of
his ability to stomach anything whether it be exotic or
If someone had told Vince to eat nails or light bulbs, he
would have probably done it. During any number of visits to
various restaurants, he had been the only person present
game to eat snails, frogs' legs, rocky mountain oysters,
haggis and the worm in the bottle of tequila. Even before he
came to Japan, he had enjoyed many plates of sushi and
sashimi and soon after he arriving in the country, he had
tried shirako (sperm of the red schnapper), chicken brains,
hachi (bees), cactus steak (Saboten) and inago (honeyed
grasshopper). Why would he worry about a Japanese delicacy
Connie, on the other hand, was a most pernicketty eater. It
had taken twelve years for her to agree to taste-test her
first Big Mac. As Vince had noted many, many times, she ate
more with her eyes than with her mouth, tasted more with her
imagination than with her taste buds. The day he had
suggested that she try natto had almost ended in divorce.
She claimed that it looked just like frozen rabbit diarrhoea
and that she would never eat anything that looked vaguely
like frozen rabbit diarrhoea, thank you very much. She
thought that tokaroten, an arrowroot jelly, which was one of
Vince's favourites, looked like transparent worms and that
sashimi bore a hideous resemblance to raw fish.
While Connie was totally unadventurous in any culinary
sense, she did have a strong social conscience and could
never bring herself to tell anyone apart from her husband
that the food over which they had slaved the afternoon away
was horrible. At dinner parties, she would nibble her way
around the edges without really tasting it and state quietly
that it was not her cup of tea.
Fugu presented her with no problems. She had been there when
it arrived encased in polystyrene and dry ice. She actually
helped in its preparation and felt no moral pangs when
declining even the slightest nibble. After all, Connie came
from a family of expert anglers. She had once wrestled a
marlin out of the waters off the coast of North Queensland.
She knew what a guppy was when she saw one - a
hideous-looking, goblin-like fish that might well have been
made out of rubber or worse, coagulated porridge. Even if it
hadn't been poisonous, she would never have eaten it. A
fugu, even on a good day, reminded her of nothing so much as
a face full of pimples abounding with puss, not that she
would have ever have repeated such a comparison in company.
Connie prepared herself an omelette while the others enjoyed
pre-dinner drinks. Vince had already had four beers by the
time the first course arrived. Fugu sashimi had a milky
transparency. He found the raw fish rather grainy and
sticky. Osamu noticed it too and apologised:
"Ah, it's not fresh. It was caught more than a day ago."
"Of course, it's difficult. It comes all the way from
Yamaguchi prefecture and the post office won't deliver it on
a Sunday, so we have to get it delivered on the Saturday."
"Oh well, it tastes pretty good to me," Vince held up his
glass of beer. "And if it doesn't, we can always wash it
down with some more of this."
"Which reminds me," Osamu leapt lightly from his haunches to
his feet. "Let's have some fugu sake."
Fugu sake turned out to be atakai or heated and garnished
with the fin of the fugu. It arrived along just as a
steaming pot of vegetables in the middle of the table came
to the boil and Nozomi stirred in some of the chopped fish
to make fugu chanko. This was soon ready and was a lot
tastier than the sashimi. Vince found himself wondering why
the poor old guppy had been so maligned. He even thought of
tempting Connie with some, but thought better of it.
The final dish of the evening was the fried skin of the
fugu, which certainly was a vast improvement on the Kentaki
that had been the centre piece of the first meal he'd had
with the Atsukawas. They had reasoned that since he was not
Japanese, he would have difficulty coping with a full
Japanese meal and so had bought some fried chicken on the
way home. The fried fugu was succeeded by a glass of whisky.
And then, Osamu, rather flushed in the face, brought out a
bottle of Chivas Regal and Mr. Matsumoto produced a bottle
of wormless tequila which he had been saving for just such
Somewhere around 2:30 a.m., Connie helped Vince back up four
flights of stairs to their own flat. She was grateful on two
counts. Vince could still stand up if only a little and that
the Matsumoto's apartment was only floors below their own.
Vince was very talkative on the way up. He was still holding
a conversation with Mr. Matsumoto, who had just passed out
on the tatami floor. Osamu had fallen asleep more than two
Once inside, Vince realised just how drunk he was and
proceeded to tell Connie if not the whole neighbourhood in a
very loud voice that he was very pissed indeed. If he was
asleep before his head hit the pillow, it was probably
because he had really been sleep walking up from the
Vince would have been the first to admit that he who lived
by the bottle often died by the bottle. However, like so
many confirmed drinkers, he could never hold the alcohol
itself accountable. It could well have been the bottle's
fault but not its contents. It was never the beer that gave
him headaches. No, the potato chips must have been off. It
couldn't have been the bourbon either, there must have been
something in the water, some bacteria that the bourbon had
failed to kill. In fact, he might conclude that he would
have died of cholera had it not been for the trusty bourbon.
Thus, when Vince woke up at 6 o'clock in the morning and
found his head spinning inside a toilet bowl, every joint
and nerve ending in his body pulsating to the tune of
Ravel's Bolero, his stomach as well as its contents coming
up out of his mouth, then he jumped to the only conclusion
he could. It was fugu poisoning. Somehow, he'd digested a
piece of liver or ovary and he was going to die.
Actually, Vince didn't die. It did take him more than a week
to come to terms with his own survival and three months to
even look at another bottle of Chivas Regal. He might have
recovered even sooner had it not been for a newspaper
article three days after the fugu night. Two men from
Fukuoka prefecture had been rushed to hospital with fugu
poisoning, but had later died. Tears filled his eyes. Here
he had survived seventy-two hours and he was reading his own