Patchwork Yokohama
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
          sight.

          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
          totally alien.

          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
          like fugu?

          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."

          "Really?"

          "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
          an occasion.

          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
          hours earlier.


          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
          Matsumoto's.

          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
          obituary.