Shimonoseki is Japan’s fugu town. You've probably heard about fugu – it’s the fish that nearly killed Homer Simpson (after his long dark night of the soul, Marge only knew he was alive because his dribble was still warm), famous for a deadly neurotoxin secreted by its liver and various other body parts, and many times more poisonous than cyanide.
Sushi chefs have to have a special license to be able to prepare the fish and have to keep the poisonous bits in a locked box, following some unfortunate incidents a few years back when homeless people rummaged in restaurant bins and discovered what they thought were harmless fresh fish innards.
(Just minding their own business, not poisoning anyone or nothing.)
Even today a dozen or so people die every year in Japan from accidentally, or deliberately, ingesting the nasty bits of this, rather comedic-looking puffer fish (there is a whole school of thought that says fugu toxin is a great natural high, said to make your mouth go numb and, in larger doses, to induce a pleasant kind of coma, so, unbelievably, some nincompoops actually taste it deliberately).
Every year Shimonoseki, at the very western tip of Honshu island (Japan's 'main' island) holds a festival in celebration of this singular fish and I was lucky enough – and it was entirely luck, I had no idea that the one Saturday in October I decided to visit would be that day – to witness this fugu orgy myself.
Shimonseki’s wealth, such as it is (or, rather, isn't) is based almost entirely on the wild and farmed harvest of fugu. They celebrate the fish in much the same way as Memphis celebrates Elvis or Liverpool celebrates that other band, what's their name…?The material that covers the town’s bus seats is printed in a fugu fish pattern; every souvenir shop sells dried fugu fins (traditionally eaten with sake) and cuddly fugus; and, on the day I visited, there was a giant inflatable fugu down by the harbourside fish market, alongside the permanent statue of an inflated fugu.
The festival was held in the fish market itself. There were large tanks of live fugu which children were invited to try and catch. Once hooked, the fugu were whisked away to a back room. I sneakily followed one into the room and there witnessed a fairly gruesome sight: live fugu having their faces hacked off, their skin removed, their poisonous organs scooped out, and their flesh chopped into chunks, while they were still very much alive. Each of these highly skilled fishmongers completed this task in less than half a minute, dumping the iffy bits in a bucket by the side of their table (so much for a locked box).
Witnessing this, a strange compulsion overtook me. Smiling and nodding to the fishmongers, who were indifferent to my presence, I sauntered around their table to where the ‘poison bucket’ lay. Pretending to tie up my shoelaces, I knelt down beside the bucket, gripped by an overwhelming desire just to taste the tiniest bit of fugu toxin, you know, just enough to get my tongue tingling… and… one of the fishmongers, spotting what I was up to, waggled his finger at me.
I made to stand up, but quickly knelt down again and before he could see, touched a bit of the gunk in the bucket and licked my finger.
I stood up quickly. Still nothing. Pah! Poison? What poison? Then, suddenly, the world began to go all swimmy. My mouth went dry – one of the first signs of fugu poisoning. Oh shit, what had I done? What kind of an idiot would intentionally taste fugu guts? This was it. How would I be able to communicate the urgent need to whisk me to a high quality emergency ward in time for a blood transfusion and liver transplant?
Then, almost as quickly, the swimmy sensation subsided. It was probably because I had stood up too quickly.
Undeterred, I went back out into the main hall where the most incredible array of sushi and sashimi was on sale at various stalls. I bought a plate of fugu sashimi, beautifully laid out in a classic petal formation with a dollop of some kind of spicy sauce on the side. Rather disappointingly, it didn’t taste of much, like a bland, rather rubbery tai (bream) sashimi. No wonder they sold it with a spicy sauce. The deep fried fugu fillets were far better. Indeed, following a lifetime's empirical research spent eating battered and fried British fish and chips, I concluded that this is perhaps the ultimate deep frying fish, better than cod, preferable even to turbot.
After that, as the only Westerner in the hall, I felt it rude not to sample as much of the other food on offer and spent a good hour or so tasting my way through the various stalls' wares.
(This is the dried fugu fin stall… mmmm, no?)
(Dried whale meat anyone? No? Please yourselves…).
(Some kind of fancy fugu dumplings).
(A denuded fugu. That'll learn 'em to be so toxic).
(Scallops like you wouldn't believe!)
By the end of it, I actually did have rather uncomfortable stomach pains. My own sheer greed had succeeded where fugu poison had failed.