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To Die For

Despite these precautions, “accidents,” the euphemism fugu professionals tend to use when discussing the perils of their trade, still happen. According to the Bureau of Social Welfare and Public Health in Tokyo, 315 cases of poison by fugu were reported between 1996 and 2005 in Japan, 31 of which were fatal. Most victims were fishermen engaging in Russian-roulette-style bouts of fugu consumption, or amateur cooks who were trying to duplicate cooking demonstrations they’d seen on TV. The most notorious death by fugu was in Kyoto, in January 1975, when a Kabuki actor named Mitsugoro Bando VIII overdosed on the fish’s deadly liver. Chefs are now prohibited from serving fugu liver, but the pushy Bando is said to have demanded the delicacy, eaten four servings, and died.

At Mukoujima Hashimoto, I take off my shoes and attempt, with a kind of origami delicateness, to fold my giant lumberjack frame into one of the tiny tables. Except for Shinji and myself, the room remains ominously deserted. A cooking show flickers silently on the old TV: Antic Tokyo starlets are learning to cook from a dour gentleman wearing a tall chef’s hat.

“Where the hell is everybody?” I whisper to Shinji.

“Maybe it’s the rain,” he replies. “Or maybe Chef Hashimoto has killed them.”

My interpreter grins a merry grin. Shinji is a food writer and former law student who specializes in guiding jet-lagged foreigners on exotic culinary pilgrimages around Tokyo. He is also something of a fugu promoter, having introduced Anthony Bourdain to the dish when the nomad chef came through town for his TV show. Like most Japanese, Shinji says fugu is generally safe, and he likes to poke fun at what he considers the hysterical foreign caricature of the dish. “We don’t think about the poison,” he says. Fugu’s appeal, he believes, stems from a different primal force. “It’s seasonal, it’s ceremonial, and it’s expensive, so you can impress the girls.”

As we wait for our first course, I ask Shinji how Bourdain handled his fugu ordeal. The chef ate his fugu with gusto, Shinji says, although Shinji had suspicions that the fish they’d been served was actually raised in a cage and therefore possibly not so dangerous after all (because they’re raised in a controlled environment, on a controlled diet, farmed fugu are believed by some people to be less lethal than fresh-caught).

“Bourdain wasn’t ever going to die?!”

“I don’t know,” he says with smile. “Maybe not.”

But Shinji is certain about the potential deadliness of my dinner. We’d spent the day touring fugu establishments around Tokyo, and he’d been on his cell phone the whole time, searching the city for the last lethal fish of the season. He’d never met Hashimoto before tonight, or even heard of his little restaurant, but now that he’s found his tiger fugu, he’s a happy man. “I suppose if someone wanted to murder you, they would bring you here,” he says, between sips of sake. “We are in a strange neighborhood, you are far from home, there are no witnesses, and nobody knows you are here. It’s the perfect situation!”

In Tokyo, there are mass-marketed fugu chain restaurants and elite, ceremonial ones, like Ajiman, in Roppongi, where the multicourse omakase dinner can cost $450 per person. At Mukoujima Hashimoto, the elaborate “All Natural” prix fixe option costs a relatively modest $150. But at the chef’s suggestion, we order a six-course, à la carte, greatest-hits menu, one that includes fugu sashimi (fugu-sashi), fried fugu ribs (fugu kara-age), smoked fugu fins in sake (fugu hire-zake), hot fugu porridge (fugu-nabe), and the fugu sperm sac (shira-ko), which will be served two ways, raw and lightly grilled.

According to my already unsteady notes, the first course of our fugu dinner begins at precisely 8:13 p.m. In accordance with fugu custom, Hashimoto has sliced the precious shreds of fish so thin that you can see the blue-and-white patterns on the china plate underneath. The fish has been arranged in concentric circles to resemble a chrysanthemum, which, as Shinji happily explains, is the funeral flower of Japan. Shinji begins to eat. I ceremoniously drain another glass of sake, then take my first hesitant bite of the raw fish. Hashimoto’s fugu indeed has a certain clean sashimi quality to it, and a resilient chewiness, but otherwise it’s a letdown. It tastes flavorless and gummy, like a cross between Reichl’s fluke and day-old squid.

For a second or two, I begin to relax. I’m feeling a little smug, even. This is the legendary fugu? This is the dish that poets and emperors have risked their lives over the centuries to eat? It’s one of the most boring, most tedious, most un-fishy fish I’ve ever tasted. If there’s any poison, I can’t taste that either, and the tremulous heart palpitations and gathering dread that have been building since early this morning begin to melt away. Hashimoto is watching, so I dip more of the fish in the ponzu sauce and chew it, politely nodding and grinning to show my appreciation.