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To Die For

I’d like to report that my fugu experience ended there, but it did not. Pickled ovaries are another esoteric fugu specialty (they’re only edible if soaked in salt for long periods), but mercifully, Chef Hashimoto is out of them tonight. Instead, we are presented with cups of warm sake infused with smoked fugu tails (“like a warm sardine milk shake,” according to my notes), an acquired taste even Shinji can’t seem to stomach. The final course, fugu-nabe, is a kind of porridge, made at the table with the remnants of the fish, including the tail, the spine, and the eyeless skull. After the neurotic drama of the early courses, the comforting stew is designed to calm the nerves, and it also gives Mr. Hashimoto a chance to display his skills as cook. He adds watercress and rice to a bubbling clay pot at our table, then breaks an egg into it. He scatters the steamy mixture with cabbage and fresh chives, then ladles it into white porcelain bowls.

The porridge is aromatic and subtly flavored, the perfect antidote for a rainy night. Shinji grins his merry grin. He likes this place; he might even bring his girlfriend here, he says. And gradually, as we sip our warm fugu-nabe, the jangling phantom-shibireru sensation I’ve been experiencing gives way to a peaceful, post-adrenaline calm.

I drink a cup of green tea, and we call for the check. Outside the restaurant, the rain has stopped, and the people of Sumida are out in the streets again. We thank Hashimoto and walk back to Shinji’s car, past a flower store and a tailor sewing an elaborate silk kimono in the window of his shop. After a memorable dinner, the usual emotions are contentment, pleasure, and, on rare occasions, even delight. But this was something different. Is the notorious Japanese fugu worth dying for? Of course not. Is it worth eating? That depends on your point of view. In my professional opinion, there are plenty of things that taste better than blowfish. But with fugu, perhaps, taste is not the point. Now that my meal is over, I feel like I’ve finished the culinary equivalent of bungee jumping, or shooting class-V rapids in an inner tube. My primary emotion isn’t excitement, or even satisfaction; it’s relief. Maybe it’s the sake, or the four bottles of beer, but somehow, after my brush with mortality, everything looks fresher, more vivid, a little more alive.

“Congratulations, you’re not dead yet,” says Shinji, as we drive back to my hotel on the freeway, gliding over the rooftops of the city. For a minute or two, we drive along in a peaceful, even pleasant silence.

Then an idea occurs to me. “I’m hungry,” I say. “Let’s go get some dessert.”