Saturday, November 13, 2010

Surviving Fugu, Ginza, a German Beer Hall, and a long night in Tokyo

Our return from Nikko was uneventful, save for a ride on the bullet train from Utsunomiya into Tokyo.  The Japanese trains are clean and on time, and the bullet train rocketed through the countryside and dropped us downtown in no time at all.  We returned to the Hyatt to prepare for dinner at a restaurant specializing in the traditional preparation of Fugu, or puffer fish.  The fish has a neurotoxin in its system and, if prepared improperly, can result in what witnesses describe as a painful-looking death.  There are no first hand accounts because no one has ever survived a dose of this lethal little problem.

Hunter and I were given our own small room for the dinner, and a waiter who spoke some English took care of the meal.  He wore a kimono and helpfully explained each course and how it should be consumed.  The first course was Fugu sashimi accompanied by a mound of thin shreds of Fugu skin, served with red and green peppers, soy sauce with vinegar, and salt.  The taste of the sashimi was mild and the texture slightly firm.

The second course consisted of seaweed boiled in water with fresh chunks of Fugu added to the roil.  A thick foam appeared atop the water and was scooped away by the waiter.  He then added leek, Chinese cabbage, and mushroom to the mix.  The meat, sliced about three-quarters of an inch thick, had been cut so that it was still attached to the spine.  We were given a bowl for bones and dug in.  The taste and texture reminded me of monkfish.  My mouth and lips did not experience any tingling sensation, contrary to reports I had heard of what to expect.

The third course was prepared when bean curd and rice noodles were added to the broth with the remaining fish.  Some quarter-sized remnants of skin remained on a few of the fish pieces and we liked neither the taste nor texture.  It seemed like I was chewing on a piece of rubber flavored with fish oil.

The final course was prepared when rice was added to the now-fishless broth.  A shot of sake was poured in, together with salt, a sticky rice cake, and egg yolk.  The mixture thickened and was ladled into a bowl, then topped with sprinkled leeks and a bit of soy sauce.  The concoction had the rich taste of egg with the tang of soy.

Our final conclusion:  an enjoyable experience, but not one to try a second time.  Monkfish will do quite nicely, thank you, and without that pesky threat of lingering neurotoxins.

The next day, Saturday, we went to the Sensoji Temple and the warren of shops jammed into the nearby Nakamise bazaar.  We had visited this complex on a prior trip, but that had been during the week and in the morning.  I had no idea that a weekend would bring out a crowd that was literally shoulder-to-shoulder for blocks on end or, given our height, more like shoulder-to-rib cage for Hunter and me.  We moved with the herd for a while, but decided to retreat to Ginza for lunch and shopping.  Our lunch stop was a treat:  The Lion Beer Hall.

Built sometime in the 1930's, the Lion Beer Hall is a Tokyo institution that was built to resemble an European style beer garden.  We ate on the third of three stories for the Lion, enjoying pints of Japanese beer served in unique boot-shaped mugs.  Dark wood paneling was the order of the day, with a large central dining area surrounded by private rooms.  We learned that the Lion had needed to be relocated approximately 15 years ago and was dismantled and reconstructed, piece by piece, at its current location. 

We visited a few of the high-end shops in Ginza, amazed at its resemblance to New York's Fifth Avenue, and returned to the hotel to await our second night on the town with the good people from Bespoke Tokyo.

Our first host from Bespoke, Charlie, was not feeling well and sent his associate, Hikari, to escort us for another night on the town.  Hikari, a Japanese-American who has now lived in Tokyo for several years, was a terrific host.  We visited some extremely unique bars, including one modeled on an European cafe and specializing in absinthe. The food all night was great, including platters of terrific sashimi and a variety of succulent yakitori.  Cold sake flowed freely, as did the time, and we ended the evening in a late-night noodle establishment debating the structure and ethics of the current world order.  Before the evening drew to a close we had solved most, if not all, of the world's problems. 

We depart tomorrow for the states and, while certainly ready to return to Cleveland, I value the time spent in Japan.  I'll reflect on what has been seen, what has been learned, and write a final post when we're back in the blur of snow and the comforts of home.

1 comment:

  1. Michael, This has been a fabulous travel log. I have followed you from the Sept. beginning and have enjoyed your descriptions and writing skills which made it even more interesting than the places you visited. Thanks for doing this. Hope you recover soon and enjoy the holidays back here in the states.

    George Morris