Tokyo on One Cliché a Day

My Dinner With Willy
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Oct. 13 2003 2:37 PM

Tokyo on One Cliché a Day

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Today's slide show: Images from a whale meat restaurant.

Japan Cliché No. 1: Wacky Food

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson
Seth Stevenson, a regular contributor to Slate, spent two months in Tokyo on a media fellowship from the Japan Society.
The cute whale toy could be an appetite suppressant for some
The cute whale toy could be an appetite suppressant for some

If you visit Japan, you will no doubt come home with your own wacky food stories. Here's mine:

I ate whale today. Wacky! 

To answer your questions one at a time: Yes, whale is delicious. Yes, it is reasonably priced. Yes, it could use a little salt. No, I was not aware you are in a militant animal-rights group. No, I will not give you my home address once you've finished wiring that letter bomb.

I acknowledge that some of you may have minor moral qualms with eating whale. But honestly, I find it wholly defensible. Anyone who's eaten a burger has eaten mammal. Is there a difference between land mammal and sea mammal? To wit: Are whales cuter than cows? Perhaps, but this is a judgment call, and I vote cow. Of course, I still eat cow, too.

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I invite you: Come with me to a hip little whale joint in the center of Shibuya, one of Tokyo's neon-est nightspots. Tucked between boutiques selling thigh-high boots to 10-year-old schoolgirls, this small storefront looks like any other downtown restaurant … until you examine the plastic food on display in the window. Next to a tasty looking plate of bite-sized meats, there is an artfully placed whale figurine. This is the tip-off.

Inside, an elderly Japanese woman at the counter gets a bit edgy as gaijin (foreigners) walk through the door. Clearly, there have been misunderstandings in the past. No one likes to eat whale meat by accident. So her first words are slow and enunciated: "This is whale meat restaurant." She looks into my eyes for signs of recognition and acceptance and then hands across a menu in English. Fried whale meat. Boiled whale meat. Smoked whale meat. Whale meat sashimi. Whale meat sukiyaki. Baked whale meat with curry. Whale meat miso soup. Whale meat cutlet with cheese.

This is a lot of whale meat options. Also, there is no other meat here but whale.

We take seats at a bar overlooking the kitchen. At most Japanese restaurants, there are aquariums allowing you to observe and pick out the seafood you are about to eat. So I wonder for a moment if there is a giant, glass-walled tank somewhere in the back. The playful whales frolic, surface, spray water from blowholes, and then are scooped into massive nets as customers point with hungry smiles. But this seems not to actually exist.

On the walls are many beautiful paintings of whales. Oil paintings, lithographs, impressionistic watercolors. I suppose this is the equivalent of giant plastic cows at steakhouses. But far more elegant. There are also several identical posters hanging above the tables, each with a graphic of the Earth cut in half, with fish pouring out of this Earth into the open mouth of a giant cartoon whale. I am unable to explain this image. I would guess it advocates whale-eating, though.

Along with a couple of draft Sapporos, our whale dishes at last arrive. Dig in! Don't let your whale get cold! The whale steak is delicious. It tastes exactly like regular steak, except with the barest hint of a fishy aftertaste. I could eat whale steak every day. But the fried whale is less appetizing. Chewy. Fishy and chewy. Not enough breading and grease. But I'm thinking chicken-fried whale could be quite good.

OK, this is the point where you're wiring the letter bomb. But let's break it down. As I say, most of us already eat mammal, and I find it difficult to rank whales and cows in a hierarchy of edibleness. Hindus would likely chow whale first. So, if we stipulate—and this is under heavy argument—that these whales are not endangered (the Japanese say the minke whale population is, in fact, rising) and that the kill technique is no less humane (exploding harpoon to head versus iron bolt to head), then I don't think there's anything more wrong with eating Willy than eating Bessie. And look at the other tables in here—happy Japanese families bantering while they gnaw. Japanese children laughing as whale juice drips from their cherubic chins. It's hard to see how this could be evil. Remember, whale as food has a cultural history in Japan. After World War II, when protein was scarce, whale meat fed a generation of Japanese kids. One baby boomer friend here says whale meat was a treat in her Tokyo youth. "I love the whales," she said encouragingly when I told her I would be eating them.

But OK, I won't lie. Although morally I find this entirely justifiable, a few hours after my whale meal I'm feeling some remorse. And a little bit of nausea. I can feel the whale meat inside me. I looked online at some pictures of minke whales in the wild, and they were really cute. I bet they were smart, too, and loved to frolic, right up until a  harpoon exploded in their skull. Oh God, stop it, I'm going to puke up my whale!

But enough about whale. By far the most diabolical dish I've heard tale of here in Tokyo has nothing at all to do with whales. It seems that in some restaurants, they will put live baby eels in a large bowl of water with a big block of tofu at the bottom. The bowl is heated, and as they become uncomfortably hot, the baby eels burrow down into the cooler tofu. There they are cooked alive, and served like an olive loaf. Any discussion of evil cuisine begins and ends with this recipe.

Also, if you're still hung up on the whale, you should know that you can get horse sashimi here. I have not eaten horse sashimi, but if I do, I am planning this exchange:

I take a bite of horse, cough, clear throat, cough

Companion: "Something wrong with your throat?"

Me: "Just a little horse."

One final note on food: McDonald's has rolled out its new worldwide slogan here, "I'm Lovin' It!" Good slogan, but not perfect for the Japanese marketplace, as it often comes out, "I'm Rubbin' It!"

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