A taste of forbidden sashimi in a dying Japanese whaling town
The New York Times Magazine
January 21, 2007
The flesh was red maroon almost and shot with sinew. Pinching it between my wooden chopsticks, I hesitated as the woman watched me and leered. Deep brown soy sauce and acid green wasabi clung to the limp piece of sashimi, giving it a rainbow cast. The woman's stare was still on me. Her eyes widened.
I popped the piece of raw whale into my mouth.
"Call the cops!" she shrieked, mock-horrified, in Japanese before bursting into laughter. "The American's eating whale!" I chewed the little piece of sea creature, which tasted half of fish, half of meat. It was delicious. And it was basically forbidden, which was why the little town around me was dying.
I'd come to Ayukawa, a sleepy burg at the end of a lonely peninsula in northeastern Japan, to give myself a break after researching a magazine article. Looking at a map in Matsushima, I saw a small town and an island off the coast of a peninsula not far away.
"Have you ever been to Ayukawa?" I asked the manager of my hotel as I checked out.
"It's a very quiet town," he said, handing me my receipt.
Perfect. I'd get there and then try for the island. Shouldering my backpack, I boarded a train to Ishinomaki and then a bus to Ayukawa. I'd missed the last ferry, but Ayukawa seemed agreeable enough, and "quiet" indeed.
Few souls stirred in the town as I caught a ride with a fishmonger to a hotel. As the sun set, we drove into the hills until we came to the large hotel an anomaly on the rocky, deserted shoreline. Quickly refreshed by the seaside atmosphere, I padded to the hotel restaurant for an early dinner.
There I met Tsuchiya-san. Her voice boomed over the bar and attracted the attention of the other guests. She eyed me and struck up a conversation.
"So you like Japan, eh?" she said, amused. I smiled. "How about Japanese food?" she asked.
"I like most of it," I replied.
"Wellll," she said, "how about some whale?"
Whale? Endangered, I thought. "It's good!" she said. I stammered. "Come on," she goaded, clapping her hands and ordering some whale sashimi.
Eating whale, the Japanese will tell you, is in their genes. Whale was a staple in the hard years following World War II, and even Gen. Douglas MacArthur praised its nutritional qualities. Not so today. Whaling has been all but banned in Japan for two decades, and the Japanese are permitted only a limited catch for "scientific research." Ayukawa was a thriving whaling town, people told me. But by the time I got there, it had withered and was banking simply on its oceanside location.
My plate arrived. As I stared at the thin cetacean cutlets before me, I felt as if I were the one being experimented on. But I didn't want to disappoint Tsuchiya-san. Perhaps more important, I wasn't able to resist the prohibited flesh from the watery Eden less than a mile away I was just too curious. As ambivalent as I felt, I had to admit: I really enjoyed my dinner.
Hitching a ride back to the bus station with the hotel manager the next morning, I told him how relaxing I'd found his place and how good the food was.
"Did you have some whale?" he asked.
"Yes, I did," I said. "And I have to say, it was pretty good."
"But I have to ask," I continued, "aren't you prohibited from catching them?"
He cleared his throat. "Those whales are outside the whaling convention."
"Outside," I said.
"Outside," he repeated.
My sashimi must have been caught for scientific purposes.
Back at the bus stop, I wandered over to a big, modern building that turned out to be the Oshika Whaleland Museum. Like much else that morning, it was closed.
"It's a ghost town here," groused Sakai-san, a woman I judged to be in her early 70s, as she served me tea in a trinket-shop-cum-luncheonette, where she and a woman my age hawked seaside memorabilia and pork-topped ramen.
"It's all America's fault," said Sakai-san, bemoaning the decimated whaling industry. "Though I shouldn't be saying that to you."
I tried my best to tell them America wasn't the only country against whaling. But it felt pointless to talk politics sitting there drinking green tea with those pleasant women. So I turned to Maki-san, the younger woman, and asked her about herself.
"Are you married?" I asked.
"Oh, yes," she said, nodding.
"Two," she said, holding her palm at her waist to indicate their heights.
"Where does your husband work?" I asked.
"Oh," she said, smiling, "he works a few towns away." Still smiling, she said: "I don't see him very much. How about you? Are you married?"
"Yes," I replied.
She paused. "I've heard that foreigners take good care of their wives." She wasn't smiling anymore.
"Um, yes, I try to," I said. Now I smiled. I must have looked uncomfortable. I began to glance around for my bus.
Soon enough it came. I said goodbye to my trinket-shop friends and boarded. Just as we were about to pull away, I saw Maki-san step delicately outside and lean against the wall. Her hands were clasped in front of her, and her eyes gazed down at the macadam parking lot. I glanced over at her, and she looked up and waved shyly.
At that moment I wanted to bound off the bus, hug her and tell her everything would be all right, that I hardly knew her but that I couldn't bear to see her lonely, that it would all work out.
I knew better. I was just like so many others. I was leaving Ayukawa, and I wasn't coming back.