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Published: November 17th 2010
From outside the restaurant seems small and intimate, like the entrance to a house. A rectangular pond has been dug flat into the pavement. There are goldfish in it and little else- orange flames on the surface, flickering slowly over weeds. There is a fat stone slab for a bridge.
A Sushi menu hangs by the door. The writing is red; Japanese characters on laminated white. Some are black, and when you look closely the black ones are in fact scratchy drawings: big fish, small fish, eel, octopus, squid, shrimp, and a prawn.
I have to duck to get inside. The first room is dark and buzzing with excitement. From somewhere I can hear laughter- a roar, high pitched screams, clapping and singing. From the kitchen comes the hot waft of a deep fat fryer. I’m told by the woman at the door that if I come back in an hour a table will be free. She is very apologetic- embarrassed, even.
I walk through Nagasaki for an hour, half an hour and then back on myself, up through the entertainment district. Glass balls of light hang from the archways in threes. Sticks of blossom branch out from windows, some fake, some real, moulting into the gutters in pink and white. There are more restaurants, all full, and bars; they play elevator jazz at low volumes, a murmur behind the chit-chat of a cool city at the end of the week.
Smoking in an enclosed bar is acceptable, and in a complete reversal of British law, smoking on the street is illegal. As with many of Japan’s cultural differences, with time it makes perfect sense. Why pollute the freshness of the outside air with cigarette smoke?
An hour later and the restaurant is deceptively quiet. On the table are four lacquer bowls. On the far left is a congealed fist of rice. Next is miso soup, thin with a film of oil on the surface; you can smell the salt, feel the wetness of the steam. A pure white square of tofu has been cut to perfection, reassuringly familiar in comparison to the final object. It lurks partially submerged in shoyu sauce, somewhere between an onion ring and a tentacle. It has been further disguised by a layer of batter.
I eat the mysterious coil first. The texture is rubbery, and it squeaks in an unappetising way at the back of my jaw. Before I can taste past the shoyu I drown it in beer and swallow hard without thinking. Pieces of tuna, salmon and Japanese yellowtail are bought out: blood red, pink and grey-white respectively. Pea-sized balls of wasabi create the perfect contrast; mild flesh against unnatural green fluorescence, with a fierce after-kick of nasal heat.
Once you’ve overcome the natural shock factor of raw it’s hard to convert back to cooked. Raw is purity, unprocessed; the ultimate respect you can give to fresh seafood, caught only this morning in Nagasaki harbour.
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