It was a late evening in Tokyo. Heavy clouds wrapped the city in a grey robe and the darkness intensified the dullness. All we needed was a warm, cozy shelter to enjoy some good food. Luckily, the least problem in Tokyo is to find a restaurant and a couple of minutes later, there it was – a small one, just in front of us. The light was beaming timidly through its windows, inviting us to leave a tiny, dark street behind our back. It didn’t matter to us that the menu was only in Japanese and that we couldn’t speak a word of it. It didn’t matter to us that waiters couldn’t speak English, either. Moreover, we didn’t expect this dinner to become a story we would remember for goods.
As we plunged into big, soft cushions, a waiter dressed in white bowed, we happily pointed to some Kanji letters beneath a nice photo of a sashimi plate and, immersed in a funny conversation, waited for yet another delicious Japanese meal. Shortly after, our kind waiter placed a plate, decorated with style, in front of us and bowed with a proud smile. We were everything, but ready for what we would see. On the other hand, our waiter was, probably, everything, but ready for my reaction.
If you were a waiter, would you expect a woman to cover her face with a menu and start ‘crying’ after seeing a meal you placed at the table? Especially, would you expect that reaction if you knew that the sashimi plate in front of your guest is a top-notch delicacy? Of course, you would not, would you?
On the other hand, I’ve never been as surprised, shocked and confused at the same time. Two black, ball-shaped, shiny eyes were staring at me from the plate, whilst the lobster’s antennae danced. The poor creature was still alive. Its white flesh was taken out of its greenish shell to elegantly present a highly valued delicacy. From Japanese point of view this was a perfect, expensive dish, beautifully decorated with purple orchids and wasabi sculptured in a leaf form. Nevertheless, our Western taste was substantially different. We couldn’t perceive beauty in a live being on our plate. From our perspective, we were looking at cruelty and death straight in the eyes.
Later on, we found out that we had ordered ikizukuri. The word ikizukuri means “prepared alive” and it says it all. An octopus, a fish or a lobster is sliced, but the creature’s internal organs are left intact to keep it alive.
The following day, a Japanese friend tried to illustrate to me the extraordinary feeling of swallowing a fresh piece of meat that was alive the instant before eating it. I can still remember everything he had said, but I cannot comprehend it.
How did it all end? No, I didn’t run out of the restaurant. To ease the situation, while I was still hiding behind the menu, my ‘partner in the crime’ bravely disguised the dish and moved the edible white flesh to a small, white plate. I tasted it, but a picture of the frightened eyes was haunting my mind. I couldn’t eat an animal I had seen alive.
I poured some sake into small glasses, beckoned the waiter and pointed to some Kanji letters beneath a beef photo on the menu. An ikizukuri beef shouldn’t exist, should it? Or is it the right time that I turn vegetarian?