In the kitchen at Fukudokoro Sakai, a food joint across the street from a seafood market on the southern end of the main Japanese island, the chef easily cuts off the head of a live pufferfish.
He skins and guts it while its heart nonetheless beats, deftly eliminating the toxic components and flicking them into a disposal bucket on the floor.
The meat of the fish, covered with blood, will be cleaned and cut into thin, semi-translucent sashimi slices and arranged right into a chrysanthemum form for customers to eat for lunch.
However, the toxic components – which include the eyes and the liver – are what puts the otherwise nondescript fish in the spotlight.
Those bits include tetrodotoxin, which may kill an adult in hours and for which there isn’t a known antidote.
The pufferfish gets eventual bad coverage for its toxicity. Still, it’s the bland taste and hefty price tag that had been effective in damaging the fish’s popularity in Japan, with 3.4 billion yen worth sold in 2017 compared with 5 billion yen in 2007.
However, fugu-focussed eating places hope the Olympics, and the hordes of vacationers they will bring will restore the business.
Hajime Sakai, prez of the wholesaler Sakai Shoten, which controls Fukudokoro Sakai, has tried to cultivate demand for the fish with online deliveries and cute pufferfish ornaments.
In Tokyo, Yukihiro Furukawa runs a restaurant in the ritzy district of Ginza, the place courses that sell for 30,000 yen ($273) a head include a sashimi plate with pufferfish slices plated in the shape of a dragon.