Wednesday, May 22, 2024

A meizanologist's diary (74)

3 April: by chance, we find ourselves back on the shores of Suigetsu-ko, the lake of seventy thousand varves. We are bivvying in an opulent ryokan prior to climbing a nearby mountain tomorrow – just as well we’re not bivvying for real, as it’s been raining all day. 

Yet the weather might be the least of our objective hazards. An unexceptionable fish is served at supper, not unlike a scaled-down flounder. As our host is hovering assiduously over the table, I ask him what it is. “Fugu,” he replies, “fresh from Tsuruga Bay.”

Not an eyebrow flickers among the Sensei and our friends, but I have to confess that a frisson runs down my spine – after all, fugu has enjoyed a certain rep among travellers in Japan ever since Engelbert Kaempfer wrote it up as “the poisonous Blower Fish“ back in the 1690s …

People that by some long and tedious sickness are grown weary of their lives, or are otherwise under miserable Circumstances, frequently chuse this poisonous Fish, instead of a knife or halter, to make away with themselves. A Neighbour of my Servant at Nangasaki being so strongly infected with the Pox that his nose was ready to drop off, resolv’d to take this Meal, in order to get rid at once both of his life and distemper. Accordingly he bought a quantity of this poisonous Fish, cut it into pieces, boil’d it, and in order as he thought, to make the poison still stronger, he took soot from the thatch’d roof of his house, and mix’d it with the rest ….

Kaempfer notwithstanding, I eat my fish up. Our host continues to assiduously hover – he has a way with that – and, besides, the cuisine is too good to waste. 

After dinner, I pinch my fingertips, testing them for the faintest hint of a tingle that is said to be the first sign of fugu poisoning. But, no, nothing. It looks as if we’re going to get away with it. As also, more surprisingly, did Kaempfer’s servant’s neighbour back in the day:

After dinner he laid himself down to die, and soon falling mortally sick, he brought up not only the poison he had taken, but a large quantity of viscid, sharp, nasty matter, probably not the least cause of his distemper, and by this means found life and health, in what he sought for death, for he recover’d and was well afterwards.

Well, thank goodness for that. When we retire, it's still raining. Now, at least, all we have to worry about is the weather. 

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