My favourite pleasure is to eat raw fish in a Tokyo sushi bar. Like the best sex, it combines cosiness with intense physical gratification.
One bar in Tokyo provided just that for me. Small and narrow, it consisted of a wooden counter which seated no more than fifteen people. The bar itself was hard to find, down an obscure alleyway in Tokyo’s nightclub district. The sensation of intimacy, so essential to the pleasure itself, began the moment I pushed aside the traditional blue cloth and slid open the door. From behind the counter, the owner, a burly Japanese dressed in white, sent up a shout of greeting immediately echoed by his two assistants. I was enveloped in a rush of activity. An assistant shot from behind the counter to seize my coat and propel me into a seat. The owner’s wife brought tea and a carefully rolled hot towel. The seating was cramped, the air heavy with cigarette smoke. ‘Don’t eat so much this time or you will burst,’ said the owner crossly. He preferred the drinkers that squeezed me from either side. I found the physical proximity of strangers in a sushi bar intensely soothing. They made no demands. The man whose body pressed into mine would never address a word to me or even catch my eye.
In a glass case running the length of the counter lay neat piles of raw fish, scallops, octopus and crabs’ legs as well as tiny bamboo boxes displaying sea urchins and fish eggs. The owner worked continuously and with great dexterity, his strong, fat fingers paring slithers of flesh, rolling rice balls or pressing down mounds of pickled ginger and seaweed in front of a customer before wiping off and starting again. All the while he gossiped about fishing. It was his obsession. He fished every weekend at an indoor pool stocked with trout. He rented a spot by the hour and boasted the most sophisticated equipment. Did I know about flies? Could I get him one in England? He passed the occasional titbit my way. ‘Dip the crab in the sweet sauce,’ he instructed, adding for the benefit of his non-regulars, ‘She’s foreign and doesn’t know anything!’ The titbits over, the owner paused in front of me and grunted. He was ready for my first order. I always took toro, the rump steak of tuna. The pleasure of the melting fish flesh left me bereft of speech. Eating sushi is as different from ordinaty eating as sex is from masturbation. There is no food that explodes with such purity in the mouth. Like all the best physical pleasures, it produces a sensation intense enough to dilate the soul and touch the mind. I would sit in a grateful stupor, the chef watching my face with amusement until the last trace had vanished off my tongue. Then he would grin and prepare my next order.
I always ate too much. Partly from greed, partly in order to put off the moment when I had to leave. Out in the cold street I fell into a depression; a sort of post-sushi tristesse. Now I live in London, it has become a permanent state because this best of all pagan pleasures does not exist here. Sushi bars in the UK are dismal places whose customers discourage body contact, do not smoke and prefer to discuss the nutrient value of raw seaweed. The fish itself fails to make that miraculous transformation on the palate. Old and tired, it mocks me with the memory of what it should be. The whole experience is worthy and possibly unhygienic rather, one imagines, like sex with one of its patrons – but that is an unkind thought to have at Christmas time, even in the Literary Review.