Eating at Taruichi can be a bit daunting. First there’s the decor. For those not cowed by the dried, meter-long whale’s phallus dangling overhead, the next challenge is the menu.
For some Japanese, whale meat is nostalgic fare, but what was school cafeteria food until the ’70s now verges on the gourmet. And though a growing number of Japanese enjoy watching kujira in the wild, some still relish theirs sliced or fried or pickled on a plate.
That hasn’t deterred Taruichi, however. Five stories above the din of Shinjuku’s Kabukicho district, the restaurant has been serving up seafood with an emphasis on whale (and sake) for nearly three decades. Now the only plentiful supply is from minke whales, which Japan takes from the Antarctic and North Pacific for so-called research.
“People think that whale has to be expensive, but it needn’t be,” says owner and operator Takashi Sato.
“Waste not, want not” might well be the slogan at Taruichi, where you’d be advised to check any culinary prejudices at the door. Though the regular menu lists more than 50 dishes, many derived from whale, Sato has concocted one with more than 30 whale-meat dishes on it to coincide with the International Whaling Commission gathering being held through May 25 in Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture. It features ingredients that some people — those forking out 7,000 yen for this multicourse dinner — would consider culinary delights. Others might be disgusted.
The feast starts with whale bacon and winds down with some kiwi fruit and green-tea ice cream made with tiny chunks of whale fat. In between, out come “delicacies” including whale penis, uterus and fried brains, whale-heart steak, whale gums and even pickled whale testicles.
Born in Yamoto, Miyagi Prefecture, near one of the nation’s major whaling areas, Sato said he was raised on whale. “See this body. It is all from whale,” he says, laughing and jollily slapping his not insignificant belly.
Sato and customers speak fervently in defense of their food.
“We have great pride in our whale recipes. If we lose this, then we lose our heart. Tell that to the world,” said an animated Sato.
Diners mutter similar mantras: “respect culinary culture”; “stop cultural imperialism.”
It is a mixed crowd, mostly middle-aged and seniors, with men greatly outnumbering women. Politicians and Fisheries Agency officials, not to mention wildlife experts, are among Sato’s normal clientele. Foreigners — today two of us — are in short supply.
Neither of us being Norwegian, the crowd delights in foisting food on us while chiding us about Western countries’ opposition to whaling.
“Who are Western countries to say that a whale has more of a right to live than the cows that they eat?” asks Masayuki Okura, between mouthfuls. A secretary for a Japanese Communist Party Diet member, Okura claims that whaling is one issue all Japanese political parties can agree upon.
Flushed red with alcohol, the chairman of the Japan Federation of Ivory Arts and Crafts Association, Minoru Sakurai, is enjoying his meal — but he too has a gripe. “My family has been carving crafts for five generations. Sperm whale teeth make beautiful containers and vases,” he says, indicating a rectangular shape of about pint size with his hands. “But now there are almost none available,” he says, adding that foreign countries need to adopt a more flexible stance toward the sustainable use of whales.
Sato concedes and laments that whale has become a fringe food, and that there is a generation gap to be bridged as not many young people take seats at his tables. “Everyone used to eat it. This was standard fare in homes,” he says, adding that he strives to make the food at his three restaurants affordable in part to encourage younger people to try whale.
“Hindus don’t eat beef, but they don’t tell the world not to eat cows. Muslims don’t eat pork, but don’t tell us not to eat pigs,” Sato declares, saying that in the end it is all about tolerance. “If you deny a people’s food, you deny their culture,” he declaims. “When you negate their culture, you deny their existence and destroy the foundations of peace.”