"I hope you're not a member of Greenpeace."
My co-workers laughed. I blanched. Andy Lunt, a 50-year-old Brit who has been running the restaurant with his Japanese in-laws for 23 years, must have seen my contorted face, because he leaned in and confided that I was eating Minke whale. From Lunt's tone, I took it to mean that Minke is not endangered.
The consumption of whale meat in Japan has been a matter of contentious
for years. Despite a moratorium on commercial whaling established by the International Whaling Commission in 1986, Japan continues to harvest whales in the name of scientific research, culling an estimated 900 last year alone. Anti-whaling groups have called the program a thinly-guised method of restocking grocery and restaurant supplies of edible whale sashimi and cured whale ham, such as the kind I ate at Andy's Shin Hinomoto.
Photo by Dave Nakamura
Two days later, Lunt then invited me to join him on his morning rounds at Tokyo's famed
Tsukiji fish market
, where he buys fresh rations three or four times a week. He picked me up in his silver Toyota at 9 a.m. and we drove a couple miles to the Tsukiji market, through which, according to Lunt, one-fifth of the world's fish stock is processed each day. After a half-dozen large distributors bid on the stock at auction starting around dawn, the supplies are divvied up among hundreds of vendors, who sell the fish to some 15,000 grocers and restaurateurs, Lunt said.
In his striped polo and olive cargo pants, Lunt, who is tall, bald, and Caucasian, looks like one of the handful of tourists who are browsing the market. But his is a familiar face to the vendors, who greet him as "Andy-san," and jump to show off their wares. Some have saved special cuts of fish for him. He carries about $2,000 worth of Japanese yen in cash in his pocket, shelling it out for scallops, mahi mahi, cod, shrimp, mackerel, and a fish known here as "kinki," which translates to orange roughy.
Lunt came to Tokyo from his native Leicester, England, after his Japanese wife Etsko, whom he met and married in London, informed him that her parents wanted to pass on their restaurant to him. Etsko's family, the Nishizawas, have owned the place since 1945. Lunt had limited restaurant experience when he arrived 23 years ago, but he now runs the 190-seat establishment so well that his in-laws are planning to formally sign over the restaurant to him in October. It is a milestone he is anticipating with obvious relief; working for your parents-in-law isn't easy.
I kept wondering where the whale dealers were. Finally, I spied the strips of red meat that Lunt had served--wrapped tightly in cellophane, looking more like packs of bacon than corned beef. I took the opportunity to ask Lunt why he served whale.
"My understanding is that the whole thing is purely a political issue," Lunt said of the controversy. "There are certain elements--the nationalists--who believe it is not right for other countries to tell Japan what it can and cannot eat."