The Chicken Sushi Experience

Yes, chicken sushi (sashimi actually) tastes like chicken. Raw chicken.

You haven’t lived until you’ve tried chicken sushi (chicken sashimi actually but “sushi’s” a much funnier word). Or lived the chicken sushi experience. The “chicken sushi experience” has become my go-to metaphor for life experiences where it’s the second time around that hurts far more than the first. There’s a dark twist to this – I’ll apologize for it now. But there’s a happy-ish ending, too. Hey, I’m alive, aren’t I?

The setting was Tokyo. We’ll get there…

A Great Gig

Go back about fifteen years or so. A decades long writer’s block had me in its clutches. I could write other peoples’ ideas; I had none of my own. So, I was consulting for Electronic Arts. A great gig. I was hired by a guy named Nilo Rodis out of EA’s studio in Vancouver, BC. Nilo’s a brilliant guy (well, he hired me, didn’t he?). He wanted me to help the game designers there in the Vancouver studio to think more like Hollywood screenwriters in their approach to story, characters and dialogue. Like I said: great gig!

On Monday mornings, I’d fly up to Vancouver and spend the week consulting then fly back to LA for the weekends. I worked with a couple of different groups on a couple of different games. In the end, EA assigned me to assist a project the Vancouver and Tokyo studios were doing together. A fighting game with a novel, simpler-to-use control dynamic. That’s really what EA was selling in the game – an excuse for endless simpler-to-use fighting.

Meanwhile, Beneath Tokyo…

The Tokyo studio had put down a few cool ideas. They wanted the game to center on an army of fighters who’d been living and training underground in Japan ever since the end of WWII. I went to town. Invented a whole mythology and back story. I created characters that the game player could inhabit or fight against and plotted their stories through layer upon layer of gameplay. I set all the story’s survivors up for a sequel.

It was a hoot! How could it not be? Towards the end of the project, EA decided to send me to Tokyo for a week. They wanted me to do all the finishing touches with the Tokyo studio in person. Not a revelation: few things beat traveling on someone else’s dime. Especially when that dime’s more like a quarter.

Ticket To Tokyo

Business class to Tokyo on All Nippon Airways was delightful! I arrived ready for whatever the week threw at me.

Let us put time dysmorphia aside. I had been to Tokyo before. I knew my body clock would always be out of whack. The most disconcerting thing about Japan – to a non-Japanese – is that none of the signs make sense. Restaurants use plastic food. Thank goodness for that! Virtually everything else? It’s Greek. Or, in this case, Japanese.

My boss on the project was Korean-Canadian but was fluent in Japanese. The team would eat together frequently during the week, my boss told me. Was there any food that I didn’t eat? He didn’t want to take the group anywhere that would create a problem for me. I thanked him for his courtesy but assured him: I had an adventurous palate. Whatever my Japanese hosts ate, I was going to eat. That made my boss happy.

The week was already a success and all I’d done was agree to have lunch and dinner.

Mission Almost Accomplished!

The week had its challenges – a lot of them caused by my completely discombobulated body clock – but it ended on a very high note. My boss felt the week had gone so well that he wanted the whole office to celebrate. So, on my very last night in Tokyo, my boss took everyone to what was the whole group’s favorite local restaurant. They had a specialty that they adored. And they wanted to share it with me.

In retrospect, I served myself up on a platter.

Now, remember: I was flying the next day. Tokyo back to LA. That’s ten-and-a-half hours in the air. That fact hovered in my mind as we settled onto the tatami mats in our private room at the back of the restaurant. Drinks came almost immediately. Then some food – appetizers. All of it was great!

Specialty Of The House

As the waiter put the next dish in front of everyone, my boss leaned in close. This was their specialty. Having had a very good week together – having had multiple great conversations about, among other things, food – he was especially excited to see my reaction. I watched the waiter set a dish of whatever it was in front of my boss. As the waiter set mine down in front of me, my boss said excitedly, “Chicken sushi!”

I laughed. My boss had anticipated it. “No, I mean it,” he said, holding a piece between a pair of chopsticks. Holding it close enough for me to see. “It’s chicken sushi.”

Tips For Gaijins

I glanced at the others – obliviously chomping away on their pieces of raw chicken. Or seeming to…

My mind’s reeling. The idea is both funny and disgusting. And then it hits me. I’m in Japan. They love game shows – especially ones where a silly American gaigin like me gets humiliated.

I look back to my co-workers. They’ve all finished theirs. They’re all looking at me now. Waiting for me to try it. Me – the evening’s guest of honor. The guy who said he’d eat whatever his hosts were eating. Mister Adventurous Eater, Esquire.

I get it. Everyone else got something that looks like mine except while mine’s actual chicken sushi, theirs was all marzipan or something harmless and innocuous.

My boss smiles. “Go on!” his eyes say.

“Yes, go on!” say the eyes of everyone else in the room.

Do Or Die?

The chicken sushi’s in my chopsticks. I put it to my nose. Holy shit. It smells like chicken. My boss knows I’m apprehensive and knows why.

He leans close. Assures me that this isn’t supermarket chicken. The restaurant raises its own birds. Feeds them a very strict died and then slaughters them one at a time. “It’s safe,” he assures me.

Uh huh. I know my boss knows his way around fighting games. Around food borne illness? No. Suddenly all I can think of is: I’m flying tomorrow. I could end up spending the entire flight puking in the airplane toilet instead of enjoying my business class seat, food, drink and amenities.

But, I don’t have a choice here. My bed’s made. I made it.

Down The Hatch!

I liberally dab the chicken sushi into my soy sauce bowl. Still dripping soy sauce, I put it to my lips. One last internal plea for divine intervention (that never works!) and in it goes!

The smell of raw chicken hits the back of my nose and throat. Now, I cook. I know how to butcher a chicken. The smell of raw chicken all by itself doesn’t disturb me. Except now that smell is sitting on my tongue. You know how everything that isn’t chicken tastes like chicken? Well, so does chicken. And raw chicken tastes exactly the way you think it would.

With a table of curious co-workers staring at me, I willed a smile onto my lips that betrayed everything I was feeling. “Mmmmmmm,” I mused, my gag reflex getting ready to fire, “Interesting…”.

“You like it?” asked my boss.

Inside my head: “I’d like it a lot more if I could effin’ swallow it right now!” I needed to chew it to have a shot at getting it down quickly. Two or three bites on it just to break it up. Each chew released more “chicken goodness”.

“Swallow!” I willed myself, “Swallow, you fool!” And down it went, most of it. The good news, I didn’t embarrass myself, my boss or my co-workers. The bad? I had no idea what this would do to my travel day. But, I told myself in that moment, I would drive off that part of the chicken sushi experience bridge tomorrow.

Mission Accomplished – NOT!

I nodded my enjoyment, smacking my lips politely. My co-workers were satisfied. “I’m so glad you like it,” said my boss.

The words “I do” caught in my throat. I had just realized. This part of my chicken sushi experience wasn’t over yet.

My co-workers and my boss were all going back to their serving dishes – for the second piece of chicken sushi! As they all dug into their enthusiastically, I regarded my second piece with pure, unadulterated dread. I knew what the chicken sushi experience was now. It was terribly fresh in my senses. The last thing on earth I wanted in my mouth was a second piece of chicken sushi.

But, I had even less of a choice now. I’d committed to it the moment I agreed to eat the first. And then I’d compounded my problem by saying I’d liked it.

The “Chicken Sushi Experience”.

Now I knew how bad it was going to taste. I knew I’d have to chew it a few times, releasing all that “raw chicken goodness” before I could swallow. My second bite of chicken sushi tasted like dread and acceptance. And a lot of soy sauce.

The Dark Twist As Promised

Here’s the gnarly part that precedes the happy ending. At that time, I was keeping a secret from myself. When I was 14, the religious director at the synagogue where my family belonged sexually molested me twice. The second time happened because I never reported the first time. That second time is what screwed me up more than anything. I blamed myself for it happening.

It took me 45 years to fix that. Here’s the happy ending part. I did. Many years after returning from Japan – after many more years of depression and a suicide attempt – I got mentally healthy. As I’ve said on this blog many times, I feel “born again”. Not in a religious sense, rather in a “Life sense”.

Going Home

Back in Tokyo, I awoke the next day feeling fine! The chicken sushi did nothing bad to me. I worked a whole day in Tokyo then, around five pm, I headed to Narita airport and boarded my flight back to LA. The business class on All Nippon Airways was delightful again. I enjoyed every bit of the food and the drink – and all the amenities.

It just so happened that the day I flew back? It was my birthday! And because I’d started my birthday in Tokyo and then flew east, crossing the international date line? I returned on the morning of my birthday to Los Angeles – seventeen hours behind Tokyo – and got to have a whole additional birthday.

In essence, I spent from midnight to six pm in Tokyo – that’s 18 hours. Then I flew for 11 hours back to LA. That’s 29 hours so far. I landed in LA late morning – around 11 (if I recall). And then spent the next 13 hours of my birthday in Los Angeles. That made my birthday 42 hours long.

I think of it all as the “chicken sushi experience”.

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