Daibutsu, Kamakura

Daibutsu, Kamakura
Daibutsu in Kamakura, June 2010. There were thousands of school kids visiting that day. It was still great fun.

Monday, April 27, 2009

River of Fire, River of Water - An Introduction to Shin Buddhism

I recently finished reading the book "River of Fire, River of Water" by Taitesu Unno. This book provides an introduction to the Pure Land tradition of Shin Buddhism. In Japan, more people are followers of Shin Buddhism then of any other branch of Buddhism such as Zen or Shingon.

If you are interested in learning about the Shin tradition, then this is a pretty good book. The Buddhist terminology and philosophy can get a bit confusing and tedious at times, especially near the end of the book, but overall I learned a lot from it.

Pure Land Shin Buddhism is based on the belief in the Pure Land of Amida Buddha. Those who have faith in Amida Buddha will be born in Amida Buddha's Pure Land.

Pure Land Buddhism has been around along time and came to Japan from China. But a distinct school of Shin Buddhism was originally established in Japan by the monk Honen. Honen was a Tendai monk from Mt. Hiei, a center of Buddhist monastic study northeast of Kyoto. In 1175, he broke from this established center of monastic learning and proclaimed the establishment of an independent Jodo or Pure Land school.

Pure Land practice had long been a part of the established schools including those of Mt. Hiei. But Honen made the contemplation of Amida and the Pure Land a separate and distinct path that could be followed by all people including the common people and not just for those who followed the monastic path.

One of Honen's followers, Shinran (1173-1263) continued propagating the Pure Land belief after Honen's death. It was Shinran's decedents and followers that created the dominant Jodo Shinshu school of Buddhism that is the largest school in Japan today.

In real simple terms, Honen and his Jodo Shu school believed in the Nembutsu, the invocation of Amida Buddha's name, Namu Amida Butsu, as the way for those to travel to Amida's Pure Land. Shinran's school of Jodo Shinshu emphasized strong faith in Amida and that it was not even necessary to chant Amida's name but the mere the thought of the Nembutsu with strong faith was sufficient.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Japanese cars

A post over at sixmats about car shopping in Japan got me thinking about the fact that the vast majority of the cars on the roads in Japan are not sold in America. Most are way too small, especially the tiny 600cc cars. But it is too bad many other are not sold in America since there are some pretty cool small cars in Japan that I think would be good sellers now that there is a trend towards smaller cars.

However, over the last few years, there have been several cars introduced to America that I had previously seen on the streets of Japan.

A few years ago, the Honda Fit was introduced to the States. I remember seeing it during my visits to Japan in 2004 and shortly after that Honda began selling it in America. I see a lot of Fits on the road here in Los Angeles.


In Japan, Toyota sells the Vitz. In America, they call it the Yaris. Since gas prices started going through the roof a couple of years ago, the Yaris has been selling really good as well.


Toyota also has been selling a brand of cars in the States for several years called Scion. The first models were the Scion xA and the Scion xB. In Japan, you know it as the Toyota bB. It is very popular and Toyota has been introducing more models for the Scion line.

Toyota bB.

Scion xB

For all those who are living in or visited Japan often, you probably know the Nissan Cube. Nissan recently announced that they will be selling it in the States. What took them so long?

The Cube

In Japan, one of my relatives who lives in Nikko drives the Nissan X-Trail. The first time I saw it in Japan was around 2003 or 2004.

The X-trail is not sold in America but one day in 2006 I was surprised to see an X-trail on the Hollywood Freeway in Los Angeles. When I got close to it, I looked at the license plate. It was from Mexico. The X-trail is sold in Mexico but not the United States.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Period of Warring States

Warfare was a major part of Japanese history from ancient times until 1945. But there is one time period that was dominated by warfare like no other time in Japanese history. This period was called the Sengoku Jidai or Period of Warring States, a term taken from Chinese histories. This period of almost continuous warfare was between 1467 and 1600. The difference however was that the Japanese wars were between clans and families rather then between states as in China.

The warring states period in Japan began with the bloody Onin War from 1467 to 1476. The Onin War ushered in a century and a half of conflict. Many clan leaders during this period, called daimyo, made great names for themselves in history such as Takeda Shingen, Date Masamune and Uesugi Kenshin (currently being portrayed in an NHK drama called Tenchijin).

These wars were also a time of great development in samurai warfare. Only the strongest survived which required fielding huge armies armed with the best weapons. The most successful daimyo used large numbers of ashigaru (footsoldiers), whom they trained to use bows, long spears, and the newly introduced firearms such as the European arquebuses which were introduced in 1543.

Date Masamune (1566-1636) was one of the greatest daimyo of the Period of Warring States. In spite of having only one eye he triumphed in numerous battles in Northern Japan, and only yielded to the overwhelming force mounted by Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Masamune is known for his crescent-moon crest atop his battle helmet.

Date Masamune

The struggles for power between the most powerful daimyo would eventually give rise to one winner. Oda Nobunaga (1534-82) was the first daimyo to move towards total control of all Japan when he occupied Kyoto and abolished the Ashikaga shogunate in 1568. However, Nobunaga was assassinated in 1582 and it was one of Nobunaga's samurai generals who ultimately unified Japan under one rule. That general was Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Hideyoshi is unique because he rose through the ranks from the lowly ashigaru.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi

Hideyoshi obtained power through both loyalty to Nobunaga and opportunism. In a series of political moves and battles, Hideyoshi asserted his authority. Some daimyo became his allies after failing to beat him in battle. The future shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, who was defeated in battle in 1584 by Hideyoshi, is the best example of this accommodative approach.

The end of the Period of Warring States was near after the passing of Hideyoshi in 1598. Hideyoshi's son Hideyori became the nominal ruler of Japan but he was only five years old. Soon two rival factions emerged: those loyal to Hideyori and those aligned with Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542-1616) was the final victor in the Period of Warring States. Ieyasu and his rivals met in the battle at Sekigahara in 1600. Ieyasu was victorious in one of the most decisive battles in Japanese history. Ieyasu claimed Minamoto decent which allowed him to pronounce himself Shogun. The Tokugawa Shoguns would rule Japan for another two and a half centuries.

Tokugawa Ieyasu

The mausoleum and shrine for Tokugawa Ieyasu is located at Nikko in Tochigi Prefecture north of Tokyo.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

L.A. could learn some lessons from Tokyo

Below is an article from a Los Angeles Times columnist, Steve Lopez, describing his recent visit to Tokyo. This columnist normally reports on local issues in Los Angeles but was in Tokyo for a book and movie promotion for a friend of his. What may interest you, especially those living in Tokyo, is Mr. Lopez' comparison of Tokyo and Los Angeles. Basically what he likes about Tokyo and what LA could learn from Tokyo.

From the Los Angeles Times

L.A. could learn some lessons from Tokyo

Japanese society isn't perfect, but Steve Lopez finds Tokyo's taxis are clean, its cherry blossoms are in bloom and the city doesn't have a doughnut shop on every corner.
Steve Lopez

April 15, 2009

Reporting from Tokyo — After a week here, I still haven't mastered Japanese.

I'm prone to say hello when I mean thank you, or vice versa, and I seldom know what I am ordering at restaurants, so the chicken might actually be eel. But regardless of what I'm attempting to communicate, the Japanese people bow graciously, which is probably a way of hiding their laughter.

In case you're wondering, I'm here at the request of the Japanese distributor of the movie "The Soloist," and to meet with the publishers of a certain book by the same name. I'm not going to say much more about that, given the flap over the Sunday movie promotion in The Times that drew some complaints from readers and colleagues.

For the record, I wish it had looked a little less like a news section, and would have said so if I'd seen it before publication. On the other hand, ad revenue pays for the journalism we do, and I thought the section was a fair summary of how the filmmakers got to know my friend Mr. Nathaniel Anthony Ayers and were inspired by him, as I have been.

In Japan, reporters were more interested in learning about Mr. Ayers and how I got to know him than they were about the film and its stars. The representatives of a Tokyo mental health agency told me they hope the book and movie will help them de-stigmatize mental illness.

Let me move on, though, to some thoughts on the city of Tokyo and what Los Angeles can learn from it. I'm no expert on Tokyo, this being my first visit to the city. And Tokyo is no Shangri-la, nor is Japanese society perfect. But I like a lot of what I'm seeing, and in no particular order, here are a few thoughts:

This is the cleanest city I've ever visited, and residents seem to take great pride in that. One day my wife and I saw a uniformed man on his knees, scraping a tiny wad of gunk off the pavement, and we saw no graffiti anywhere. In Los Angeles, why do we think it's OK to foul our own nest?

From my hotel window, I watched the comings and goings of trains day and night on a seven-track railway. Then there's the extensive and efficient subway system, which of course makes L.A.'s look like it was designed for a city the size of Bakersfield. As for auto traffic, it can be miserable, but commuters have alternatives. And I didn't see a single Hummer, the car of choice for Jaime de la Vega, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's deputy mayor of transportation. I'm willing to take up a collection and have both of them sent to Tokyo to take notes.

I'm not ready to go easy on L.A.'s billboard industry or their lackeys at City Hall, but Tokyo's neon and flash add to the city's sense of excitement and vitality. I'm now more inclined to say OK to special sign districts in commercial areas of Los Angeles, including Hollywood and Koreatown. But they're still a nuisance and an abomination in residential neighborhoods.

You cannot go anywhere in Tokyo without seeing people of all ages commuting by bicycle, and the city has gone out of its way to accommodate them. There are even designated bike lanes in crosswalks, and bike racks are everywhere. Los Angeles, with its better climate and health-conscious population, should be embarrassed and ashamed about how unaccommodating it is to bikes.

By the luck of the draw, I'm here at the peak of cherry blossom season, and the city is exploding with color, as if it were a sprawling cherry-vanilla confection. The bloom is a cause for celebration in Tokyo. And in L.A., meanwhile, how long ago did Mayor Villaraigosa promise to plant 1 million trees, how many hundreds of thousands of trees short of that goal is he, and why don't we do more to celebrate jacaranda season? There ought to be contests to highlight the most spectacular block in each neighborhood, and the tourism industry ought to be selling the lure of lavender along with the sunshine and beaches.

With the exception of Griffith Park, Tokyo puts L.A. to shame in its attention to open space. There's not a great deal of greenery in Tokyo's concrete metropolis, but where there's a park, there's attention to detail and monuments to history. Hordes of Japanese people take box lunches and sit under trees next to lakes and gardens. The parks also have cafes and museums, and they're all easy to get to without a car.

For whatever reason, maybe it's pride, again, Tokyo's taxis are first-class. Most drivers wear a coat and tie, their cars are polished to a sheen, the interiors are spotless and usually have lace seat covers, and there's plenty of leg room, as opposed to L.A.'s grungy fleet of jalopies. In an L.A. cab, I feel like a contortionist just getting in and out of the cramped and partitioned back seat, and I always feel lucky that a wheel doesn't fall off in transit.

Is it the Japanese diet, is there a national campaign on health and nutrition, or does everyone here belong to a health club? Maybe it's all the walking and cycling, or maybe it's the fact that there's not a doughnut shop on every corner.

Being in Tokyo also makes me rue the demise of the American department store as a national institution. Going to a department store in Tokyo is an event. My wife saw a crowd gathering outside one store before it opened. The employees could be seen gathering just inside the store in formation like a small army. When the clock struck 10 a.m., they turned in unison to the waiting crowd, bowed to customers, and opened the doors for business.

I like Tokyo's polite society. I'm surprised I just wrote that, being a pretty laid-back and casual guy. But it's refreshing to see people greet each other with humility and respect in social settings, often with a bow. One day my wife saw something miraculous on a subway train. A teen was blabbing on a cellphone, which is prohibited, and an elderly woman wagged a finger. The teen, who would never make it in the United States, respectfully shut off the phone.

Am I a new man, you ask?

Yes, until my plane lands in Los Angeles.

I'll probably be in flip-flops 10 minutes later, grimacing as my daughter says something disrespectful, greeting acquaintances with "Yo, dude," and going by car to buy doughnuts.

But until then, a bow to Tokyo, and a "thank you" to its gracious people.


Monday, April 13, 2009

Still the Happiest Place on Earth

An article from the Los Angeles Times reveals one of the few industries in Japan that is still thriving in spite of the economic crash. Tokyo Disneyland. This really shows how much the Japanese love Disneyland. While the Disney parks in the States are facing serious economic pressures and laying off staff, Tokyo Disney keeps on cruising.

I think it makes sense though. As the article states, many Japanese may be trading expensive international vacations with a less expensive "mini-vacation" to Disneyland. I also personally love spending a day at Disneyland here in California because it creates a brief time where your thoughts of everyday life stresses are forgotten. And this is even more important in the current state of the world economy.

And Disneyland is just fun.


From the Los Angeles Times


Tokyo Disneyland still a happy place despite the economy

Attendance and revenue are up as many Japanese forgo overseas trips and visit the park instead.
By Yuriko Nagano

April 13, 2009

Reporting from Tokyo — As the Japanese economy continues its roller-coaster ride, many cash-strapped citizens have decided it's a small world, after all.

They're skipping the expensive overseas vacations and going to Disneyland -- Japanese style.

Gliding down the waterways of the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction, Reika Monden and Haruka Akiyama, both 22, shrieked when they spotted a mannequin of Johnny Depp wearing a red headband, flanked by two headless women.

"Look, there he is!" Monden said. "He's soooo cute!"

The two recent college graduates were visiting Tokyo Disneyland on a day trip from Fuji City. By 1 p.m., the women had spent about $400 apiece on their four-hour round-trip bullet train tickets, park admission and merchandise.

"Oh, we would have loved to have flown to Hawaii, but this trip was what our parents agreed to," Monden said. "As far as a graduation celebration goes, this is it."

At a time when most Japanese corporations have been bleeding red ink from a strong yen and ever-weakening consumer spending, gleaming news has been coming out of the "Happiest Place on Earth."

Oriental Land Co., the operator of Tokyo Disneyland and sister property DisneySea, announced record-breaking net sales of $3 billion for the last nine months of 2008, up 12.6% from the year-earlier period.

Park attendance for the fiscal year that ended in March was the highest ever: 27.2 million visitors, a 7.1% increase from the previous year.

Most of the visitors flocking to Tokyo Disneyland and DisneySea -- a short train ride from Tokyo -- are domestic. Company data say 95.8% of park-goers were Japanese.

A day at Japan's Disneyland is different from any at the sister park in Anaheim.

For one, there are more lines for everything here. How about a 30-minute wait for popcorn and a 50-minute one for a smoked turkey leg?

Guests begin queuing at dawn, hours before the park opens, often because many visitors arrive by overnight express bus and are unloaded at the gates in the wee hours, said Keiko Namikoshi, a spokeswoman for Oriental Land.

When the gates open, a flood of guests makes a mad dash for the rides. Many use Fastpass tickets, which assign a time to visit an attraction, allowing purchasers to skip regular lines.

But unlike most days in Anaheim, here even a Fastpass doesn't mean you can escape a line: One recent morning the wait with a pass was 30 minutes long.

Despite the aggravating wait for just about everything, guests still seem to agree it's a good bang for the buck.

Yuri Yoneda, a 42-year-old in a Minnie Mouse hat, said she had just been laid off.

"It's a good change of pace from my daily life," Yoneda said. "This is something I'm treating myself to."

Nagano is a special correspondent.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Taking an austere path to enlightenment

Below is an interesting article from the Asahi Shimbun about the growing number of people who have become devoted to Shugendo. Shugendo is a religion in Japan that has been around for hundreds of years and is based on Japanese mountain worship. Shugendo has aspects of both Buddhism and Shinto. Shinto is Japan's native faith.

You may have heard of this typ of religion in relation to Mount Fuji which is considered a sacred mountain in Japan. Many mountains in Japan are considered sacred and are worshiped specifically by those that follow the Shugendo faith. One such mountain is Mount Nantai in Nikko National Park. Mount Nantai is a beautiful mountain that sits above Lake Chuzenji. The article explains how many Japanese urban dwellers have taken up the faith and comet to Nikko to escape their lives in the city and to practice their faith on the slopes of Mount Nantai.

I like this idea of mountain worship and the broader respect for nature.

Taking an austere path to enlightenment


Urban dwellers, looking for something missing from the day-to-day grind of their working lives, are literally heading to the mountains to reconnect with nature and find spiritual fulfillment.

They are devotees of Shugendo, a religion based on ancient Japanese mountain worship that incorporates aspects of Buddhism, Shinto and other faiths.

Among the followers is a 33-year-old man from Tokyo who works weekdays as a sales representative. On his days off, he heads for the mountains, donning a traditional outfit, complete with a conch-shell horn and straw sandals.

He is a yamabushi, a mountain priest trainee. His grueling training regime includes a discipline called nyubu, which involves walking steep mountain paths for a few days while visiting sacred sites and worshipping gods and Buddha. He has a religious name: Shinanobo Zuiryu.

Shinanobo belongs to a group called Nikko-Shugendo in Tochigi Prefecture.

Through strict training, Shugendo followers try to experience what Gautama Siddhartha underwent before attaining enlightenment.

Trainees are called yamabushi or shugenja and undergo various types of training.

Shinanobo first became interested in "mountain religion" while studying history in college. As he deepened his study, he ended up becoming a yamabushi at Nikko-Shugendo.

In 2001, he became a full-fledged member of Nikko-Shugendo. He now uses his days off from work to further his training 10 to 15 times a year on Mount Nantaisan in Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture, as well as other mountains.

Why does he devote himself to training despite his busy work schedule?

"It's my faith," he said.

His wife, Hajime, 30, said, "Whenever he is stressed out in daily life, he says, 'I want to go to the mountains.'"

Hajime is an artist, and she will soon release a work titled "My husband is a yamabushi" in a monthly comic magazine named "Honto ni Atta Waraeru Hanashi" (Funny stories that happened in real life).

Shinanobo is not the only urban resident who longs to spend his spare time undergoing religious training in mountain locations.

Iyano Jiho, 51, who heads Nikko-Shugendo, says those who come from big cities to attend the group's training sessions have a yearning for "mountains."

"For urbanites with little connection with other people and nature, Shugendo training might be offering opportunities to re-examine various involvement with human beings and nature," Iyano said.

Originally from Kanuma, Tochigi Prefecture, Iyano learned Shugendo at temples in Yamagata, Kyoto and Shiga prefectures and elsewhere.

He eventually thought of bringing new life to nyubu training in Nikko, near his hometown. He renovated mountain paths and accommodations for trainees, which had not been used for a long time. The renovation work was completed in 1985, and nyubu training resumed in Nikko.

Another yamabushi from Tokyo is a 30-year-old contract worker, whose religious name is Yamaguchi Horyu. He has been training at Nikko-Shugendo for the past eight years.

As a teenager, Yamaguchi felt strongly that he did not fit in at school. Wanting to "overcome a sense of alienation," he visited several religious organizations, but none of them inspired him.

"They were out of touch with everyday life, and lacked culture or history," Yamaguchi said.

When he was in college, he saw an ad for Nikko-Shugendo training in a magazine and attended a training session. He said to himself, "This is it."

The organization felt "down to earth," he said.

"Myself wearing a necktie and myself in yamabushi outfit are no different, in that I'm a trainee," Yamaguchi said.

Training which involves continued dialogue with gods and Buddha is challenging, he added.

"Still, for me, navigating through life in a big city may be more grueling," he added.

Yamaguchi's fellow trainee under Iyano is a 33-year-old man whose religious name is Kinuki Yuho. He has been training for seven years.

Since his childhood, he had harbored an interest in Buddhism because of his father and grandfather, who were pious.

Contemplating what to do with his life while studying to enter a university, he decided to put Buddhist ideas into practice through his work.

Kinuki got a job as a caregiver but left it after three years to study Buddhism.

While learning about the religion at a university, he met a person training in Shugendo under Iyano.

Asked to come along, Kinuki attended a session and was attracted to Nikko-Shugendo. He became a frequent visitor.

"For instance, in discussing Shugendo teachings in plain language, Iyano said, 'Don't do anything that weighs on your mind, whether it's good or bad.' I repeat these words in my mind, which makes me think," Kinuki said.

Although the words may appear abstract, for Kinuki, it is precious teaching he can apply to real life.

This month, Kinuki returns to his work as a carer.

"I do have apprehension, but I also feel like I have room to breathe somewhere within myself," he said.

"By experiencing the same hard training that trainees ahead of me underwent, such as walking on mountain paths trodden by many others, I feel as if I were spiritually connected with past trainees, as well as with current trainees, beyond time and space. I feel as if I were being encouraged by them. This kind of sense has taken root in me," Kinuki said.

Why do these city dwellers find common ground with Shugendo?

Susumu Shimazono, a professor of religion at the University of Tokyo, has this to say: "Since the 1970s, Qigong, meditation and other spiritual activities have become global trends. However, disappointment is spreading among some of the people who experienced these things. They say things like, 'They are not firmly rooted in society.'

"On the other hand, with traditional aspects as well as physical aspects, Shugendo probably appeals to such people."(IHT/Asahi: April 7,2009)

Monday, April 06, 2009

The Way of the Samurai

I found this video on a site called Joost which I had never heard of before. The video is called "The Way of the Samurai" and it appears to be a video from PBS. I have not had a chance to watch it yet but it looks interesting.

Update 4/9/09: Apparently this video and any others from Joost are not viewable in Japan. Sorry about that. When I was in Japan I had this same issue with the popular site Hulu.com which has full length TV shows but is not viewable in Japan as well.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Blowfish's bad rap is killing him

Below is an article from Wednesday's Los Angeles Times about a Tokyo chef that wants to convince people that blowfish are safe to eat. I am not sure I would want to eat blowfish. Would you?

From the Los Angeles Times


Blowfish's bad rap is killing him

A Japanese chef wants to convince people that the deadly fish known as fugu is perfectly safe in the right hands. His, for example.

By John M. Glionna

April 1, 2009

Reporting from Tokyo — Veteran chef Yutaka Sasaki has a plan to remove the fear of eating one of the most poisonous fish on the planet: He wants to feed it to the emperor.

The blowfish, known here as fugu, carries a deadly neurotoxin with no known antidote. An average-sized fugu is chock-full of the poison tetrodotoxin -- in its blood, liver and even its sex organs, Sasaki says.

But he scoffs at the centuries-old ban on the Japanese monarch eating the delicacy, sought after by many Japanese as daring cuisine.

"The prince and other royalty have eaten fugu, so why not the emperor?" he says. "It would set a good example."
After all, he argues, it's only deadly in the wrong hands.

"Someone who tries to prepare meals they know nothing about is stupid," says Sasaki, 61. "If you're a chef and you don't know this fish, you shouldn't even touch it."

Chefs such as Sasaki are campaigning to change fugu's notorious image as Russian roulette on a plate. When prepared by a licensed chef, they say, the meal is as safe as biting into a Big Mac.

In 30 years, Sasaki says, no one has become sick eating his fugu. He has taught countless other chefs, including his son, who works alongside him in the family's Tokyo restaurant, Tairyo, or "good catch."

Japanese are the largest consumers of fugu, eating 10,000 tons a year. An elegant multicourse meal of it can cost a diner $450.

Sasaki shakes his head over connoisseurs being attracted to fugu not for its flavor (described as "a taste given by heaven") but for its off-the-chart concentration of lethal toxins.

But for as many Japanese who are attracted by the danger, Sasaki says, there are more who fear the fish. Those are the new customers he wants to attract.

The chef's English-language business card lampoons the image that eating blowfish is the gastronomic equivalent of bungee jumping with a frayed cord. "Try mysterious blow fish taste," it tempts. "One hundred percent guarantee to you stay alive."

But there are problems with that pitch: Some fugu gourmets don't last long enough to order dessert.

Over the last dozen years, Japan has had hundreds of cases of "poison by fugu," as many as 34 of them fatal, Japanese health officials say.

Early this year, six men in northern Japan were poisoned when they ate grilled blowfish testicles prepared by an unlicensed chef, now under investigation by police. The men survived.

Lax oversight is another obstacle.

Although there are tens of thousands of Japanese fugu chefs -- 80,000 in the Osaka area alone -- the industry has no centralized regulation, so it's difficult to know how many are licensed, says Kiichi Kitahama, a well-known chef and owner of a fugu museum in Osaka.

In addition, only 19 of Japan's 47 prefectures require chefs to pass an exam to obtain a fugu license, and those tests vary in their demands. In Tokyo, a chef must serve a three-year apprenticeship and pass a stringent test that involves gutting a fugu under the scrutiny of health officials.

Fugu guts are so poisonous that they must be kept under lock and key and disposed of like some sort of restaurant radioactive waste.

"There's much more work to make fugu legitimate," Kitahama says. "That's why I am still working at age 81."

Kitahama is known as the godfather of fugu research. In 1913, his father opened the Osaka fugu restaurant where Kitahama started working as a chef at 16 -- and remains to this day.

In the 1950s, he became alarmed by the high death and injury rate associated with the fish -- 400 killed and 31,056 sickened in one year alone, Kitahama says.

In 1975, when a famous Kabuki actor died after eating a blowfish liver, Kitahama began to study the fish in earnest.

He collected preserved specimens, skeletons, photos, slides and paintings that are now on display in his museum.

His research inspired chefs such as Sasaki, who remembers that friends who first took him to a restaurant that served fugu wouldn't allow him to sample it.

"They said the fugu experience was too dangerous," he says. "So they fed me only vegetables, not the fish."

He is a touch arrogant about his craft: I am a chef and I have a license, his tone implies. Do you want to eat this or not?

Working cautiously, more surgeon than chef, he demonstrates how to prepare the still-wriggling delicacy in the tiny kitchen of his restaurant

"Watch this," he says, applying pressure that causes the struggling fish to puff up into a prickly ball. After delivering a mallet blow to the head, Sasaki begins slicing into flesh, removing the still-beating heart.

He's happy to show customers his technique for an extra $100.

"I'm an entertainer, not a regular chef," he says. "I have to make my work a performance to show people this fish in my hands is safe to eat."

But he continues to battle stereotypes, like the one that says a diner's lips turn numb with a good piece of fugu.

"That's a lie," he says. "If you're eating fugu and your lips turn numb, you're well on your way to being dead."