A Whale Of A Problem

Posted by on Sep 30, 2011 in Travel Volunteer Journey, Yamagata | 4 Comments
A Whale Of A Problem

There’s a saying in the southwest of China: “We will eat anything with legs, except a table. And anything with wings, except a plane.”

It’s not a philosophy that Katy and I always subscribe to. We’re not total killjoys: on our travels we’ve eaten camel, wood-worms (pictured left) and guinea pig. But at other times we’ve turn down tarantulas, rats and chicken embryos; they all just looked or sounded a little too disgusting for us to manage.

In Scotland the national dish is haggis, the traditional recipe for which is a sheep’s heart, liver and lungs, mixed with oatmeal and boiled in its own stomach. It tastes better than it sounds – so does another favourite, black pudding, which is little more than fried pig’s blood.

It’s not for everyone but folk at home don’t think there’s much wrong with it, other than the obscene levels of sodium and saturated fat.

But ethics do play a part in what we do and don’t eat. For example, we could never eat dog: Katy’s family owns five. Dog know fear and they know pain and they know loss – even if it tasted delicious, we wouldn’t feel comfortable eating it.

The same goes for shark and whale. The former is my favourite animal. I go to great lengths and expense (and maybe a little personal risk) to spend as much time in the water with them as I can. 

Katy, meanwhile, is a lover of the considerably more-docile giants of the ocean. She’s spent time in six of the world’s continents trying to catch a glimpse of their hulking frames. Overall, she’s been pretty successful too.

In short, for uncertain reasons that probably go back long into our childhoods, we love these animals and we wouldn’t eat them. But where do you draw the line? I know people who absolutely adore horses and devote their lives to them. Obviously they’d never consider eating them. But I have – and I liked it. They eat it regularly up in Aomori prefecture in Japan too and no one thinks twice. Pigs are said to be extremely intelligent animals, but their eaten in great quantities across the world.

The whole do-we-don’t-we dilemma is difficult to solve, but before coming to Japan, Katy and I made up our minds that if they were put in front of us, we’d politely decline whale and shark meat.

And then we arrived at the beautifully manicured Konnyaku Bansho restaurant in Kaminoyama, Yamagata, and had both served to us in the same meal…

Except they weren’t. Like virtually everything else in front of us, they were not as they seemed; it was all made with the weird miracle food known as konnyaku (or devil’s tongue or elephant yam). We’re still not fully sure how it all works, but it seems that konnyaku is a fat-free, gluten-free, calorie-free, and – yes – guilt free substitute for just about everything. Along with the fake whale and shark, we had konnyaku tempura, konnyaku beans, konnyaku clam, konnyaku yakitori – it went on and on. It was really good too.

In the end we left the restaurant so bamboozled that we weren’t certain about anything any more, like Descartes on one of his darker days.











  1. Michelle
    October 1, 2011

    Wow! That certainly sounds interesting! I’d sure like to give that place a try when I do visit Yamagata. :D

  2. Joe Lafferty
    October 1, 2011

    Konnyaku chocolate? Konnyaku alcohol? Konnyaku tobacco? Is there nothing sacred in the world?

  3. Nancy
    October 3, 2011

    Thanks for the share!

  4. Ami
    October 3, 2011

    I think it is very important for one to assume the consequences of it own meal…. and always be grateful for it. For example, if one does not like carrots, then perhaps he should consider about the effort of growing carrots and preparing + cooking them till they get in your plate, because the moment the food is already in the plate, it is already too late, and to discard it from there it is only a waste of resources on every level. I know this must sound like a complain but it is not, it’s reality, which MUST be known and not ignored :) as for the whole animal eating preconceptions … it’s the same, the animal dies due to a general request of the people, it’s nobody’s fault yet it’s everybody’s fault at the same time. Different cultures have different requests …. yet to remain indifferent and become a vegetarian is also not a solution in my opinion, one must do everything in it’s power not to make waste of the resource earth gives us :) but with respect and consideration to what it means to have pork or beef or squid on it’s plate. One’s action always leaves behind a reaction, and the circle goes on and on, it is the impact on the environment we must be concerned about; the impact my cravings have on wildlife, because I don’t mind eating shark or whale as long as it’s from a shark or whale farm grown by people, which is surely not the case here.
    I like to know where my food came from, and what kind of life it had before it died, because it will become part of me after eating it…. like some tribal african belief: if two persons share a meal …. afterward they become brothers, because then they are then made of the same matter. Maybe strange, maybe silly…. I say it’s just a different point of view :) You are what you eat :D