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BIG IN JAPAN   
A Selective Comparison of 
Pro Wrestlers and Their Corresponding 
Japanese Challenge Food  
March 6, 2003

by Rocky Swift  
OnlineOnslaught.com/CitizenScholar.net

 

There are times when nothing could seem more like heaven than a steaming helping of mashed potatoes so soaked with butter that it puddles at the slightest poke of a spoon. Then there are moments when nothing could be more exciting than devouring the squirming raw flesh of a creature whose living eyes are still able to watch the moment.

The former is commonly known as "comfort food," food that easily gives us the pleasant sensations of something both delicious and known. The latter goes by the lesser-known name of "challenge foods," which are those that require the taster to abandon previously held conceptions of taste, cruelty, edibility or price in order to experience something new and noteworthy.

For the Western palate — and even sometimes their own — the Japanese have developed a cuisine that ventures deeply into challenge food territory. These foods often reward the experimenter with a delicious, mind-opening experience. And then they are sometimes downright revolting.

Outside of their status as nutrition, these challenge foods have very distinct characters that define them. Where they come from, how they are refined and the experience they give us lends an almost human personality to these foods. In an extremely indulgent writing exercise, I have undertaken to describe some Japanese challenge foods and relate their common characteristics to well-known professional wrestlers.

Dig in.

 

Gyutan  
(grilled slices of 
cow tongue)

Jeff Hardy  

Common characteristics: Sinewy, tough, 
fun as a starter

Tongue is a muscle, and a particularly strong one at that. So to make it edible, you must either boil it for hours or slice it extremely thin. The Japanese go for the latter and finish it by grilling it and serving it with lemon wedges. It's still quite tough, but the taste is a nice salty, beefy, lemony experience. Gyutan is a popular appetizer in pubs, but it's not substantial enough for an entree. 

The ring announcer's introduction of Jeff Hardy as weighing in at over 200 pounds is the biggest falsehood regarding body mass since Terry Forster's 1985 Topps baseball card. Hardy the Younger is all gristle and greasepaint, but he is surprisingly impervious to punishment. In matches, he shows off some snazzy moves, but his performance is on the whole as one-dimensional as his body. Even so, a Jeff Hardy match can be a decent opener to more filling fare.

 

Hachinoko  
(wasp larvae)

Undertaker  

Common characteristics: Old-
fashioned, scary,
bitter

Hachinoko became popular years ago when country people, deprived of fish and meats, turned to other wildlife in search of protein. The larvae are cooked in soy sauce and sugar and taste mildly sweet with a crumbly texture. These days, it is mainly a nostalgia item at parties. It makes a grand entrance in the festivities, and the older folks grin with expectation. The actual task of eating hachinoko, however, is not nearly so exciting.

So it is with the Undertaker. Though valuable and interesting in days past, he's now little more than nostalgia. His entrance, whether borne on the backs of hooded druids or in the seat of a Harley, is always the high point of his appearance, whereas the actual match is an anticlimactic chore to watch.

 

Unagi  
(eel)

Goldust  

Common characteristics: Disconcerting name, glossy skin, essentially familiar

Unagi is a sort of freshwater eel that is usually farm-raised. When prepared, it is filleted and gutted while still alive, then grilled and covered in a sweet, brown sauce. Though Western folk might cringe at eating eel, it tastes like just about any other grilled fish.

Goldust's shiny clothes and face paint, along with his homoerotic behavior, create a disturbing and sickening image for some fans. Those who actually watch his wrestling can see that his moveset and ring psychology are as conventional as anything one would see in the NWA in the early 1980s.

 

Fugu 
(blowfish)

Goldberg  

Common characteristics: Great hype, periodically available, occasionally deadly

Fugu is puffer fish, whose liver and reproductive organs contain an extremely deadly neurotoxin. Only specially trained and licensed chefs are allowed to prepare fugu, and its poisonous pieces are disposed of in the manner of medical waste. Fugu is only periodically available during the year, and its reputation inflates the price enormously. Though it is actually quite bland, fugu can be extremely dangerous.

In a similar fashion, Bill Goldberg believes that by staying off the market for long stretches at a time, his price per appearance will increase. His strategy appears to work, but when he actually appears, it is a fairly unremarkable spectacle. Even so, he remains an unpredictable and potentially career-ending force in the ring.

 

Uni 
(Sea urchin gonads)

Masa Chono  

Common characteristics: Unexplained popularity, terribly ugly, prone to spoilage

Sea urchins are spiny, asexual ocean dwellers that errantly spew out their reproductive organs en masse in the hopes of reproduction. Many Japanese think it's a swell idea to eat this goop. It is a yellowish paste, and it's usually served atop sushi rice. It tastes like something you might hock up after a protracted cold. Uni is a favorite of many sushi aficionados, so if you mention to one of these people that you think uni is wretched, they will assure you that you have not had proper, fresh uni.

What the Rock is in the United States, Masa Chono is in Japan. He's had a couple of middling runs in the states, but he is a legend in his home country. A fresh-faced youngster in the early 1990s, Chono aged at an abnormally rapid rate, and he now looks to be around 60 years old. His grotesque pock-marked face is not at all helped by a distinctly unchiseled physique that he manages to still squeeze into a pair of Batman-style pants. His popularity demands that he'll make an appearance at just about any New Japan event, but his decrepit body prohibits him from doing much more than standing on the ring apron while tag partners do the bulk of the ring work. If you tell someone that you've never seen a good Chono match, you'll be told that you haven't seen him in his prime, whenever that was.

 

Kanimiso  
(crab brains)

Bubba Ray Dudley 

Common characteristics: Unassuming look, powerful, best if taken in small doses

Imagine you come back from a successful fishing trip, and after scaling and cleaning your catch, you leave the waste outside in a bucket in the hot summer sun. A couple days later, you bring the bucket inside, dump it in to a blender, and puree it into a thick, gray paste. That pretty much sums up the look and taste of kanimiso. It is usually served atop sushi rice encircled with dried seaweed. The taste is quite strong, but those who enjoy it say it's better to nibble a little bit a time.

An amorphous body clad in gray, Bubba Ray Dudley carries the same unremarkable look as kanimiso. Bubba doesn't play a finesse game; he's all over-the-top power moves. In short matches and paired alongside more athletic partners, his schtick is inoffensive, but no one wants a prolonged experience with him.

 

Kobegyu  
(steak from 
beer-fed cows)

The Rock  

Common characteristics: Top-grade beef, expensive, questionable value

The cows who carry kobegyu (Kobe steak) upon their rumps live a fairly good life. They are fed beer and given regular massages to ensure that their fat marbles evenly throughout their flesh. They have one bad day, and then their flesh is divvied up and sold in restaurants in and around Kobe, the large city nearest to their pastures. The food is basically just a fine steak, so the challenge portion is based purely on price. Kobe beef cows are a specific breed, and their labor-intensive care and preparation contribute to an eye-popping price: about $150 for a chunk roughly half the size of an Outback Special.

And the taste? It's fantastic. If you ever eat it, you may declare it the best steak you've ever eaten. But is it worth $150? For that money, you could eat steak at Golden Corral every night of the week. Yeah, the steak wouldn't be as good, but....

The Rock has a peerless wrestling pedigree: third-generation wrestler, chiseled physique, respectable moveset, excellent timing and matchless charisma. But now Rocky has jillion-dollar Hollywood contracts crammed in all his pockets, so the dinky millions offered by wrestling just aren't that attractive. The Fed and the fan are lucky if they get Rock a few times a year; and for that Vince pays millions, and Joe Blow spends $36 a pop. And, yeah, Rock's matches are usually pretty good, sometimes great. But you have to wonder if he's really worth all that scratch. For the same money, you could get 10 flippy-floppy Mexicans that would bop all over the arena everyday, all year long. The matches may not be as memorable, but....

 

Natto  
(fermented soy beans)

Atsushi Onita  

Common characteristics: Regionally popular, sticky,
awful

Natto is one of the great mysteries of the food world. Why would anyone take perfectly good food — in this case, soy beans — and purposely let it rot before eating it? Granted, sometimes counterintuitive thinking leads to great consumables, such as cheese, beer or Pop Rocks. But with natto, you get exactly what you'd expect: wretched, smelly gloop. It's brown and granular, and it possesses an otherworldly stickiness. It smells like a French soccer team's locker room; and the taste, while not as bad as the smell, is like... well... rotten soy beans.

Of course, natto is said to be very conducive to good health, as all disgusting things are. As a general rule, most Japanese people love natto, and most everyone else hates it.

The wrestler Atsushi Onita presents a similar quandary. Why would wrestling fans want to see people gently push each other into barbed wire and fireworks? While it sounds exciting, it is in fact terribly boring, but it has become something of an industry in Japan, sometimes known as Death Match Wrestling or, more aptly, Garbage Wrestling. Americans, intrigued by these matches by way of Cactus Jack, eventually find their way to Onita. He is the king of this style of match, and his popularity in Japan has been great enough to get him elected to parliament.

Onita's matches feature almost no wrestling moves besides clotheslines and powerbombs. They are typically 10-minute affairs wherein he and his opponent tease at being thrown into the broken glass/shark tank/volcano, but usually end up with scant punctures and the ubiquitous "crimson mask." For some reason, Onita usually blades his left arm as well. Whatever. After becoming suitably covered in blood, Onita usually powerbombs his opponent about five times and then pins him. Afterwards, he typically delivers a ranting, tear-filled interview about the sacrifice of pro wrestlers. It's a shame he can't appreciate the sacrifice of the fans who must watch these matches.

 

Shiokara  
(salted squid entrails)

Stone Cold 
Steve Austin
 

Common characteristics: Tough, overwhelming, intestinal fortitude

They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, and that maxim is often true for food as well. Mole, from Mexico, looks like a puddle of tar, but it has a very pleasing, curry-like taste. But some foods are like V.C. Andrews books, and are as innately terrible as their appearance. Shiokara is one of those foods.

Worms in pink mud. That’s what shiokara looks like. The worms are in fact slices of squid, which in itself is not too bad. Though it is very chewy, squid can easily be rendered edible and delicious. The pink mud is the source of this dish's potency: it is made of the squid's digestive system and whatever contents it may include. It is extremely salty, bitter and fishy. This powerful taste is augmented by the considerable time it takes to masticate the squid flesh. Long after a morsel of shiokara is swallowed, it's presence lingers in one's mouth and mind.

From appearances, Steve Austin is similarly unimpressive. Pushing 40 with an average size and a broken-up body, Austin does not physically look to be much of a presence in the ring. But he is durable, lasting through 15 years' ring time, punctuated with many serious injuries. And like shiokara, Austin's reservoir of strength and perseverance comes from within.

Southerners would call it "fire in the belly," and Stone Cold has it in spades. Rage — whether directed at his opponent, at an injury, at his boss or at his wife — is what has propelled Austin to overcome his physical limitations and strike an empathetic chord with the crowds. Devoid of acrobatics or pageantry, Austin's matches nevertheless remain in the hearts and minds of fans (who can forget Austin's bloody visage when he was locked in Bret Hart's Sharpshooter at WrestleMania 13?—who can remember any Hurricane match ten minutes after completion?) because these battles represent the more basic human themes of struggle, victory and defeat.

 

Kujira  
(whale)

Jerry Lynn  

Common characteristics: Formerly working class, hard to find, snob appeal

Years ago, price-conscious Japanese moms would buy heaps of kujira to feed their families, rather than purchase expensive beef. Plentiful and cheap, whale meat served the same basic role as meatloaf in the American family.

But Japan and Russia were just a bit too enthusiastic about harvesting the flippered ones. Their falling numbers compelled most nations to cease whaling, and Japan drastically reduced its cull. Japanese whalers now bring in about 100 of the beasts per year; its quota for "scientific whaling."

Japanese whale researcher 1: Okay. Let's test the whale's response to being harpooned in the head. 
[Thunk!
Japanese whale researcher 2:
It dies. Just like all the others.
Japanese whale researcher 1: Interesting. Make a note of it.

The tons of flesh left over from these experiments is of course sold on the open market. Its relative scarcity means it is now an expensive delicacy. Part of the joy of eating whale is the knowledge that one is spurning the conventional and comfortable staples. It sometimes shows up at the seafood counter of supermarkets, but it's usually found at fancy parties. It's eaten raw or in stews and is said to taste pretty much like cow.

Jerry Lynn was a nondescript ham-and-egger for years. Laboring under masks in WCW and in the Bingo Halls of ECW, Lynn was wrestling's equivalent of meatloaf: inexpensive filler.

Years of workrate paid off for Mr. Lynn, however, and fans of late have come to think of him in a very different light. He won a small but committed fanbase while in ECW, and then headed to WWE. But in comparison to that fed's other wrestlers, he wasn't nearly so meaty or accessible. Now he's headlining another semi-visible group at NWA-TNA and is again heralded by smarts who enjoy their own superior judgment in preferring Lynn and his sublime cradle piledrivers over the likes of Kane, Hogan and Big Show.

 

Ikura 
(salmon roe)

Triple H  

Common characteristics: Aesthetic, moist, delicate

Ikura are salmon eggs and are usually served atop sushi rice. The eggs themselves are about pea-sized and have a deep red color. Glistening and bulbous, ikura is an attractive food, but its fishy, salty taste is rather unsatisfying. Though the outside of the eggs are firm, they explode under pressure, and fall completely apart in your mouth. Ikura is a favorite among some sushi lovers, but for many others, it is merely tolerated when placed alongside more palatable fare.

HHH has a near-perfect physique, which is all the more defined by his penchant for always being wet. Large and spherical, HHH's muscles are attractive and impressive, but they are mostly window dressing, as actual exertion tends to tear them to bits in the ring. HHH is always conspicuous in wrestling storylines and he has some devotees, but his status is buoyed by the presence of more dependable performers.
 

E-MAIL ROCKY  
BROWSE THE BIG IN JAPAN ARCHIVE

Rocky Swift is a columnist for www.CitizenScholar.net, and a teacher of English in Japan.


  
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