Season 2, Episode 7

Tokyo

Japan is a paradox. The low birthrate, the dedication, the conformity, and the life of a salary man are well known. There is also a competitive and rigid culture that gives way to some unique subcultures. Bourdain has traveled to Tokyo countless times, but on this trip he is in search of the city's dark, extreme, and bizarrely fetishistic underside.

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Bourdain explores Tokyo's music scene
:49
Anthony Bourdain explores Tokyo at night and checks out the local music scene: the good, the bad and the extremely loud.

Parental Advisory. This Program is for Mature Adults. NOT for kiddies!

I love Tokyo. If I had to eat only in one city for the rest of my life, Tokyo would be it. Most chefs I know would agree with me. For those with restless, curious minds, fascinated by layer upon layer of things, flavors, tastes and customs which we will never fully be able to understand, Tokyo is deliciously unknowable. I'm sure I could spend the rest of my life there, learn the language, and still die happily ignorant.

It's that densely packed, impenetrable layer cake of the strange, wonderful and awful that thrills. It's mesmerizing. Intimidating. Disorienting. Upsetting. Poignant. And yes, beautiful.

Like many of our shows, our Tokyo episode is really not about Tokyo, though it takes place there.

It tells two very different stories:

Naomichi Yasuda is my master, my mentor as far as all things related to sushi, and my friend. For almost two decades, he was the man around whom the eponymous Sushi Yasuda in New York City revolved; one of the first, greatest and most important sushi chefs in America. Over many epically delicious meals at his restaurant, he taught me everything I know about sushi. How to eat it. Where it comes from. Which is more important, the fish or the rice? Is fresher necessarily better? Everything.

He is also a fan of classic cinema, an intellectual, a deep thinker, and a lifelong practitioner of and competitor in bare-knuckle (Kyokushin) karate -- both sanctioned fights and underground matches. His massive fists, enlarged knuckles (from years of pounding cinderblock walls) and terrifying forearms are, to say the least -- unusual for a sushi chef.

He is unusual in other ways as well. He was among the first to employ female sushi chefs at his restaurant, a diversion from accepted practice once unthinkable. (Women's hands were believed, by old school dudes, to be "too hot" to handle sushi without "ruining" it). He was among the first real masters to employ Westerners behind the bar. He was certainly the first acclaimed sushi chef I know of who not only admitted, but proudly boasted of freezing some of his fish, (much of the fish you eat in sushi bars is, in fact, at one point, frozen), giving the dates or "vintage" of each fish he'd blast frozen in a medical freezer to "cure" it in a desirable way. Many varieties of fish, Yasuda taught me, are in fact, improved by freezing.

Perhaps the most unconventional thing he did was disappear. A few years ago, at the top of his game, his always-packed restaurant considered among the best -- if not THE best -- sushi bar in New York, he announced he would, in his fifties, be leaving for Japan, to start all over again, at the bottom, opening a tiny, modest, low-overhead sushi bar in Tokyo, where he could prove himself anew, show Japanese that what he had done in America, he could do in Japan.

Sushi Yasuda still runs quite nicely in New York. It still bears his name. It is still excellent.

Naomichi Yasuda, incredibly enough, though, says he has nothing to do with it.

He is a fascinating subject and a great chef with an engrossing story. In this episode, we get to know him a bit, and explore where his unique style comes from. Can the very different disciplines of fighting and sushi-making be said to connect? You will be surprised, I think, at the answer.

Like a lot of non-Japanese, obsessed with Japan, Japanese food and Japanese culture, I've always been amused, occasionally appalled and always befuddled by the more lurid aspects of Japanese fantasy, pop culture and expressions of fetishistic desire. Popular comic books (manga), toys, films, advertisements and entertainments are loaded with images of bondage (shibari), hyper-sexualized school girls, rape, homoeroticism, violation by demons and tentacles -- and more (all generally referred to as "hentai"). The honky-tonk Shinjuku district of Tokyo seems to promise galaxies of gratification -- for flavors of desire that range from the simply eccentric to the absolutely horrifying.

What might this mean? Is Japan simply crazier and kinkier than we are? Does this detail-oriented Sodom and Gomorrah relate somehow to their incredible and varied perfectionist cuisine? And is anyone, in the middle off all this madness, actually getting laid?

On one hand, the Japanese seem to have a much more open, nonjudgmental, less puritanical view of sex. Attitudes toward women's roles in the workplace and elsewhere, however, remain largely mired in the long-ago past. Rigorously conventional on one hand, batshit crazy party animals on the other, Japan will always confuse outsiders looking in. Even from close-up.

Interestingly, in a recent London Observer article, it is claimed that 61% of unmarried Japanese men and 49% of unmarried women are not involved in any kind of a romantic relationship; 45% of Japanese women polled said they were "not interested in or despised sexual contact."

With the statistical rise in numbers of "hikikimori," shut-ins or recluses who have given up on the outside world and live largely online as avatars, "shingurus" (parasite singles) who continue to live with their parents well into their 30s, and "otaku," proud members of the growing "geek" culture, fewer and fewer young Japanese seem to be having actual sex -- living out their fantasy sexual lives vicariously. Virtual girlfriends, lifelike, custom-designed dolls, pillows designed to "hug" lonely singles, all play a part in a broader spectrum of loneliness and desire.

Afraid of rejection, uninterested in the complications of involvement, many Japanese are happy to pay intimidating sums of money simply to be flirted with, assured that they are interesting and amusing, and made to feel special -- often at "hostess bars" where no actual sex ever occurs.

So in many ways, this show is about fantasy -- as much as anything else.

I hope this news will temper, slightly, the reaction of the more easily offended who watch this episode, as it contains images and subject matter of a decidedly "mature" and even offensive nature.

This is a "difficult" show. And I hope it doesn't frighten anyone away from one of the most fascinating and deeply enjoyable places to visit, experience and learn a little about on earth.

It's easily one of the most brilliantly shot and edited episodes we've ever done. Tasked with evoking the work of Japanese auteur Shin'ya Tsukamoto, ("Tokyo Fist" and "Tetsuo, Iron Man"), The ZPZ crew came up with something truly mind-boggling.

If you ever saw the uncut version, your heads would explode.

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About Anthony

Renowned chef, bestselling author and Emmy winning TV host Anthony Bourdain is a trailblazer and outspoken commentator who provides unique insights into food, current events, and cultures around the world.

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