Counter Is Friendly: Eating Raw Chicken in Japan

Another night of throwing myself into the dining scene of Okayama. I found a place packed to the gills – there are indeed actual gills in the aquariums up front – and figured this was my best bet for maybe some sushi. The many tables are full of groups, and staff wave me to a seat at the counter tucked in among the rest, elbow to elbow. Everyone at the counter is hypnotized by a game show on a large TV at the end of the bar, including the chefs. Careful with those sushi knives, fellas.

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Thankfully there’s an English menu and I just start pointing. OK, tuna sashimi, scallop, octopus in vinegar, this grilled eggplant dish, and… what’s this? Under “Sashimi” it reads Chicken. Long pause. I had heard about eating raw chicken in Japan, and I had started to imagine it was just a rumor. Even the few Japanese friends and contacts I had asked about it on previous trips weren’t aware of chicken sashimi.

I pointed at it and the waitress hesitated. She pointed as well at the heading and said “sashimi,” making sure I understood. She turned the page and pointed out Fried Chicken. “Er, no. I think I may try the sashimi.”

Delicious? I ask, because I know that word (oishi), but what I really want to ask is Safe? Deadly? Salmonella??? She hesitates. Whoa, the waitress hesitates? And she won’t confirm that it is oishi. I order it anyway.

It comes and sure as hell that’s raw chicken. Torisashi. (tori for chicken, plus sashimi = torisashi)

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Looks nice and fresh and… ready for a wok or something, no? A bit of ground ginger, a lemon slice, some soy/vinegar. My resolve is weakening. I look to the old man at my right elbow. He is already looking at my plate and sort of chuckling. Oishi? He cocks his head, can’t say. Then I use something I recently learned for a partly comic, partly serious interrogative. I put my hands up in the air just above each side of my head and start twisting the palms rapidly at the ceiling: “Kyūkyū-sha?” (ambulance in word and gesture) He laughs again, but still isn’t sure what to say. Then when he sees my face fall, he throws up his thumbs. “Eh, very GOOD! Very GOOOOD!”

Deep breath. They wouldn’t serve it if people got sick on it all the time. Not all food is as lethal as the industrialized antibiotic-laden mess we’ve created back in the US. No one’s dying from eating salad or cantaloupe, for crying out loud. The Japanese consume tons (literally) of raw eggs each year with various dishes. They serve clean raw seafood every day. I can do this. I wondered what the incubation period for salmonella was. [2 to 48 hours]


It was almost anti-climactic. It is tender and has the texture of tuna without the hint of fish. Very mild and the sauce and ginger make it tastier. And all the while my brain is going: You’re going to miss all your appointments! The old man offers me a taste of his noodle dish, so I offer him some chicken sashimi to see if he balks. He does not. Well, I won’t be sick alone then.

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He also breaks out a huge bottle of shucho (like sake but distilled a bit, could be rice, buckwheat, barley, or sweet-potato based). I realize then that he is a regular and that these large bottles are kept behind the counter for the next visit. He pours a glass of hot water for me and tops it off with shochu. He turns up his nose (it does smell a bit) but then we raise our glasses. “Kanpai!

Behind us a couple sits at a table in the middle of the room, the only other foreigners in the place. My new friend, Yuji, points: “Dutch.” I’m wondering how he knows that and if the murmur of “Dutch” has just passed through the counter crowd via a waitress. Yuji wants to know if I speak Dutch. I don’t, beyond thank you (Dank je wel!), but I can bet the farm they speak English well. But we stay at the counter.

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Yuji insists I try the house specialty. It is a bowl of glass noodles with sliced onion and bits of cold cooked chicken. Like leftovers when I was a kid. I hated cold chicken. After torisashi I find it silly that I am now feeling mildly nauseous with my first bite of cold chicken. “Special menu! With shochu!”

He points to the Dutch again, sitting alone. “Table. Not friendly. Not talk.” He turns to the counter and the small audience around us that has been watching, commenting, and chatting with us and the staff. The waitresses, I find out, are Chinese. Students, they seem like. He waves his arm to indicate everyone seated with us: “Counter? Counter is friendly!” We toast with more shochu.

He orders a round of “vegetable” sushi, which is still fish but with some veggies tucked in there. He calls it “economic sushi.” We barely eat half of it and then he insists I pack it to go and take it back to my hotel. There is much photo taking. A phone call from his wife which he has me answer. “Helllooooooo?” He keeps sending me shochu while discussing when (or how) he is coming home. He shows me her photo with his kids.

We have very little language between us, so often we had to rely on gestures. He used this one in reference to his wife but I think in good (shochu) spirits.
We have very little language between us, so often we had to rely on gestures. He used this one in reference to his wife but I think in good (shochu) spirits.

I am uncomfortably stuffed and my head is buzzing with drink. I have a packet of sushi there is no way I’m going to eat in the morning. Like the night before, at the counter of the gyoza joint, I leave with demands that I come back next time to see them. “Counter is friendly.” I couldn’t agree more.

MORE PHOTOS:

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The “vegetable” sushi which I ended up with in a to-go box.

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Another house specialty, a sort of vinegar marinade with some fried anchovies.

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A big bowl of it was on the counter right in front of me.

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The eggplant was roasted whole on a grill then served with bonito flakes. These flakes are very light, a bit salty and of a texture a bit like cured prosciutto, and the heat of the food makes them dance and write in a way that can be disturbing when you first eat it as they look live somehow.

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Counter people.
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toriyoshi-okayama-restaurant-010Here are GPS/Google map directions. It is a short walk from the Okayama Train Station.

20 thoughts on “Counter Is Friendly: Eating Raw Chicken in Japan

  • October 29, 2013 at 1:19 pm
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    Great story again Mr. Kevin. It seems to be you are one lucky travel writer 😉

    Reply
  • October 29, 2013 at 2:15 pm
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    GREAT story! I always wish I was the type that would just instantly be befriended by people in their countries; alas, I’m too shy I think!

    Reply
    • October 30, 2013 at 2:50 am
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      I never figured you as shy, but then I would say the same about myself. I really have to force myself to walk into a situation where I am at high risk of embarrassment and misunderstanding. But nearly every time I do, the result is awesome. That said, I don’t think this would necessarily have happened in a Tokyo joint. (It does happen at Popeye beer bar there, but that’s because beer brings people together.)

      Reply
  • October 29, 2013 at 3:04 pm
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    I had raw chicken once in Japan, too, but not in sashimi form. It was just as thinly sliced, but served as part of a salad. It tasted pretty good, but I can think of a few other things that would have gone better with the salad, like smoked salmon.

    Reply
  • October 30, 2013 at 4:09 am
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    Brave soul eating chunks of raw chicken! I could understand thin slices, but chunks? I guess if there’s enough sauce and ginger I might try it – sake would help also. 🙂

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    • November 5, 2013 at 2:13 am
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      Really it was so mild without the sauce and ginger. If not for the mental factor of salmonella, it was no “weirder” than eating raw tuna. I was pretty relieved when I reached the 48 hour survival mark. 🙂

      Reply
  • November 2, 2013 at 11:46 am
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    Raw chicken? Wow. i give you credit for trying it. I don’t know if I could have done it. My brain is so programmed to fear salmonella, etc.

    I love the encounter you had with this man. Looks like SO much fun!!

    Reply
    • November 4, 2013 at 2:02 am
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      Yeah, there was some definite brain-override going on there at the counter. 🙂

      Reply
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  • January 20, 2015 at 11:41 am
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    I think you are a bit crazy! Thanks for the interesting read. I would never be brave enough to eat raw chicken!

    Reply
    • January 22, 2015 at 3:53 pm
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      It’s Japan so I was confident they were meticulous. Otherwise, no way in hell! 🙂

      Reply
  • June 28, 2015 at 7:36 pm
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    I believe they dip the raw chicken in boiling water for a second or two to kill any bacteria before serving it

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    • June 28, 2015 at 7:58 pm
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      That would change the color of the very outside surface though, wouldn’t it? Even beef placed raw into pho, for example, changes color/texture quickly and that’s not even boiling. Same with those who make (ruin) ceviche by pouring scalding water over the fish.

      Reply
  • April 22, 2016 at 10:32 am
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    No. It’s raw. I go to Japan quite a lot (more Okinawa as I’m a Karate student) and like yourself I hadn’t encountered torisashi, until 3 weeks ago. They sell it on Kokusai Dori in Naha, okinawa. I am not too bothered about any form or illness as I eat a LOT of sashimi in Japan, and as you rightly state they are VERY meticulous when it comes to most everything, especially cleanliness and food preparation. I thought it was as you described and as I expected to be honest. Still good stuff and I would be getting it again. I’ve tried all kinds of things, in Okinawa they sell pickled pigs wombs and penises. So yeah. I eat anything. I especially love your story about the counter and the old man. So very true of prety much any new place I walk into in Okinawa. As soon as they realise im british, that’s it. New friends aplenty. What’s great thes days though is that the older generation are catching up with technology and I’ve had 75 year olds adding me on facebook there and then, taking a photo of me and adding me to their address book. Thank you for the read. 🙂

    Reply
    • April 22, 2016 at 11:58 am
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      Thanks for the comment. Pickled wombs and penises. Oh man… I’ll stick with raw chicken. Lol. It’s all psychological, really. What surprises me are my Japanese friends who look at me uncertainly when I tell this story and don’t believe it was raw chicken. It’s definitely not typical everywhere, maybe not as popular as wombs and penises. 😉

      Reply
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