Is Japan's Cruelest Seafood Dish Actually Cruel?

Japan often takes flak for animal cruelty, but this is a surprising exception

dancing squid in a Japanese prepared dish


Several years ago, a video depicting a terrifying Japanese culinary experience went viral on the Internet. Well, terrifying for people who don't consider food item writhing around on their plates to be abnormal, anyway—how would you feel if your food "danced" around your plate as you attempted to eat it?

Well, if you visit Japan's Aomori or Hakodate prefectures, located on the northern and southern tips of Honshu and Hokkaido islands, respectively, you won't have to wonder any longer. In both of these maritime regions, you can order a sashimi bowl crowned by a squid that literally dances. Well, there's a catch, but more on that in a second.

The Science of the Dancing Squid

The first thing you should know, technically speaking, about Japan's dancing squid dish is that the dancing seafood isn't technically a squid at all—it's a cuttlefish. The second thing you should know is that it isn't actually dancing. In fact, it isn't alive at all, a fact that will delight animal rights activists and annoy those who take the "living foods" movement to extreme levels—this thing ain't alive!

In fact, the reason the cuttlefish appears to dance on top of the rice (and the other very Japanese things) inside the bowl is not because it's still alive, but because latent electrical impulses are traveling through its muscle neurons, a phenomenon the soy sauce you pour over it before you eat it (i.e. sodium chloride) intensifies. This is part of the reason why chefs tend to kill the animals only minutes or even seconds before they're served: If you wait too long, the tissue will be too dead to dance.

So Wait – It's a Zombie Squid?

That depends on how you define "zombie." Indeed, ensuring the cuttlefish is dead before you eat it takes little more than a quick look at the slaughtering process. After removing the creature from the tank, the chef immediately slices it lengthwise then tears off its outer skin, which removes the cuttlefish's brain from its body.

Some restaurants (i.e. ones that don't play to the obsession of Japanese and foreigners alike with watching a presumably living creature twerk all over their lunch) even slice up the meat. Sliced squid will also "dance" if you pour soy sauce on it soon enough after death, but the effect isn't quite as dramatic without the entire animal intact—pay attention to this point in a few paragraphs, will you?

How to Order in Japan

As mentioned earlier in the article, dancing, cuttlefish is primarily found in the Japanese prefectures of Aomori and Hakodate, which makes sense given their location amid the cold, cephalopod-rich waters of the northern Sea of Japan. Many sushi restaurants in either of these regions, particular in the capital cities of Aomori and Hakodate, will serve the dish, which is known in Japanese as "odori-don."

One surefire way to make sure you eat dancing squid the next time you visit Japan is to go to Ikkatei Tabiji Restaurant in Hakodate City, which is the restaurant that turned the dish into a Web phenomenon way back when. Dozens of other restaurants throughout northern Honshu and southern Hokkaido serve the dish, but if you want to get it freshest dancing squid, you might as well go to the source.

When to Visit Aomori and Hakodate

Dancing squid is available anytime of the year in either of these large cities—and, to be sure, many of other smaller cities in northern Japan that you're likely to visit. As far as when to visit these cities for other reasons, you should keep in mind that winter in this part of Japan is brutal, so while cephalopods thrive on extreme cold, you might not. The most pleasant time to visit both Aomori and Hakodate is summer, from June to August, although this also tends to be the most expensive time to travel, on account of higher hotel rates.

As far as which of these cities to visit, why not visit both? While Hakodate has drawn comparisons to San Francisco for its hilliness and location by two bays, Aomori is an oft-missed foodie paradise; both are now connected to Tokyo via high-speed Shinkansen, which means there's really no reason to skip either.

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