Fugu in Japan is Expensive, for Good Reason
Fugu (フグ) is that deathly poisonous pufferfish delicacy in Japan tempting tourists who wish to dine on the wild side. One wrong step during preparation it’s all over—a sort of foodie Russian roulette.
The Japanese mainly enjoy fugu in the winter, so if you want the most restaurant options, visit Tokyo during the winter months.
Expect to spend between ¥6,000 – ¥30,000 on a fugu dining experience in Tokyo, depending on the restaurant you choose, and the course menu.
Given the relative rarity of fugu — plus the intense training a chef must have to neutralize the tetrodotoxin safely, a pufferfish’s neurotoxin — it’s easy to understand why the price is high. Each fish can sell for around ¥15,000 for just one — depending on the fishermen’s luck.
And Japan’s laws governing fugu preparation cause even more issues for restaurants, driving up prices.
What exactly is fugu?
Fugu is an innocent-looking little pufferfish (or blowfish) that also has an extremely deadly poison defense — while also being able to balloon up to prevent being eaten.
It is a relatively small fish with a spikey exterior and a friendly, almost smiling face.
And is a highly sought after fish in Japan due to its exceptionally low-fat levels, high concentration of collagen (in the skin), and high protein — giving this white fish a flavor profile, unlike others.
Torafugu, or tiger fugu, is the coveted sub-species of fugu with the most distinctive flavor and, interestingly enough, the most lethal concentration of poison.
You’ll find fugu prepared in various ways, here are some typical dishes many fugu chefs prepare.
Common Fugu Dishes
While thinly sliced fugu sashimi is the most widely known method of serving this exciting fish, it’s one of many ways. Regardless of how a fugu restaurant prepares the fish, the chef must be licensed to prove they can safely.
And if you want to say you’ve tried fugu, why not try all the ways so you can share what your favorite is when friends and family inevitably ask what you thought of fine fugu cuisine.
This is thinly sliced meaty flesh of the fugu fish. Compared to sashimi from other fish, such as tuna, fugu has a very light, almost transparent appearance. And the way it is laid out on a transparent plate gives the overall dish a very fancy feel and the chance to see the quality of the fish.
Most often served with grated daikon, soy sauce (or ponzu sauce), and wasabi.
Usually, when you hear karaage, it refers to fried chicken, but this is fried fugu. And interestingly, it’s not just the meat. Many parts are fried: bones, fins, innards, and sometimes ground/mixed before frying (apparently nothing goes to waste on this fish except where the most significant concentrations of poison are — liver and ovaries).
Fugu Stew (Nabe/Hotpot)
Much like other hot pot dishes in Japanese cuisine, this is Fugu meat and skin simmered with vegetables in a dashi broth. Often a fancy earthen pot with veggies such as cabbage, shiitake mushrooms, carrot, green onion, and tofu.
Fugu Rice Porridge (fugu zosui)
This is often the last dish of a fugu course meal. The broth from the fugu stew is added to steamed rice and topped with green onion, and it’s a simple dish meant to relax the palate after the more robust flavors of previous dishes.
Infused sake (hirezake)
This is a rice wine infused with the smoked/grilled tail and fins of the fugu fish. It gives the usually clear sake a milky appearance — and fugu connoisseurs deeply respect this drink.
The “Traditional” Fugu Dinner
The best fugu restaurants are omakase, or chef’s choice where you enjoy the chef’s expert touch while sipping hot hirezake in a very traditional Japanese atmosphere.
The Best and Safest Fugu Restaurants in Tokyo
Here are some recommendations for fugu restaurants where you will find the best fugu in Tokyo and rest assured you’re in good hands to eat this dangerous fish safely.
- Usuki Yamadaya (Nishi-Azabu / Kaiseki, Fugu)
This is probably one of the most recommended restaurants capable of serving safe fugu cuisine. This is a classy gourmet experience from a 3-star Michelin restaurant serving fugu and other Oita prefecture specialties.
- Sekihoutei (Jingu-mae / Kaiseki, Fugu)
Sekihoutei is a 2-Michelin star restaurant in Jingu-mae, Tokyo, and home to one of Tokyo’s top chefs — but that isn’t the only reason to go here. It has an incredible atmosphere to give you that modern yet traditional Japanese experience. Fugu is on the menu from October to March (winter months)
- Fukuji (Ginza / Fugu)
Fukuji is where you go when you want to dine like a Japanese celebrity. Often rated as one of the top restaurants in Tokyo, Fukuji won’t disappoint — and unlike other restaurants in this list, Fukuji specializes in fugu.
Shimonoseki: The Fugu Hub of Japan
Shimonoseki is quite literally the hub of the fugu trade in Japan. Located at the Westernmost tip of Honshu (the main island of Japan) in the Yamaguchi prefecture, it’s home to the Haedomari Market. — the only market specializing in fugu.
It is said the best fugu is fished from the waters in this area, and the best fugu is reserved for Japan’s most exclusive, high-end restaurants in Tokyo (also Osaka and Kyoto).
Is Fugu Worth the Risk?
For public safety, Japan enacted laws preventing restaurants from serving fugu liver, apparently due to the high concentration of poison and the extreme difficulty in preparing it safely.
And a fun fact, the Tokugawa shogunate banned fugu in Edo (which is now Tokyo). (wikipedia.org)
Safety is extraordinarily crucial because while you may not have heard of them, there are cases of poisoning occurring.
“According to the Bureau of Social Welfare and Public Health in Tokyo, 315 cases of poison by fugu were reported between 1996 and 2005 in Japan, 31 of which were fatal.” (nymag.com)
Here’s the part you don’t get from statistics like this. At restaurants, where the Fugu chef is one of the highest trained types of chefs that exist, no patron has been poisoned. This stat is pumped up by inexperienced fisherman (or at home cooks) trying to create fugu dishes.
So is it worth the risk? Well, that’s up to you. If you are the adventurous type and want to add a little chance to your dining experience — maybe it is. Dining at a restaurant serving fugu in Tokyo, you’re in good hands.
But there is also something else noteworthy — farmed fugu, called Takifugu. Fugu isn’t genetically poisonous. No, they become toxic from the bacilli bacteria in seawater. This means farmed Takifugu, which never comes into contact with this bacteria, isn’t poisonous! (source: eater.com)
Some purists wonder, though, if the fugu isn’t potentially deadly, is it a delicacy anymore?
How long does it take for fugu to kill you?
According to lore, one gram of fugu poison is enough to kill up to 500 people. That’s a frightening number for such a small amount of toxin. The actual time it takes to kill varies from person to person and how much of the poison you consumed.
It could take anywhere from 20 minutes to 24 hours.
I’m not a medical doctor, and this does not constitute medical advice, but from what I’ve researched — fugu poison has a few stages.
First, you’ll experience dizziness. Then maybe some numbness of the mouth (and lips). This is where one can become confused. Because I have heard even safe fugu can cause a tingle in your lips.
Continuing, you may also have symptoms such as weakness, nausea, diarrhea, sweating, cramps, and more. Eventually causing asphyxia and potentially death.
To wrap this guide up, yes — fugu is expensive. But it is costly for a good reason. It’s not the most common fish in the sea, the best catch is reserved for the highest-end restaurants, and chefs must go through rigorous training to serve it.
While scary, fugu is generally safe when you dine in famous restaurants in Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto.
Over time we will add more recommendations to this article and probably dive deeper into the topic too.