Most thrilling travel adventures
While preparing for a trip to Osaka recently, I came across this sentence in an article by Adam Platt in The New York Times: "In parts of Japan, legend has it, the bodies of fugu-overdose victims were once laid beside their open caskets for several days to ensure that they were not being buried alive."
Fugu is the Japanese word for pufferfish, which carries the paralysing poison tetrodotoxin.
I had been contemplating a meal of fugu in Japan for several weeks, but these sorts of details made me wary.
Platt punctuates his degustation menu with grim figures, such as the 315 poisonings in a decade, including 31 fatalities.
His final verdict is ambivalent. One course, he writes, is like "warm curds of milk". Most harrowing is the fact that there is no known antidote to tetrodotoxin. Doctors administer a charcoal purgative and hope for the best. You put your life in the hands of a single chef and his fugu-hiki knife. Still, the idea lingered in my mind like a dare.
I emailed Chris Noble, general manager of WorldNomads.com, a company that bills itself as offering "travel insurance for adventurous travellers" or "those of us who like to do more than sit on a beach for two weeks". The website offers an A to Z of intrepid activities, with coverage for everything from sleigh rides to clay-pigeon shooting and hydrofoiling.
Neither "fugu" nor "Russian roulette" was on the list, but I asked Noble whether an insurance plan would cover a traveller in the event that they never made it through dessert.
"There is a lot of grey around these types of edgy cases," he replied. "If it's generally regarded as a highly dangerous thing to do, then an insurer will look at it the same way and ask the question whether you 'actively put yourself in harm's way'." I should not expect my insurance to automatically cover it, in other words.
Maybe, Noble suggested in jest, I could "stick to the calamari". But where's the story in that?
A great deal of modern travel employs a quiet sleight of hand, where risk is cloaked behind assurances of comfort and safety. Package tours and cruise holidays are presented as travel flushed of risk, and this is part of their attraction: the only cost a passenger needs to contemplate to see the world is the one printed on their ticket. But the horror of the Costa Concordia, which capsized off the coast of Italy, comes from the unsettling reminder that this is illusory.
Just like the Carnival Spirit, where a couple fell overboard last May, the Costa Concordia proves that all travel involves risk, even the most innocuous. A traveller may not be bungy jumping over the Zambezi River, feeling the elastic snap above Nile crocodiles, but they take a chance every time they get their passport stamped.
The real question is not who avoids risks and who takes them - we all do - but how each person approaches the odds to determine what is acceptable.
This is where calculated risk comes into play, a term often used in economics to describe the prediction of an outcome based on all available evidence. In travel, an individual makes risk assessments using acquired knowledge, common sense and personal taste.
The odds of disaster during flight, for example, still seem so small to me as to be essentially negligible. Cave diving beneath the Nullarbor Plain in Australia, on the other hand, is on my permanent blacklist.
A seasoned diver with extensive training has no problem pushing into the six-kilometre Cocklebiddy Cave, though, and almost anybody with aviophobia (the fear of flying) would find my negligible risk completely unacceptable.
The scale is subjective. No one can know everything, either. Calculating risk is the same as educated guessing, which is why resources such as Smartraveller and health advisories are popular and useful.
These information sites aggregate factors outside the realm of common expertise - political tensions, crime rates, cultural and medical details - to produce shorthand summaries so a traveller can make more informed decisions. Just as we rely on government to deal with basic infrastructure in our cities, Smartraveller and these advisories do the dirty reconnaissance work so we can get on with actually travelling.
Insurance offers something slightly different. Partly, it works as reinforcement, empowering travellers to take calculated risks in the first place, but it also covers gaps. Many of the truly hazardous risks in travel are impossible to foresee. I cannot know, for instance, that walking down a particular street in Beijing is bad until the thief has his hand in my pocket, just as Smartraveller will not tell me not to eat chicken korma in Bangalore.
The common claims list at WorldNomads.com includes broken frenulums, monkey bites, kidnappings and fire blasts.
In most cases, the cause is simply bad luck, explains Noble, "but having travel insurance was the common factor that ensured [people] were looked after and not out of pocket tens of thousands of dollars". Travel insurance is the proverbial security blanket.
Nevertheless, none of this addresses the most fascinating question concerning risk: why do some people actively court it?
Travellers have become so efficient at assessing dangers and rationalising them into invisibility that the benefits of risk are rarely acknowledged, let alone celebrated.
Why would a person fully cognisant of their own limitations arrive in Osaka and go straight to Dotonbori St to find a restaurant marked by a giant fugu lantern? Why would they go inside?
The interior of Zuboraya is drab and unremarkable. The music is funereal. A polluted canal is visible through the windows alongside a Ferris wheel themed around a strange anime penguin.
Why would I come here by myself and order the seven-course pufferfish special for breakfast?
On one level, the answer is obvious: risk is a thrill. Gary Cunningham, president of Australian BASE Association, echoed this sentiment when I asked him why people feel compelled to jump off buildings.
There is a wide variety of reasons, he told me, but mostly it is "because it is an enjoyable activity to do". In a world where roller coasters and downhill skiing merit the title entertainment, maybe that is justification enough.
But risk is also a means of self- discovery. The Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner demonstrated this last October when he skydived nearly 40 kilometres over the desert of New Mexico, reaching supersonic speeds.
"Sometimes you have to go really high to see how small you are," Baumgartner told the media just before he jumped.
Poet T S Eliot once said something very similar: "Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go."
A third reason for risk is more elusive, but perhaps the most compelling for adventurous travellers. Platt touches on it when he sums up his fugu meal in Tokyo. Once finished, his primary emotion is a sense of relief, he explains.
"Maybe it's the sake, or the four bottles of beer, but somehow, after my brush with mortality, everything looks fresher, more vivid, a little more alive."
This is a sensation that should be familiar to anyone who has ever stepped beyond the beaten path to take a chance on something new.
Risk has a way of making things seem dazzlingly immediate. The senses are sharpened like a fugu-hiki knife.
Acknowledging and appreciating the risks you take in travel can make it feel more meaningful.
Back in the restaurant, the waitress brings out a plate of fugu sashimi, along with a steaming miso soup featuring a fugu head floating like an apple in a puddle.
Then there are grilled fugu fillets, tempura fugu, fugu sushi and noodles made from shredded skin and subcutaneous fat.
The flesh tastes surprisingly bland, although my lips tingle on the edge of numbness and my stomach growls in complaint. Nerves or the first effects of toxic poisoning? I realise I forgot to research a timeline of symptoms.
A few days later and still mobile, I mention this meal to a renowned Osaka chef, who makes a long exhaling noise in response.
Then he asks me if I ate the liver. I shake my head: fugu liver is illegal in Japan because it contains a perilous amount of tetrodotoxin. The liver is one of several parts that must be discarded in a controlled way, because homeless people have been known to die from sifting through restaurant garbage.
"Well, you have not eaten fugu until you eat the liver," the chef says. "Liver is the most risky part."
There is that subjective scale again: one man's risk is another man's appetiser, but this should hardly be read as a deterrent. You don't have to down every part of the pufferfish or leap from the edge of outer space to reap the benefit of taking chances.
As Katherine Mansfield once put it: "Risk! Risk anything! Care no more for the opinions of others, for those voices. Do the hardest thing on earth for you. Act for yourself. Face the truth."
Sydney Morning Herald