TOKYO With a scoop of a net Tokyo chef Naohito Hashimoto selects a poisonous blowfish, considered a delicacy in Japan, and with a few deft strokes of his gleaming knife starts the delicate process of preparing it for a customer.
In moments, Hashimoto has separated the edible parts of the fish from organs filled with a poison more deadly than cyanide.
For more than six decades, dicing blowfish in Tokyo has been the preserve of a small band of strictly regulated and licensed chefs, usually in exclusive restaurants.
But new laws coming into effect from October are opening the lucrative trade to restaurants without a license, making chefs like Hashimoto see red.
"We have spent time and money in order to obtain and use the blowfish license, but with these new rules anybody can handle blowfish even without a license," said Hashimoto, a blowfish chef for some 30 years.
"They're saying it's now okay to serve blowfish. We licensed chefs feel this way of thinking is a bit strange."
The poison known as tetrododoxin is found in parts of the blowfish, including the liver, heart, intestines and eyes, and is so intense that a tiny amount will kill. Every year there are reports of people dying after preparing blowfish at home.
The Tokyo Metropolitan Government says city laws covering the serving of blowfish should be changed to reflect changing times and hope that relaxing the rules will cut prices and bring Tokyo in line with the rest of the nation.
"Outside of Tokyo, the regulations for blowfish are even more relaxed and yet there are hardly any poison-related accidents," said Hironobu Kondo, an official at the city's Food Control Department.
"There is the hope that the number of restaurants with unlicensed chefs serving blowfish will rise, and that blowfish as an ingredient will be used not only for traditional Japanese foods but also others such as Chinese and Western foods."
A full course meal of blowfish, known as fugu in Japanese, features delicacies such as blowfish tempura, slices of raw fish thin enough to see through fanned out across a plate like chrysanthemum petals, and toasted fins in cups of hot sake.
But the meal is far from cheap, as diners pay for the safety of a licensed chef. At Hashimoto's restaurant, a meal costs at least 10,000 yen a person.
Though thrill seeking diners are reputed to seek out chefs who leave just enough of the poison to make the lips tingle, blowfish professionals scoff at this as urban legend, noting that ingesting even that much of the poison would be hazardous.
Apprentice blowfish chefs must train with a veteran for a minimum of two years before they can take rigorous written and practical exams. In Tokyo, the exam fee runs to 17,900 yen.
Customers outside a Tokyo sushi restaurant, one of the places where blowfish could be served under the new rules, said there was no substitute for the skill of a trained chef.
"Cooking blowfish is an art form that requires technique and skills," said screenwriter Shoji Imai. "That's why we pay good money for blowfish."
Hashimoto's years of training means it takes him just two minutes to gut a blowfish, and he says there is no substitute for this kind of experience.
"I don't want people to forget that you can actually die from eating blowfish," he said. "I feel the government's awareness of this has diminished."
(Editing by Elaine Lies and Michael Perry)