Frighteningly scarce, brutally slaughtered - and utterly delicious. When on foreign soil, one should be open to - or even seek out - local cuisine, but can this alone justify wolfing down a serving of minke whale in a restaurant in Tokyo, Japan?
It was for scientific research, honestly, or journalistic research; a one-off cultural experience to see what all the fuss was about, an experiment to see how much hatemail my inbox can handle, and to dispel a few myths.
Myth one: whale meat is everywhere in Japan. Not true.
Or at least, it's not as available as you might think. It's rarely found in supermarkets and restaurants.
It took me six days to convince our Japanese guide, who wishes to remain nameless to avoid death when next in New Zealand, to take me to a restaurant specialising in whale meat.
And the restaurant - in the hip suburb of Shibuya, where neon is your friend and the outsides of tall buildings are disguised as large television screens - was packed full of whale-eating Japanese.
The popularity of whale meat, or kujira, skyrocketed after World War II when Japan was dirt poor and kujira was much cheaper than beef, chicken or pork. So popular, my guide says, that it it wasn't unusual to eat whale every day and it became an important source of protein.
The Japanese Government has been campaigning in recent years to turn a conservation-minded younger generation into one that will gladly substitute whale meat for McDonalds. The older generation, on the other hand, needs little encouragement; all the diners in the restaurant were of an age that probably remember chowing down Moby Dick in their younger days.
For them, whale is a traditional food that's been caught and eaten for centuries, and it's culturally ingrained in them that eating it is natural and inoffensive. It was even served in schools.
The Japanese Government says it is time to resume commercial whaling because it claims whale populations have increased to a sustainable point. In the meantime, Japan uses a loophole in the moratorium to take a quota of whale-catch for "scientific purposes", whatever that means, though my guide insists the catch is used for research.
Even 20 years ago, he says, you could get whale meat everywhere, but the moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986 strangled the supply chain and saw prices soar.
These days it's still not easy to find, but prices are reasonable: about $15 to $20 for a plate of minke whale steak, sashimi (raw meat) or whale bacon.
Who knew whale was so versatile? And fairly odourless except - predictably - for a faint, fishy scent.
Under the watchful eye of a framed picture on the wall depicting the slaughter of a whale in the Pacific Ocean, we downed the first mouthfuls of lunch with a cool Asahi beer.
The bacon was thin, smoked, and came with a healthy share of unhealthy fat. It left a hint of salty salami on the tastebuds. The sashimi was next, and tasted like it looked - like fresh tuna straight from the sea, the kind that melts in your mouth and slides effortlessly down the throat.
Next up: a lightly seared whale steak, looking very much like rare steak covered in teriyaki sauce. The verdict: tender, surprisingly steak-like, with a mild, fishy after-taste.
Moments passed without barfing.
The guide took a moment to push Japan's position that whales themselves eat a lot of cod and sardines, damaging the underwater environment and generally making the world unpleasant.
"Sometimes it's good to catch them," he said. I wasn't buying, but I was certainly eating.
Myth number two: kujira is a delicacy in Japan. Not true.
At least, not according to the restaurant menu. Kujira is considered quite tasty, but it's the other bits - the heart, tongue, skin but, tellingly, no penis - that are listed as delicacies.
What would a cultural dining experience be without partaking in the more acquired tastes?
The tongue pieces, lightly boiled, looked like thin slabs of lard infused with strawberry swirls. Slimy and with a coarse edge, it slithered over my tongue and, for the first time, a feeling of queasiness came over me.
The texture was inescapable, far more than the bland taste. It took a lot of chewing to get it down, and some meditation to keep it down.
The heart, a sinister-looking dark red, was sliced into thin rectangular bits and tasted remarkably like sesame oil, probably due to the fact that each slice was smeared with the stuff.
Both were muscly and good workouts for the jaw. We pondered how large a minke whale heart and tongue were, and how many mouths they would feed. A lot, we decided.
More time passed without lightning striking us down.
The dishes shared similarities with other Japanese restaurant food: immaculately presented in bite-sized or single-serve portions, served with sides of miso soup (made with a paste including sardines, tuna, and sometimes even mushrooms), soy sauce and the ever-present wasabi, and all very tasty.
And a lot cheaper than another must-try cultural cuisine I failed to get my hands on: kobe beef. At hundreds of dollars per serving, kobe has acquired an almost mythical status because of the legend of how it is prepared.
The source - a breed of cattle called Wagyu - is treated like royalty. They're fed expensive grain and beer, played relaxing music and massaged using a straw brush and oils or sake (Japanese rice wine), reportedly to relieve stress, give the coat a nice shine and move the fat around more evenly.
Individually massaged and beer-fed. It's as if God had envisioned every man's dream lifestyle, but mistakenly granted it to cows.
The beer helps the cows to keep cool and stimulates appetite. They are also kept from moving much, lest they develop some form of muscle that may jeopardise the fatty content.
The result: a slab of marbled beef with veins of thick, delicious, white fat streaking through it.
Fat is also a major theme for teppanyaki (Japanese barbecue on an iron plate) and sukiyaki (stir-fry in an iron pot), which involves cooked meat and vegetables dipped in raw egg before being downed; both techniques involve a healthy serving of unhealthy lard - it looks like thick, white sunscreen - being spread over the pan before it is graced with various types of food.
Pure lard. In a cup. I couldn't resist and finger-dipped. Mostly tasteless, and disconcertingly soft.
Other types of Japanese food have little to no fat: sashimi (raw fish), sushi (rice and raw fish and/or vegetables), okonomiyaki (Japanese pizza or pancake with shredded cabbage, ginger and meat or seafood), soba or udon noodles (fried or in a soup), slimy seaweed salad and horseradish salad.
Myth three: Japanese food is mostly healthy, beautifully presented, at times morally indefensible, and almost always delicious.
That myth happens to be correct.
Air New Zealand flies direct to Narita airport in Tokyo from Auckland and Christchurch daily. Return airfares start from $1776.
WHAT TO DO
Whale meat is rarely found in supermarkets or standard restaurants. A chain, Kujira Ya, specialises in it and has a number of outlets around the city. The menu is in English and Japanese and items include whale sashimi, bacon, steak, tongue, heart and skin. Prices for a dish start at around 1000 yen ($11.90).
The position of the Japanese government on whaling is at www.mofa.go.jp/policy/q _ a/faq6.html. The Greenpeace perspective is at www.greenpeace.org/international/campaigns/oceans/whaling.
* Derek Cheng travelled to Japan courtesy of Air New Zealand