Be still, rogue toe. Please! Don’t you dare surrender to that muscle cramp. Now is not the time.
Lying here diagonally across the top of a dining table in the back room of Ambassador Wines and Spirits, naked except for the scallop shells covering my nipples and the silk scarf sheltering my crotch, while guests gorge on sushi and sashimi pieces plucked from my torso, I require your cooperation.
There is more than raw fish at stake. I owe it to Hirosaki Koko, the caterer who invited me here tonight, to remain completely still. I owe it to the customers who have paid good money for a dining experience spiked with a dose of sexual fetishism. And I owe it to the spirit of the Japanese practice of Nyotaimori.
Utterly exposed before a group of strangers, I do my best to fight off the impending toe cramp and a fierce desire to wince. This is all very new to me. You see, it’s my first time as a naked body sushi model.
In fairness, you might wonder how one becomes a naked body sushi model. More specifically, you might wonder how one with zero experience of undressing in public becomes a naked body sushi model.
It began two weeks earlier, during one of those shameless email flirtations that are so common between people who have been on only a few dates—or, at least, that are common to me, with my middle-child tendency to seek attention at any cost. In my eagerness to amuse my email partner, I boldly (or moronically) sent him a link to Hirosaki Koko’s Web site, under the guise of “finally finding my calling after five years of self-searching following graduation from college.” He replied: “You’d be perfect for it.” And that was the last I thought about being a naked body sushi model.
Until about ten hours later, when I awoke in the middle of the night. At that moment, I could see clearly that the opportunity to expose your half-naked body to a group of strangers wielding chopsticks doesn’t come along every day.
I decided to try it.
I phoned Hirosaki Koko the next day, fully expecting a haughty rebuff. But Koko was surprisingly receptive. She asked me to meet her at a penthouse studio in Midtown west so she could evaluate my “qualifications.”
Koko is 37 years old, but she looks 25. She greeted me dressed in jeans and a black tank top, with hot-pink bra straps peeking out, and disarmed me with her patchy English and genuine warmth. She was born in Japan, lived in Los Angeles for a few years, then moved east on the advice of friends who assured her that the naked-sushi trend would take hold in New York. We chatted and drank some wine with a few of her friends, and that was it: I had passed the in-person body examination.
As the date of my naked gig approached, I confess I didn’t give the matter much thought. Being French, I was used to boobs on beaches. Nudity in general wasn’t offensive or threatening to me. But I had never engaged in naked play with someone I wasn’t dating, unless you count the time in college when, reveling in our shared European-ness, I played a discreet game of I’ll-show-you-my-Brazilian-bikini-wax-if-you-show-me-yours with my Spanish friend, Steve.
The first wave of anxiety hit me during the subway ride to Ambassador Wines and Spirits, at 54th Street and Second Avenue, in Manhattan. I wasn’t overcome by a fear of stripping, or the thought that the fish might leave some kind of smelly residue. What happened is that I glanced at my feet and saw that I needed a pedicure. Badly. People were about to be eating off me and I hadn’t done them the courtesy of getting my toes done.
When I arrived, I explained the situation to Koko, who didn’t miss a beat. In the frantic yet measured way of a woman used to juggling many things, she shoved a pair of white booties in my face. Then she hurried me downstairs into a side room, where she presented me with the remainder of my ensemble: two scallop shells, a roll of tape, a tiny pink thong with the strings cut, and a kimono. With a series of frenzied hand motions, she directed me to strip, tape the shells to my nipples, then secure the thong to my sides and butt. There was no time to be bashful, and I quickly grasped that my body was not my own for the next few hours. It was a commodity I’d loaned to Koko. I wondered if this was how strippers feel. Detached. Robotic. At work.
Following Koko’s lead, I clutched my breasts and the kimono around me to waddle to the back room. There I was faced with my next challenge: the four-foot-high dining table, on which I’d serve as centerpiece. I managed to climb aboard, but not without flashing her and nearly taking a spill that could have killed me. I envisioned the paramedics arriving to collect me, perplexed by my get-up. The newspaper headline: “Wannabe Sushi Model Dies in the Raw.” I shook off these morbid thoughts and focused on getting into position. There was a long rectangular foam pad under the red table cloth, and I had to array myself on it without disturbing the place settings around me. Once I’d done so, I wiggled and shimmied, desperately seeking a quasi-comfortable position.
As the reality of what I’d gotten myself into set in, I began to have doubts. Maybe my parents were correct and I was, in fact, an absolute loon. Who the fuck does this? Maybe I should have avoided the spicy food at lunch. What if these freaking booties cause my toes to cramp? What if I twitch my arms? What if I look terrible in this position? What if I can’t stop myself from laughing my ass off? The one person I never doubted was Koko. Her attention to detail was total, and I could see that her only goal was to create a profoundly engaging sensory experience for her guests. Somehow, the notion of being part of Koko’s overall vision was calming.
The next moments proved to be intensely erotic, oddly enough, as Koko flittted daintily around the table, decorating me with scarves, bright pink flowers, and the fans that would serve as trays for the sushi, sashimi, and shumai. Never before had I felt like a piece of art. Rather, never before had I been so bent on winning an internal debate: Naked Body Sushi Modeling Equals Art, Not Exploitation. Luckily, Progressive Adventurous Melanie almost always trumps Conscientious Melanie. Fully outfitted with fish and decor, I felt poised, happy to be part of the Nyotaimori process.
That is, until Koko led our customers in. Staring at the ceiling, unable to move, I realized that I couldn’t see their faces. Were the guests short, bearded, and rotund or tall, chiseled, and muscular? Were they dressed in slacks and button-down shirts, or jeans and vintage tees? Were they young Wall Street douchebags, or elderly cigar-smoking gentleman? Deprived of my Constitutional right to make snap judgments based on physical appearances, I felt isolated and afraid.
My heart stepped up its pace and my eyes widened. I pleaded to the God of Naked Body Sushi Models to stifle an array of impulses: to laugh, twitch, cry, beg for introductions, and maybe eat a piece of sushi or two. It was then that all these impulses decided to congregate in my right toe. And it was then that I considered leaping from the table, obligations (and dignity) be damned, so I could massage the fucking thing.
That’s when I noticed the voices around me.
Where do we?… How do I?… What’s that?… Has she?… Think she’s done this before?… Uh, sure… I’ll go here.
This was as new and strange to our guests as it was to me. In fact, this was newer to them by a solid 30 minutes. This realization helped me regain my composure. Calm down, I wanted to tell them. Instead, respecting the order of reticence, I just smirked and tried to radiate positive energy.
Dreams of being a human buffet table really can come true.
The sake accomplished what I couldn’t. As the men got drunker, their timidity vanished. Chopsticks flashed above me as they navigated the buffet, taking their dinner from my curves and crevices. Through it all, Koko sped gracefully in and out of the room to replace the small trays of fish.
For an hour and a half I laid there, while the men surrounding me drank and ate and stared, and sometimes poked at my bare body. Toward the end, I had to dart my eyes across the ceiling to avoid falling asleep. I was that comfortable, or that wishful for escape.
When Koko tapped my shoulder and told me the dinner was over, I was partly relieved, and partly amazed so much time had elapsed. I managed to dismount the table far more elegantly than I’d climbed onto it, and I left the room, smiling.
Changing back into my jeans and T-shirt, I took a first stab at evaluating my brief adventure in exhibitionism. What had I gained? I had an envelope stuffed with $150 of well-earned cash that might go toward an extra hour of therapy, or a new pair of shoes. I had a beautiful pink flower pinned to my hair and a teensy, matching thong still taped to my pelvis. I also had two slightly irritated nipples, a minor buzz from the sake Koko gave me after dinner, and a bizarre story sure to entertain my friends and, if necessary, provoke my parents. Then there was the group of men I’d never met before tonight—and, arguably, still had not “met”—who now possessed the mental image of me half-naked, sprawled across a table, covered in raw fish.
Yet, I didn’t fully appreciate the value of my experience until a week later, when I decided to share the photos from that night with the guy I was seeing. Trusting that some things go without saying, I forwarded the pictures to him on the assumption that he’d keep them to himself. In retrospect, that kind of naivete belongs to people who play the lottery and believe in things like low-fat mayonnaise.
It was not unflattering to learn that one of my beaux’s friends in Arkansas suggested I be sent south so that he could smother me in barbecue sauce and eat ribs off me. I really did laugh at that one. That the same guy then admitted to pinning the pictures to the wall of his restaurant after masturbating to them? Also flattering, to a lesser degree.
What I learned? When you strip for sushi, you ask for that shit.
Mélanie Berliet is a writer living in New York City.