• How to Enjoy Unagi, the Japanese Eel

How to Enjoy Unagi,
the Japanese Eel

Introducing the history of eels, which Japanese people have long been familiar with, and its charms.
Central Japan is especially famous for its delicious eels.

Photo: Sakuraya

Unagi in Japanese Culture

Unagi, the freshwater eel in Japanese, is one of the beloved cuisines tied closely to the Japanese climate and history of Japan. Although many countries in the world may not be familiar with eel cuisine, there are documents that show eels were actually consumed in ancient Greece, as well as in ancient Rome.

The history of Japanese people eating unagi can be traced back to the Jomon period (around 13000 BC to 300 BC) , but it was not until the Edo period (1603-1868) that unagi began to become popular food in Japan. During the Edo period, as people started to expand cultivating the fields, unagi came to inhabit the wetlands created by the reclamation, resulting in the establishment of unagi as workers' food. Rich in vitamin A and vitamin B, which help maintain healthy mucous membranes and recover from exhaustion, unagi became very popular among people in the Edo period, especially as a source of stamina to get through the hot and humid Japanese summer.

Today, unagi is known as a relatively expensive product due to their rarity and the time and effort required to produce them, especially the ones from Japan. There is also a saying among Japanese unagi chefs that it takes a lifelong process to master the art of cooking unagi, “threeyears for skewering, eight years for fileting, and a lifetime for broiling, telling how skilled and advanced techniques are required in unagi cuisine.

Although Japanese people enjoy unagi all year round, eating unagi on “Doyo no Ushi no Hi (Midsummer Day of the Ox)” is still the beat-the-heat tradition. “Doyo” is a Japanese seasonal calendar based on the five elements, and “Ushi no Hi (D ay of the Ox)” is a calendar based on the twelve signs of the Chinese zodiac. Depending on each year, “Doyo no Ushi no Hi” comes once or twice during the summer and those days can be the busiest days for unagi restaurants across the country.

Photo: Shutterstock

The Delicious Unagi is in Central Japan

Central Japan is considered to be one of the best locations in Japan for quality unagi. Lake Hamana in Shizuoka Prefecture, in particular, has a history of more than 120 years as the origin of Japanese unagi cultivation. Because the climate around Lake Hamana is relatively warm with long daylight hours throughout the year, making the lake suitable for growing unagi.

Not limited to Lake Hamana, there are many sightseeing spots rich in nature around the famous unagi restaurants in Central Japan , such as Mt. Fuji, beautiful coastlines facing the Pacific Ocean, hot springs surrounded by mountains, and rivers flowing with pristine clear water.

Unagi is usually served both with or without rice as Kabayaki style, which is prepared by dipping the unagi in a savory sweet soy sauce-based sauce and broiling it until fluffy and flavorful. Each restaurant has their unique sauce and that is often considered as one of the defining factors of its reputation. Yet, in Shizuoka Prefecture, where high-quality unagi are harvested, Shirayaki (broiled without sauce) is also popular. In Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture, another popular unagi dish is Hitsumabushi, which is accompanied by dashi (Japanese soup stock) and various condiments. The enjoyment of such unagi dishes is another attraction of Central Japan.

4 Renowned Unagi Restaurants
You’d Want to Visit

(Hamamatsu City, Shizuoka)

Located in Hamamatsu City, a town by Lake Hamana, Atsumi is a popular unagi restaurant established in 1907. “Because Lake Hamana is a brackish water lake, nutrients from the mountains through the rivers and nutrients from the ocean are mixed together, and unagi in this environment are blessed with these nutrients and grow up to have tender meat with a great flavor without unpleasant smell” says Mr. Atsumi, the 5th generation owner of this restaurant. Although all unagi have slick black skins, “Unagi from rivers are said to have a greenish cast to their skins, while unagi from the sea are darker, but many unagi from brackish water lakes have bluish hues to their bodies. Such unagi are called Ao (blue in Japanese) in the market and are considered to be more delicious”, Mr. Atsumi explains.

At Atsumi, they serve not only Kabayaki style but also some simple Shirayaki styles. Their skilled chefs' technique brings unagi's natural flavor and its fine aroma to their Shirayaki. Also, their yuzu kosho (Japanese citrus pepper) on the side of the dish can brighten up their Shirayaki flavor.

On top of their high quality dishes, who wouldn't want to visit Atsumi, a restaurant that offers the following such thoughtful and high-standard customer service awareness? “We strive to provide the best customer service we can. Regardless of the history of our establishment, we will always devote ourselves to excellence without ever becoming arrogant. We believe that a good restaurant is not about adding excessive performance, but rather it is about eliminating the negative elements. For example, cleanliness of the restaurant and the absence of noise or distractions are very important for customers to focus and enjoy their food and the company. It should be no surprise that a restaurant serves delicious food for what customers are paying for. It is only when there is a hearty service, greetings, and an enjoyable environment that customers feel the restaurant is worthwhile. With this in mind, we are always learning and trying to provide service from our customers' perspectives”, says Mr. Atsumi.

Atsumi Official site
Shirayaki Photo: Atsumi

(Mishima City, Shizuoka)

It is often said that water determines the taste of a dish, and that is not an exception to unagi cuisine. Sakuraya, located in Mishima City, a place with abundant subterranean and spring water from Mt. Fuji, is another great restaurant that attracts unagi lovers nationwide from 1856. Sakuraya bathes unagi for 3 to 4 days in subterranean water from Mt. Fuji. Since eels that remain motionless will retain their smell, they drip water over the unagi to keep them moving constantly in order to remove the muddy smell and bring out its umami.

Unlike the typical broiling style of unagi in Tokyo area, Sakuraya broils unagi using a metal skewer and high-heat binchotan charcoal to drain the excess grease from the meat. The meat is then dipped into the sauce that has been kept and added for generations to achieve the perfect balance between the flavor of the sauce and the fat of the unagi. Instead of making the unagi too sweet and fat-heavy, Sakuraya's signature is to create their perfect “karumi” (lightness) , which will leave you wanting more after finishing the dish.

“Mishima has the Mishima-taisha shrine, a riverside walk and other natural attractions, and water that can only be found here, but the customers who come to our restaurant do not stop by on the way to something else, but come because they want to eat here. To satisfy the expectations of such customers, we question ourselves everyday to be better, and gather all the soul of our skills to cook for them”, says Sakuraya’s head chef.

Sakuraya Official Site
Unajyu Photo: Sakuraya

(Nagoya City, Aichi Prefecture)

A Nagoya City specialty called Hitsumabushi is an unagi dish served with rice and eel in an ohitsu (round, wooden container), served with condiments and dashi (Japanese style broth). Hitsumabushi may be found on the menus of other restaurants, but it is actually a registered trademark and was created here at Houraiken.

Established in 1873, Houraiken now serves Hitsumabushi with 3 kinds of condiments (green onion, wasabi, and dried laver) and a bonito and soy sauce based dashi. The recommended way to eat Hitsumabushi is to first eat the unagi and rice in a small bowl and simply enjoy the flavor of the eel and rice. Then, mix your favorite condiments into the bowl and eat with the added flavor. The 3rd way is to pour the dashi broth over the rice, unagi and condiments in the bowl. Mr. Saiki, one of the managers at Houraiken, says that his personal preference is with more wasabi. Being able to change the ways of tasting the dish like this lets you enjoy various flavors of unagi in one meal.The restaurant's secret sauce, which is inherited from the old days, is also very enjoyable. Finding your favorite way to eat authentic Hitsumabushi at Houraiken would be a fun experience.

Houraiken Official Site
Hitsumabushi Photo: Houraiken

(Seki City, Gifu Prefecture)

Seki City is a town of blades with a tradition of more than 700 years. It is home to the Cutler Sansyu where swords and knives are exhibited in the museum and also can be purchased at the store. Still to this date, this city boasts the highest production of various blades in Japan. And unagi has long been a favorite source of stamina for swordsmiths who are required to work with heat and heavy labor.

Sakaeya has over 140 years of history and has been serving unagi to the swordsmiths, visitors for Kaminoho Hot Springs and other locals. They bathe unagi in clean well water near Tsubo River for 2 to 3 days to remove its smell before preparing them. Sakaeya has a unique menu called Negi-mabushi-don (bowl of rice topped with green onion and Kabayaki), which was designed to harmonize with unagi's flavor and make it have a lighter taste. On a bed of rice topped with fresh green onions and chopped dried laver, the fragrant Kabayaki is served with sauce that has been infused for 140 years.

Sakaeya Official Site
Negi-mabushi-don Photo: Sakaeya