The dog days of summer are upon us and, by the Japanese calendar, they will be at their most canine on July 30, ushi no hi. Then, the relentless summer heat and energy-draining humidity call for us to be fortified by sturdy, nutritious fare. And this we find in unagi,the eel.
My wife and I thought it might be fun to show our nephews in the U.S. what this traditional Japanese summer dish looks like, so we set out to find a place that could provide a photo opportunity. Recalling that our city (Fukaya in northern Saitama) has a restaurant specializing in eel with a terrific local reputation, we headed off to see the beasts in all their slimy glory.
Called Kingyo-ya, the restaurant has been operated by the same family for four generations. When we told the owner, Hisayoshi Nakajima, that we wanted to see the eels, he suggested we come back in the morning, as this is the prime time for gutting and roasting. Two days later, I came in at 7:30 a.m. to witness the unagi preparation.
Without so much as flinching, the experienced Nakajima grasped an eel, impaled its head on a nail set in a wooden board and proceeded with radical gastrointestinal surgery: a straight cut down the ventral axis; a splaying of the two sides; and a quick swipe that cleaned out all the guts. The flesh was then cut in thirds and on he went to the next unfortunate victim. Decades spent doing this have enabled him to complete the job in a little over a minute.
Sticking wooden skewers through the eel, Nakajima passed it over to his son, Kazuto, for grilling. As I watched him and savored the delicious aroma rising from the grill, Kazuto’s three children watched me with fascination, curious to find such an unusual stranger paying so much attention to their eel.
According to Nakajima, today about 90 percent of eels are farmed. Only 5 percent are caught live, but they are too few in number to make a living by. However, Nakajima insisted that unfarmed eel, which he referred to as kichohin (a valuable item), taste better, and consequently fetch a slightly higher price. When he told me he occasionally buys this kind of eel from a local fisherman, I asked him to arrange a meeting. After he called his regular supplier, it was agreed that a fisherman called Mori would meet me at Kingyo-ya and drive me to the river to show me his traps.
On the day of our trip, Mori drove ahead, with Kazuto (who had never seen the eel traps before either) and me following behind. We left the center of town and entered farmland, where rows of leeks (Fukaya’s specialty) stood like soldiers at attention, and tufts of rice rose gently from the paddies. When we finally reached the river, Mori scrambled down the riverbank to check the traps. There were some huge catfish, and some smaller creatures, but not the elusive eel. Climbing back up the bank, he said, “July is too late. The fry come back to the rivers in April and May and that’s when all the fishermen get them.”
The whole escapade had been so unique, though, that I was not really let down. Resolving to come back with Mori next spring, I reflected on how a quest to introduce an aspect of Japanese culture to my nephews had helped me find something much more valuable: a down-to-earth family that welcomed me like I was a neighbor. It was nice to be reminded that in these troubled days in Japan, oases of the old way still remain.