Hunting up and down side-street stalls during the annual Gion Festival, I was looking for one thing. Okonomiyaki pancakes, griddle-fried yakisoba noodles and even little charred yakitori chicken skewers are fine for your average summer festival, but wasting your time on such trivialities at this Kyoto event would be a shame. What I was looking for, smelling for, was the delicate emperor of all things grilled, the rich city cousin of the unagi eel, the pike conger, hamo.

Unagi (grilled eel) tastes best with sticky sweet soy sauce.

The very best hamo swims in the shallow warm waters just off western Japan. Eating season starts in early summer and peaks just for the Gion Festival in July, which Kyotoites call the month of hamo. Only during the festival does the hamo — usually found behind the prohibitively expensive and socially exclusive thin paper walls of the finest ryotei restaurants — come out to the streets for the commoners. And that is when it is at its best — smoke-sweet and full of flavorful juices.