Unagi (soft water eel) is a common Japanese premium meal that has such a special taste and is loved by many people. Did you know that in Japan, there are 7 days in a year that is traditionally chosen as the best days to eat Unagi? Those 7 days are called “Doyou no ushi no hi” (土用の丑の日), and there is a special meaning behind the reason of why we eat Unagi on these days. In this article, we would like to share the history, culture, and the best places to have Unagi, so that you won’t miss this out when you come and visit Japan.
What does Unagi taste like?
Unagi is an eel grilled with a sweet soy sauce. It is kind of like a teriyaki sauce based fish over white rice. What’s special about this meal is that unagi is such a special fish in terms of texture. It is so soft and fluffy, and you would not forget the comforting flavor once you bite into it. Also because it is grilled after the sauce is marinated, the smoky fragrance is also so tempting. This hot grilled Unagi over steaming rice is just so satisfying. The sweet teriyaki sauce matches so well with the white rice. Don’t forget to sprinkle the spice called “Sansho”, which stimulates your tongue and will bring the Unagi to a whole new level.
When do Japanese people have Unagi?
Unagi is one of the expensive meals in Japan, and it costs about $35-$50 in most restaurants. Therefore, for most families, it is not a frequent menu you see on your weekly menu, but rather a pleasurable meal only eaten on special days. With that basic information said, remember I mentioned about a tradition to eat Unagi on the “Doyou no ushi no hi” (土用の丑の日)? What is this day anyway? “Doyou” (土用) is a word that describes a seasonal period, and it specifically means the period of 18 days before the beginning of each season. It’s not Doyou (土曜) which means Saturday, so be careful! Next, “Ushi” (丑) means cow from the 12 zodiacs. In the past, Japan used to count the days with the 12 zodiacs on a yearly basis. The word “hi” (日) means day, so “ushi no hi” will mean the days of the cow zodiac. So to sum it up, “Doyou no ushi no hi” means the days of the cow within the 18 day period of season change. In 2020, we had our most recent one on July 21st, and have the upcoming ones on August 2nd, October 20th, and November 1st. We still have 3 more chances to eat Unagi! Note that every year, the day changes, so make sure you check which days are the actual days.
But Why Eat Unagi on “The Day of the Cow”?
Now I think you had this question popped up in your head. Why isn’t it beef? The secret lies behind the nutritious Unagi. Unagi contains a lot of nutrition such as vitamin A (good for your skin & membranes), vitamin B (recovers your tired body), and plenty of calcium (even more than milk!). Because of this, it is considered a healthy meal that would help keep your body strong. The days of “Doyou no ushi no hi” are always the days during seasonal changes, and usually we catch a cold around this time of year due to the climate changes and temperature changes. So in order to keep our bodies strong and healthy, it is traditionally said it is good to have Unagi on these days. You will notice it since suddenly, all the supermarkets around you start selling Unagi. That’s when you know it’s finally the day we could have an expensive meal without feeling guilty 🙂
2 Best Unagi Restaurants in Tokyo
Let me introduce to you 2 restaurants that have spectacular Unagi, you could try when visiting Tokyo.
- Miyagawa (宮川): Setagaya-Daita Station
This restaurant is a very famous Unagi restaurant in Setagaya, Tokyo, that started business 90 years ago. If you visit the restaurant, it is tiny but there is always a line of people waiting outside. The traditional grilled Unagi with the special Miyagawa sauce is the most unforgettable meal of my life time. And the cost performance is very high, considering the low price of $30-$35 with this volume! If you live nearby, they offer delivery too. There is a second store in Yokohama La-la port, so choose the store with better access for you.
2. Ebisuya (ゑびす家) : Shibamata Station
The next restaurant is located in Shibamata, Tokyo. Shibamata is a place we recommend for tourists to visit, because the station and the place itself is kind of like the old Tokyo from the Showa period (1920s-1980s). You will see various food stations that sell yakitori (grilled chicken), dango (rice balls with red beans), and many more to fill up your appetite, but definitely make sure to keep room for your appetite for this wholesome and delicious Unagi! The pricing was very reasonable and about $35-$45. We didn’t have to wait in line, although we went on a regular weekend that could be packed with people. Excellent choice for first come visitors to tour around the Shibamata area and have tasty Unagi!
3. Kawachiya (川千家) : Shibamata Station
Also another Unagi restaurant in Shibamata Station. This restaurant is 250 years old, and it probably is the oldest Unagi restaurant in Shibamata. We have not tried at this place yet, but the restaurant seemed the largest and very clean, but is probably the most popular so it was packed with people. The Unagi-don lunch price is about $40-$55. We would love to try the Unagi here after we can travel safely again!
I hope you could all try Unagi when you visit Japan! Have a delicious journey, and I hope this article helps 🙂 Let us know in the comment section if you need more information or tips to get to these stores.
We will both look forward to the next “Doyou no ushi no hi” coming up in 3 more days!