Lake Hamana in Hamamatsu has been the largest producer of eel in Japan for over 100 years. It’s not a surprise the best-known food in Hamamatsu is unagi, grilled Japanese freshwater eel.
Our family visited Hamamatsu with two main goals: to try the famous gyoza and the renowned Hamamatsu unagi. There are plenty of amazing unagi restaurants in the Tokyo Area, but we considered it a culinary excursion to eat unagi from one of the leading eel-producing areas in Japan.
Where is Hamamatsu
Hamamatsu is southwest of Tokyo bordering the Pacific Ocean. It takes 4 hrs by car from Tokyo but only a quick 1.5 hr with the Shinkansen bullet train.
Why is Hamamatsu’s eel so well known throughout Japan? To begin with, the coastal city is blessed with a nearby Lake Hamana, a freshwater lake that has been a commercial source of cultivated Japanese eel for more than 100 years. Naturally, with the bounty in the vicinity, there are a great number of unagi restaurants in the city.
Hamamatsu is located between Tokyo and Osaka and the local restaurants offer both Kanto and Kansai style of grilled unagi to the patrons. Kanto style is a plain grill, steam, then grilled with sauce. Whereas Kansai style is grilled with sauce the entire way. It has a more crispy and dry texture and smoky aroma compared to the Kanto preparation.
Doyo no Ushi no Hi 土用の丑の日
Each summer from mid to late July, everywhere you go in Japan you’ll see posters for “Doyo no Ushi no Hi” (土用の丑の日), usually accompanied by an illustration of an eel or unadon. Also known as Midsummer Day of the Ox, it marks the official day to consume freshwater unagi.
The exact date of Doyo no Ushi no hi changes every year, but it usually falls at the height of summer when one needs stamina-boosting and omega-rich unagi to fight off the heat fatigue.
To break down the phrase, “doyo” is 18-19 days before seasons change. “Ushi no Hi” means ox day, as the Japanese zodiac cycles around days of the week. For 2021, it falls on July 28th.
There are a few legends on why eating unagi on this day, but regardless of the origins, unagi-eating has become a ritual for the Japanese.
Eating at Unagi Yaotoku Honten
With many unagi restaurants in Hamamatsu, how did we know which one to pick. We went to the trusty Tabelog (restaurant review site in Japan similar to Yelp) and looked for the best-reviewed ones. The top three were all booked but we were able to make a reservation at Unagi Yaotoku Honten which is ranked 4th in the city by customers.
Unagi Yaotoku Honten is right in the center of the city and 3 min walk from Hamamatsu Station. The name of the restaurant is written in white on the five story building.
The interior of the restaurant is simple with both traditional Japanese seating or standard table seating available. The menu is also straight forward with only eight items, which includes variations of unadon and their popular ohitsu unagichazuke.
We placed our order and patiently waited for our food. Unagi Yaotoku has been around since 1909 and they prepare unagi fresh each day. The eel is done in Kanto style, grilled without seasoning, steamed, and grilled with tare (unagi sauce).
Different Ways of Serving Unagi
At unagi specialty restaurants, unagi is prepared in an amazing array of serving styles and treated with the highest level of chef’s expertise. As nothing should go to waste, you can even find eel liver and intestine skewers being served as an appetizer. The innard items may not be your choice, but below are some popular unagi dishes that the locals and visitors alike would go wild for:
Unaju is a traditional unagi dish where charcoal-grilled eel (unagi no kabayaki) is served over a thick bed of steamed rice in a jubako, a rectangular lidded lacquer bento box. “Una” is the abbreviation of “unagi” and “ju” is the abbreviation of “jubako”.
Unadon is basically the same dish as unaju and the only difference is the vessel used to serve the unagi. Both unaju and unadon are served as the main course at specialty restaurants.
Eel Nigiri are sushi rice balls that are topped with unagi and brushed with tare sauce.
Originated from Nagoya, Hitsumabushi features strips of grilled eel over steamed rice, along with condiments such as wasabi, shredded nori, spring onions, and dashi broth or brewed green tea.
Seiromushi (Eel Steamed in a Basket)
A local specialty in Yanagawa City, Fukuoka Prefecture, Seiromushi is steamed rice, glazed with unagi sauce and topped with grilled unagi in a bamboo steamer and garnished with thinly shredded fried eggs.
Shirayaki Unagi (Sauceless Grilled Eel)
In shirayaki-style cooking, the eels are grilled over a flame without any sauce, seasoning or oil. This simple way of cooking eel concentrates on the rich flavor of the eel, and is usually eaten with soy sauce and wasabi.
Commonly served as a side soup to a full course unagi meal, kimosui is a clear soup flavored with boiled eel livers and added to a broth of dashi, mirin, soy sauce, and mitsuba herb.
The popular dish at Unagi Yaotoku Honten is their ohitsu unagichazuke. You’d first eat it like an unaju, and then you pour the tea broth over and make it a chazuke dish.
To our satisfaction, the flavors of their signature dish were remarkable! The unagi meat was springy yet tender, and the tare sauce delivered a rich caramelized depth of savoriness. It was a dish to remember.
Unagi Yaotoku Honten also offers a white grill which is unagi grilled without sauce. We’ve tried it at other unagi restaurants and we prefer the ones with tare.
Eating at Unagi Specialty Restaurants
Eating unagi at a specialty restaurant is a summer indulgence, as the price of freshwater eels has skyrocketed in the recent years due to lack of domestic eels. Depending on how much unagi you want, the price ranges from $30 for a small box to $60 for a large lacquer box.
The freshness of unagi and the sweet sticky sauce make up for the reputations of popular unagi restaurants. Each store has their own secret sauce recipe. Some restaurants are known for using the same sauce for many years and the base sauce is added to the pot every day.
All in all, we had a decent time visiting Hamamatsu and sampled their unagi. You might ask if it’s worth the trip to Hamamatsu just to eat unagi. Probably not. Most large cities in Japan have great unagi restaurants and there is no need to travel all the way to Hamamatsu. However, if you’re in the area, you can’t leave without trying its most famous dish.