Unagi in Kansai, Chubu, and Kyushu Area
Eel is cooked differently in Kansai and in Kanto. In Kansai, eel is slit in the belly while eel is slit behind the back in Kanto. In Kanto, eel is butterflied, grilled, and then steamed before it is grilled again and dipped into the sauce. The result is a fluffy eel dish while the grilled eel in Kansai is crispier. When done right, both are delicious in their own ways.
It takes great skill from the chef, given how slippery an eel can be. I don’t think I can even pin them down, let alone execute one within a few minutes. Among these restaurants, only Tashiro is where diners get a chance to peek in on the execution and the grilling; therefore, the faint of heart should be aware before visiting Tashiro.
In Nagoya, Chubu, eel is also slit behind the back, grilled without steaming, and then served in a wooden tub called a hitsumabushi to keep it hot till it’s savored. It is then divided into four portions: eat it straight on, enjoy it with condiments like nori, etc., pour broth or tea and enjoy it similar to o-chazuke, and lastly, enjoy it the way you like it the most.
This restaurant is attended by a group of kind but not-so-young ladies. I loved their hospitality, and it’s like dining with your elder relatives. Eel here is nicely grilled. The sauce is well balanced. The restaurant can accommodate many guests, so it’s easier to book or even walk in. Visiting there very early will minimize the waiting time.
Address：1-6-6 Bingo-cho, Chuo-ku, Osaka-city, Osaka
Nearest Station:10 minutes on foot from Osaka Metro's "Sakaihonmachi Station"
Closed: Saturdays and Sundays
Atsuta Houraiken Honten, Nagoya
Atsuta Houraiken has a very long history, and it even registered hitsumabushi as its intellectual property. It’s an extremely popular restaurant that gets an extremely long queue during peak lunch hours during weekends. Waiting time could be 2–3 hours. It must be because of its long history and reasonable pricing. I paid about 3,600 yen for special hitsumabushi.
Service is very professional and efficiently run, although the charm of small restaurants is missing. You would queue to register your name and get the time slot that they will ask you to come back. When u come back, you will get the number for depositing your shoes Together with fellow diners in the similar time slot in a batch, and they will verify your name once u get in. I arrived around 16:00 on a weekend, and that slot seemed to have a waiting time of 30 minutes only. This was why I chose an odd hour for my meal there.
Because of its proximity to the Atsuta shrine, which houses Kusanagi no mitsurugi, you can visit the site before or after your meal or even during the wait if you decide to visit during peak hours. Please note that they accept only walk in without reservation unless you are willing to reserve their kaiseki course which is over 14,000 yen. I would recommend it if you want to visit during peak hours and are willing to part with that much money. I felt it’s not money well spent to get their kaiseki course, and most people, from my observation, chose to order a la carte. Their unagi is respectable, but I would not rush to write home about it. The seating is on tatami mats, which is quaint as unagi Obama and Tamahide are among few restaurants that still seat their guests like this.
◆Atsuta Houraiken Honten
Address：503 Godo-cho, Atsuta-ku, Nagoya-city, Aichi
Nearest Station:8 minutes on foot from Meijo Line's "Denmacho Station"
Closed: Wednesdays and every 2nd and 4th Thursdays
Unafuji is a very small neighborhood restaurant. It’s very popular among the locals, which you can see from the huge waiting area. All the staff is super friendly and willing to help out. When I visited, all the guests were local. However, they also have an English menu and a clear explanation of how to eat hitsumabushi.
Unagi here is quite plump, and it’s such a joy to savor such a dish in four different ways. Having hitsumabushi with broth on a cold night warmed up my body nicely. Personally, if I chose to have unagi, it would be fall or winter. Unagi can be quite oily, so I thought it would work better in colder weather, which goes against the belief of the locals to savor unagi during the heat of the summer. I always prefer seiro soba or the tangy bibim nengmyeon as the best food that suits summertime the most. I did order unagi in vinegar and cucumber as my starter. Unfortunately, kimoyaki, grilled eel liver, was sold out. They don’t have a lot of grilled liver as I tried ordering it for lunch on my subsequent visit only to find out that it’s sold out too.
Address：1-1-4 Shirokane, Showa-ku, Nagoya-city, Aichi
Nearest Station:10 minutes on foot from Meijo Line's "Tsuruma Station"
Closed: Wednesdays and every 1st and 3rd Tuesdays
My unagi search journey led me to Seto, a ceramic making city in Chubu. When someone refers to setomono, he means the nice ceramics made in this small city. Seto is about an hour’s ride from Nagoya.
Tashiro opens for lunch from 11:00 am and for dinner from 16:00 pm. The chef starts putting down the lunch registrations from 9:00 am. Seto was quite far, and I didn’t think I could visit Seto often. Therefore, I couldn’t afford to visit Seto without grabbing the chance to have a meal at Tashiro. You could try your luck by getting to the restaurant at 11am, but it could be a two-hour wait before you could get a seat there. Worse, if the shop got sold out before your turn came, it would just defeat the purpose of visiting Seto. After 11am, the chef got so busy in the kitchen that I didn’t think it was a good idea to poke my face in, especially with my language handicap.
In my case, my strategy was to arrive before other diners, so I chose 8:25am as my arrival time. I thought it looked like an auspicious day when I checked the weather forecast the night before. I loved the chilly and rainy day as the backdrop for my battle of competing for seats with other Japanese diners. Bad weather really deters many diners.
My heart sank a bit when I arrived because the shop wasn’t open, and there was no sign of anyone else in the area except for one black cat on the other side of the street. I had lots of experience visiting these restaurants that only accept walk-in customers, with some unfortunate encounters at Narikura and Rakuraku, which were both closed on the days I first attempted to dine there. There are lots of alternatives if Narikura is closed. But if you know where Rakuraku is, it was quite disastrous. Anyway, I decided to mark my territory in front of the shop. At 8:30 sharp, other diners started arriving. Within one minute later, there were a total of 8 other diners in the queue. Now I became relaxed as the locals knew best if the shop was closed.
The chef showed up in his car at 5 mins before 9:00, and he started taking names down, and I was asked to come back at 11:00. Within 15 minutes, the queue was dispersed. It might be tough luck for people who arrived later, as the diners will be let into the shop in batches, and each batch could take about an hour.
I know some people would say there is nothing much to do during the wait for a meal at Tashiro. But there are two nice shrines: Fukagawa shrine about 5 minutes away, which is more interesting, and Kamagami Shrine about 15 minutes away on the hill, which was dedicated to the gentleman who brought ceramic making to Seto. There is also a ceramic museum as well as the Seto Museum of History nearby. Also, there are a couple of ceramic shops between the train station and Tashiro so you can fit all these activities between the wait.
I rushed back to Tashiro 10 minutes before my 11:00 round. At 10:55, they started to let people in the queue order before going into the shop. I ordered a special una don (no hitsumabushi here) and Kimoyaki, the grilled eel liver with tare sauce. I eavesdropped that the next diner ordered kimoyaki, but it seemed that they already ran out of kimoyaki!
When my orders arrived, they looked amazing. My first bite sent me off to unagi utopia. The sauce had a deep, delicious flavor, although it was quite strong on the first bite. After my taste buds adjusted to the strong taste, I just couldn’t stop. Unagi’s meat is fantastic. And kimoyaki is one of my top three kimoyaki experiences; the other two were at Uomasa in Tokyo and Shun in Shizuoka.
Address：13 Fukagawa-machi, Seto-city, Aichi
Nearest Station:10 minutes on foot from Meitetsu seto Line's "Owariseto Station"
Ganso motoyoshiya, Yanagawa
When I was young, I loved Yanagawa nabe, made of dojo loach, gobo, and warishita sauce cooked in a shallow pot. Hence, I always wanted to visit Yanagawa. Yanagawa is a small city known for its canals and some famous eel restaurants.
Ganso motoyoshiya has been in business for over 300 years. The restaurant looked lovely from the outside with its interesting architecture. The smell of delicious eel from more than 300 meters away called to me like the songs of sirens drawing in fishermen. Its signature dish is unagi no seiro mushi, steamed eel in a bamboo basket. They are grilled and steamed more than once with their secret glistening gold sauce. The taste is light, and I savored each bite with much joy. After the canal trip, do stop by this wonderful landmark to enjoy their famous eel.
Address：69 Asahi-machi, Yanagawa-city, Fukuoka
Nearest Station:12 minutes on foot from Seibutenjin omuta Line's "Nishitetsu-yanagawa Station"
Last time, I visited a very nice Kappo restaurant in Hakata, where the chef spoke highly of Inakaan, an excellent unagi restaurant. Inakaan is a famous unagi and the pride of Kokura. Many foodies plan their trip to get a chance to visit famous sushi restaurants in Kokura. But international tourists might not have heard of Inakaan.
Inakaan is a big restaurant that can seat 80 guests. It makes up what it lacks in intimacy with delicious unagi and the spacious and comfortable tables. Due to its size, the wait time in the afternoon isn’t too long. Also, they didn’t run out of grilled eel liver when I was there. Usually, this popular item runs out quickly. I had unagi no seiro mushi in a bamboo box. The eel is soft, and the sauce is neither too sweet nor overpowering the eel. Inakaan would be a good addition to the dining list if you happen to be in the city and don’t want to eat only sushi.
◆Inakaan Ogura honten
Address：1-1-13 Kaji-machi, Kita-ku, Kitakyushu-city, Fukuoka
Nearest Station:5 minutes on foot from JR Kagosimahon Line's "Ogura Station"
Unazen is a small family restaurant with only three tables. Each table seats about four guests. Two tables consist of sitting on the floor. They were very kind to welcome a solo diner at the table. Although they have a counter, they use it solely as the service area.
The ambiance at Unazen is very homey. The father and son work in the kitchen while the mother and another lady are in charge of the front of the house. They were exceptionally friendly and gave me the warmest welcome. I ordered uzaku, vinegared eel mixed with cucumber and vegetables. Their eel is sourced from Kagoshima, which has the open ocean to culture the eel. Their grilled eel is very aromatic. I also ordered the grilled wild eel liver and special eel rice in a box. Their sauce was very light. I savored every bite and was pleased with its elegant taste. Their signature is also shirayaki, which I would like to try next time. I was told their eel would be the best in winter.
Reservation is a must, and it is recommended that you book 2 months in advance. You will be rewarded with delicious unagi and the best hospitality.
Address：1-14-7-1 Takasago, Chuo-ku, Fukuoka-city, Fukuoka
Nearest Station:7 minutes on foot from Fukuoka city metro Nanakuma Line's "Watanabe-dori Station"
All in all, you can’t go wrong with any of these restaurants in Kansai, Chubu and Kyushu, depending on where you are.
In Nagoya, I would pick Unafuji because of the taste of the eel, shorter waiting time, friendly staff, including with foreign visitors, and comfortable seating. But for someone who wants to experience a place with a history, with a professionally-run operation, and who wouldn’t mind the wait, Atsuta Houraiken would be a good choice.
If you are in one of the other cities on this list and would like to have unagi, I would recommend the restaurant I listed here for that respective city. Now, you might wonder which unagi restaurant is the best in Japan. I would say Tashiro in Seto, Shun in Shizuoka, and Uomasa in Tokyo. All three are wonderful in their own ways and difficult to compare, as they are all completely different. Tashiro offers big eel, and its sauce is addictive. Shun has terrific raw material, and it is quite comfortable. Dinner at Shun isn’t made only of eel but also of kappo, with a lot of variety of dishes. Uomasa’s eel is soft, and its sauce is very special. Personally, if I were forced to pick a single one, without taking into consideration the time and effort required, Tashiro would be the one. For a real unagi fan, it’s a worthy pilgrimage.
My long unagi journey has been spanning over many years. But not as many unagi have been sacrificed during this journey as I have cut down my unagi consumption drastically, because unagi farming isn’t sustainable, and its stock has declined significantly, so I picked only diners I trust. It’s better not to have unagi from average shops. My advice is to consume unagi with moderation or splurge in a good shop once in a blue moon only, so the next generation can also enjoy delicious unagi.
Local taste had taken a long journey searching for delicious meals long before the dawn of social media, roaming from one city to another from the Far East to the west, over 160 cities in four continents and more than 400,000 miles during the last 37 years.
His dining spots over thousands of restaurants range from eating in a hole in the wall in Asia to all ten Michelin 3-star restaurants in Paris. More than decades was spent on chasing for perfect xiao long bao.
Because he is not in food business nor food writer, his article won’t be found elsewhere but exclusively on tokyotabletrip.com as a tribute to Leo Saito’s altruistic deed to help international visitors discover the beauty of Japanese cuisine.