What is Unajyu?
Unajyu is a popular dish in Shizuoka Prefecture made primarily of eel. Lake Hamana, located in the prefecture is known as the birthplace of eel aquaculture, and the lake was the first in Japan to become successful in rearing the cultivation of eels. Hamamatsu city is home to several long-established eel speciality restaurants that have been in business for more than 100 years. Unajyu, can be enjoyed in both the Kansai style, which comes with a sweet, crisp sauce or the equally popular Kanto style which is best for buy and bake on the same day because then the tasty eel does not become too chewy.
What is the Difference between Unajyu and Unadon?
There is very little difference between the two. Unadon is served in a bowl and Unajyu is served in a heavy box. The difference between the bowl and the box is only seen in the quantity of eel present. On average, you can expect to receive 1.5 times more eel in a serving of Unajyu, than in a serving of Unadon. There is no difference in the quality of each. Both are available as a normal-sized or special sized portion. Unadon was created in the late Edo period of Japan, while Unajyu was not created until later, during the Meiji period. The use of the heavy box was introduced so that it could be delivered to customers while the meal inside stayed warm. If you put the same amount of eel into the box it looks a little scarce, so the larger sized meal was introduced for the box version.
There is a long history of eating eels in Japan. The oldest known eels are over 5,000 years old, with eel bones being excavated from a shell mound dating to the Jomon period (10,000-300BC). There is a famous song in Japan where Otomo Iechimo encourages Yoshida Renro to eat an eel. From the song, it is clear that eels were already known to have a strong taste and to be a nourishing meal. During the Heian period, aristocrats preferred to steam white eels and salt them. Eels were so named from at least the 12th century.
Eels were first mentioned in literature in the Suzuka Family Book of 1399, when written in the sixth year of Oei. It was known as Kabayaki because when cut into the shape of a cylinder before being placed onto a skewer, the eel when cooked resembled the ears of a gama. Another theory was that when roasted the fragrant aroma transforms into kaban, kabaya and kabayaki.
After this time, through to the Muromachi period (1333-1573), eel was eaten with salt, vinegar and miso. At the end of this period, there was the first known appearance of a dish called Ujimaru, which consisted of broiled eel, chopped and seasoned with soy sauce, sake and pepper miso. Kabayaki took on the style of today from the 18th century, during the Tenpo period of 1781-1789 as thick soy sauce was then available from the Kansai region. The kabayaki style established then has not really changed since that time.
Variations of Eel Available
Kanto style involves splitting the eel from the back, this is also known as a back opening. The meat is then skewered and baked as it is or steamed before covering with sauce.
Kansai style involves an open belly, skewering and baking before a sauce is added for a final baking. This style does not include steaming. It is also known as ‘ground burning,’
It is considered a difficult art to correctly cook eel and make the dishes taste delicious. There is a Japanese saying that describes eel cooking as 3 years of skewering, 8 years of tearing and a lifetime of grilling.
The Origin of Unajyu Boxes
There are several theories about the origin of the bowls and boxes used for Unajyu. One theory is that during the 18th year of the Meiji era (1868-1912), Okubo Imasusuke, an eel loving theatre owner required his eel to be delivered warm in a bran of rice to prevent the dish from becoming cold during delivery.
Restaurants Serving Unajyu in Hamamatsu
Hamamatsu has lots of recommended Unajyu restaurants.
Eel Dish Atsumi
Eel Dish Atsumi is a restaurant that specializes in using high quality domestic ingredients, including eels from Lake Hamana. You can be assured of high standards of food safety here with a high number of customers sampling the original taste of eel. Kabayaki Unajyu is baked with a sauce using a secret recipe that has been handed down for more than 100 years, the restaurant was founded in 1890. The delicious sauce, is full of aroma and fragrance which you will enjoy from the moment you take the first bite. There is a large menu for you to choose from at this restaurant located within ten minutes walking distance of Hamamatsu Station on the JR Tokaido Line.
Eel Dish Atsumi is located at 70 Chitose-cho, Naka-ku, Hamamatsu City in Shizuoka Prefecture. The restaurant is open every day except Tuesday and Wednesday from 11.30 am until 1.30 pm and then again from 5.15 pm until 7.30 pm or until they have sold out of eels.
Unagi restaurant Hikumano uses only eels from Lake Hamana in its original dishes. The restaurant specializes in all aspects of eel cuisine using fluffy textures of the body and skin and using salted boiled liver in a wasabi soy sauce in its dish known as Kimosashi. It is an old-fashioned style of an eel speciality restaurant, located just a five-minute walk from Hamamatsu Station. All the eel served here is steamed until soft and fluffy and served with a light sauce if required. The varied menu includes sake and wine selection of local products from Shizuoka Prefecture in addition to the selection of eel dishes available.
The restaurant, with a cozy Japanese-style interior is located at 322-3 Tamachi, Naka-ku, Hamamatsu City, Shizuoka Prefecture and opens every day with the exception of Wednesday from 11.30am until 2pm and from 5pm until 8pm or the eel has sold out.
Charcoal-grilled Unagi Aoiya
This specialty eel restaurant was formerly known as Charcoal-grilled Unagi Kantaro, and sells carefully selected eels of high quality, particularly eels with a thick volume, they are typically roasted and served with wasabi sauce and a little salt. One of the charms of this restaurant is that you can choose the eels you want to eat from the live selection on display. Kabayaki is then prepared before carefully grilled using Bincho charcoal. This is selected for its smooth texture that produces a dish of fluffy tasty eel surrounded by a crunchy fragrant exterior created by the charcoal. The rice used here is carefully selected, Akitakomachi, which is renowned for using less pesticides.
The restaurant is located at 616-2 Iida-cho, Minami-ku, Hamamatsu City, Shizuoka Prefecture (inside the folk-art store). It opens every day except two consecutive Mondays each month from 11am until 2pm and then again from 5pm until 8pm with last orders at 7.45pm. It is a twenty-minute walk from Tenryugawa Station on the JR Tokaido Line.
Kanerin Eel Restaurant
This restaurant is famed for its exquisitely baked eel using Bincho charcoal and the ‘Unaju Special,’ a sauce that has been served across generations of customers. Founded around 70 years ago, it is a restaurant serving a richly flavoured eel that only a long-established restaurant can deliver. Customers can enjoy the atmosphere of a calm environment inside or weather depending on the courtyard surrounded by beautiful scenery. Kanerin Eel Restaurant has a bright interior and is located at 731 Irino-cho, Nishi-ku Hamamatsu City, Shizuoka Prefecture. The restaurant closes every Wednesday and on the third Tuesday of each month, the opening hours are from 11am with last orders taken at 1.45pm and again from 5pm until last orders at 8pm or when they have sold the last of the day’s eels. It is a ten-minute bus ride from Hamamatsu JR Station.
The Shimizu Family Restaurant serves freshly grilled eels that are caught that morning. The Unajyu is served along with a soup. Only the number of eels they expect to serve each day are delivered each morning and all are cooked to order on a charcoal grill carefully managed to ensure the heat is at the correct temperature. Customers can enjoy a taste that is unchanged over three generations of this family of chefs in an inviting atmosphere, or if you prefer to take away your selected food then eel boxes are available for this service. Shimizu Family is located at 238-2 Kiga, Hosoe-cho, Kita-ku, Hamamatsu City, Shizuoka Prefecture, and is open daily with the exception of one Wednesday each month. They open at 11am and close at 6pm or when the eels are sold out. The restaurant is located just 15 minutes from Hamamatsu Station or 20 minutes from Shin Tomei Station.