To be fair, I suppose I shouldn't claim it was the best Unagi, considering I'm no expert authority on Japanese eel. But, it was really, really good. And I don't just mean the entree, but the complete experience of dining in Narita's oldest Unagi restaurant, Kawatoyo. After all, dining is an experience that transcends gastronomical objectives.
As I aimlessly wandered down Narita-san Omotesando street, randomly popping into any shops that were open in the wee pre-10 am hours, I casually enquired with a shopkeeper if I was on the right track to Kawatoyo. She not only said that I was headed in the right direction, but also that I should get there quickly, presumably because I had the advantage of not having to wait for a table at that hour. A minute or so later, I found myself outside an establishment with a bustling staff, gearing up for the day.
A scene like this was enough to confirm that I was outside Kawatoyo
Standing outside this place, I just knew I was at the popular Unagi restaurant I had read all about. But the obsessive-compulsive in me had to ascertain that suspicion. So I went on, breaking out my amateur Japanese -
Me: Ohayōgozaimasu. Kawatoyo? (pointing down)
Great! I was then offered a menu, made my selection, and escorted to my table. The dining area was divided into two halves - western-style tables and chairs in front, and the more traditional horigotatsu area inside, which had pillows to sit on and a recessed floor, should you prefer to stretch your legs. Perhaps it was because that is what was available, but I was more than happy to be led to the latter, where I was required to remove my shoes.
I was quite pleased with the horigotatsu seating availability
As I sat down, I noticed a piece of laminated literature on the table, introducing me to the nuances of dining here. It talked about the various paraphernalia that would play a part in my impending meal, including the Japanese tea, which I was to "Please drink freely". I was in for a very pleasant surprise when I poured myself a cup. Now, I've had Japanese tea before. But this one was different. It was chilled. It was the perfect aperitif on a 90 degree day.
A little introduction to Unagi
Let me now take you through a journey through the lifecycle of an eel at Kawatoyo, while we wait for my order. The eels are fresh, in the purest sense possible.
The sacrificial fish-snake is then gutted and deboned.
A quick process where the eel is slit open and gutted
The meat is then skewered.
Freshly cleaned eel on skewers
And finally sent to the kitchen, where it is seasoned and grilled.
The skewered eel is then seasoned and grilled
And that brings us to the final phase of this journey - we're served!
Grilled Unagi over rice. ¥2500. Cash only.
I'll be honest. I wasn't too sure if I'd enjoy it that much, having had a proper breakfast just a couple of hours earlier on my JAL flight into Narita. I was actually more interested in seeing what the rave was all about. But much like that cup of chilled tea, this too was a delightful treat. The meat was quite tender with lots of flavor, both natural as well as what seemed like might be a teriyaki marinade. It was served over a bed of rice. A very satisfying meal overall, without being too heavy.
One thing I should highlight is that I got really lucky in getting a table immediately upon arrival. This is quite possibly due to the fact that I arrived shortly after the place opened. A little later, and you'd have to wait to be seated.
You might have to wait for a table if you arrive later in the day
So, if you're planning on a day in Narita with a visit to the Shinshō-ji temple where you will be climbing a lot of steep staircases, stopping for brunch at Kawatoyo first would be wise. Pack in the calories you'll need while experiencing Unagi without the wait.