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Best Unagi in Narita

by Arun Victor

· Food,Japan

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.

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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)

Hostess: Hai

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.

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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.

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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.

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Fresh eel. Watch the full video here

The sacrificial fish-snake is then gutted and deboned.

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A quick process where the eel is slit open and gutted

The meat is then skewered.

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Freshly cleaned eel on skewers

And finally sent to the kitchen, where it is seasoned and grilled.

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The skewered eel is then seasoned and grilled

And that brings us to the final phase of this journey - we're served!

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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.

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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.

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