Venture out of Narita Airport to enjoy the local specialty: Unagi
July 3, 2017
Narita International Airport, which serves over 100,000 passengers a day, is a major hub for international travel. Visitors arriving at the airport have been known to comment on the tantalizing aroma of caramelized soy sauce. And no wonder: Narita is famous for one of Japan’s best-loved dishes—charcoal-grilled eel (unagi) covered in a sweet and savory sauce. If you’re in Narita, unagi is a must!
A 10-minute train ride from Narita Airport takes you to Narita Station. In striking contrast to the modern airport, the area around the station will make you feel as if you’ve slipped back in time. With historic temples and a rich natural environment, Narita still retains the atmosphere of the Edo period. The town’s symbol is a majestic temple: Naritasan Shinshoji dates back over a thousand years. A popular destination for the devout and tourists alike, it’s famous for its lively fire rituals which are open to the public.
From the station a narrow, 800-meter street leads right up to the gates of the temple. Both sides of the street are lined with souvenir stores and restaurants, but the most eye-catching eateries are those specializing in unagi. There are over 20 unagi restaurants in this one area, a rare sight even for an eel-loving nation like Japan. At lunchtime, the air is hazy with the smoke rising from the charcoal grills, and long queues form in front of the restaurants. Both Japanese and foreign visitors are lured in by the tantalizing aroma of grilled eel basted with soy sauce and sugar. Let’s see what unagi in Narita is all about.
The best way to enjoy broiled and basted unagi is to have it served in a lacquer box over a bed of rice. The simplicity of the dish, called unaju, showcases the succulent flavor of the eel. “Una” comes from unagi, while “ju” refers to the jubako: the lacquered box. If the rice is served in a bowl, on the other hand, it’s called unadon.
Let’s say you’ve ordered unaju, and here it comes. As you open the lid you’re instantly hit by the mouth-watering aroma of the grilled eel glistening with sauce, lying on its bed of rice. One bite and the succulent flavor of the charcoal-grilled eel rolls across the taste buds. The sugar and soy sauce-based sauce is rich but light, complementing the eel without overwhelming it. The Narita restaurant we visited has a special secret sauce that’s been its claim to fame ever since it first opened. While a little more is being added each day, the original sauce is still in use! The unagi is covered in this sauce and steamed before grilling, so it’s incredibly juicy and fluffy without any hint of fishy odor. A pleasant hint of charring provides a wonderful accent, and a sprinkling of sansho pepper adds zest to the savory flavor, stimulating the taste buds and making every mouthful count, down to that last grain of rice.
People who’ve never tried unagi may be put off by the snake-like appearance of the live fish. But summon the courage to sample the grilled version, and you’ll probably regret never having tried it before. Narita Station is just 10 minutes away from Narita Airport, so if you’re visiting Japan, even on a layover, you should definitely make the effort to try unagi, one of the country’s favorite foods.
Text: Ayaka Miyamoto
Nakacho 386, Narita, Chiba Prefecture
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