There’s something immensely comforting about eating a plate of grilled eel on a bed of rice. It’s like wearing a soft scarf or cashmere jumper—a luxury that also soothes the soul.
It would be easy to walk past this restaurant, which is inconspicuously squashed between many other eateries in bustling Shibuya. Not expecting much from the look of its casual shopfront, I’m overtaken by surprise as I’m led upstairs to a more private, secluded and elegant area with private booths and a navy curtain drawn for privacy. Beyond that is the even more secluded back of the restaurant, cordoned off and housing three additional tables.
The interior consists of a black, green and golden palate—sedate, but dignified and regal, complete with an image of Mount Fuji—accompanied by soft meditation music and a beautifully presented, kimono-clad lady. Only two other salarymen share a booth. All one can hear is their raucous laughter, and the rare words uttered by them are “sugoi” (fantastic) and “ocha” (tea). Smacking their lips, they’re far too engrossed in the meal to mutter much else. The proof is in the pudding, the laughter, the “sugoi” and the non-verbal appreciation of the eel.
The extensive English menu has an array of tempting options starting from ¥400 (à la carte) up to ¥5,400 (various grilled-eel set menus). Hitsumabushi (¥2,700) is promoted as the “number one” dish. While customers enjoy the eel, they can also take this opportunity to learn about Nagoya, its speciality and the folklore and ceremonial ritual surrounding it.
The attentive waitress provides instructions on how to eat hitsumabushi. “Divide theunagi bowl into four sections. Place part of the the rice, seaweed and eel into the small porcelain bowl, cover with hot dashi (Japanese stock used for seasoning) and sprinkle with the many spices and seasonings, including yuzu, chives, nori (seaweed) and wasabi. Repeat a number of times.”
The eel is delicious—thick, soft flakes of grilled eel and the vibrant colored seasonings are salty, heavenly and extremely filling, making it an unrivaled comfort food. Don’t be surprised if you scrape the bowl, hoping for more.
A cup of tea is also served. The quality of the porcelain and its patterns are immediately distinguishable: Arita’s.
The ceremony allows more insight into Japanese culture, the art of serving and enjoying a meal, and piques one’s interest in the exact origins and history of this dish.
I leave the venue with the same sentiment I had after attending my first formal tea ceremony, feeling I’ve absorbed a part of the culture and history. Truly humbling.