15 episodes into the eel-themed U manga series, I could bear it no longer. I had to visit an unagiya (eel restaurant). There are around 1,000 in Tokyo. The only one I know locally is called Gennai, a 30-year-old unagiya, tucked underneath a bicycle park and the railway tracks by Nishiogi station. I cycled there this lunchtime, under a cool, blue sky, full of excitement at my induction into the enigmatic world of the eel.
Around the corner a long queue waited inside McDonald`s. Gennai however was empty, just the owner, me and 6 tiny, freshly chopped eel heads resting on the chopping board. Their glistening, startled eyeballs looked up at me as I walked in. Well, at least my lunch will be fresh, I thought.
The tired-looking but friendly owner encouraged me to look around while I waited. He switched on the lights of the back room. Photos of celebrity visitors hung on one wall. On the opposite wall was a shelf for bottle-keeps. Eel eating must have a hardcore.
An eyesight test hangs by the door. Rather than locating the gap in circles , you have to find the gap between the curled-up eel`s head and the tip of its tail. Genius.
Sitting back at the counter, next to my cup of green tea, I found an eel poem.
口程に うなぎの裂けぬ 料理人
As far as the mouth / the eel unbroken / a masterchef
The poem is a senryu, a satirical form of the 17 syllable haiku. My translation is loose, extremely so, in fact if you know any Japanese you might even wonder if it`s the same poem. But I stand by my choices; they were made for purely for poetic reasons – I`ve always wanted to write that.
(Note: all errors are the fault of the original)
So anyway, stop procrastinating, how did it taste? It straddled the border between meat and fish, pinching the best of both worlds, juicy and tender, fragile and punchy, it was like the prodigal offspring of a chicken and mackerel`s one night stand. The richness of the tare seasoning and the sharpness of the sansho pepper made every mouthful worth savouring. Those daft buggers waiting in McDonald`s don`t know what they are missing.