Thursday, July 28, 2005

National "Unagi" Day?!

Obachan's Unagi Donburi (eel on a bowl of rice)

Of course there is no such thing as ”National Unagi (eel) Day” on our calendar here in Japan, but I would think that the day almost deserves such a name. The day is actually called doyo no ushi no hi -– “day of the ox in midsummer” according to an online dictionary -- and said to be the hottest day of the year. It is our custom to eat unagi on that day, and the “day of the ox” fell on July 28th this year.

So what does the hottest day of the year have to do with unagi ? Well, here's a story widely known in Japan about how people started eating eel on that particular day.

More than 200 years ago, owner of a very UNpopular
unagi restaurant asked a guy for an idea for boosting their sales. The guy, Hiraga Gennai was a pharmacist and also a multi-talented genius who later invented something like an electrostatic generator. Gennai put up a poster at the restaurant, which said something like “Eat nutritious eel to beat summer weariness,” and people were convinced that it must be a good thing to eat such a nutritious food on the hottest day of the year.

It worked like a magic. The ad not only saved the slumping restaurant but created a custom that has been passed down for more than 200 years. What a great sales promotion strategy, don't you think? I wonder if anyone today can come up with a promo phrase that has such a long-lasting effect.

Anyway, today, we of course do not believe that eating eel on one particular day only can beat summer weariness. But we just have to try anything if it was said to be “good for health,” and here in Japan everyone does the same thing at the same time. Yes, I’m exaggerating, but maybe it’s not too far from the truth. There was a long line right outside this well-known unagi restaurant in Kochi city. These people were there for unagi bento to go, and only a few bentos were left when I took this photo.

Right outside a big supermarket, two guys were selling broiled eels. It’s not included in this photo, but there was a small BBQ grill next to this table and they were broiling the eels over charcoal. The young guy there was rather unhappy because I took a shot of the products they were selling only, not him. I didn’t have a nerve to just take a photo and say good bye, so I bought one there. The sauce came in a small plastic bag with the eel.

So, everyone, my unagi-donburi was again a ready-made stuff, except the rice I cooked at home :P I did use a little trick when preparing the donburi, though. After cutting the unagi in several pieces, I placed them on aluminum foil, sprinkled sake all over, brought up and pinched the edges of the foil together tightly, then heated the foil-wrapped unagi in a frying pan. This is supposed to make the unagi a little softer and tastier, according to a TV cooking show I saw a long time ago. The trick did not work like a magic, unfortunately, but I do think the photo of unagi-donburi on top looks pretty nice, at least. ;)

* I had been curious about the meaning of doyo so I did a little bit of online research. If you’re interested,
Read More
In an ancient Chinese cosmology, Gogyo Theory (the Five Elements Theory), this world was considered to be made up of the five elements: fire, water, earth, metal and wood. When the theory was applied to the seasons, they associated wood with spring, fire with summer, gold with autumn and water with winter.

They saw the earth (土, pronounced "do")as something to aid the other elements, and placed it between the seasons. The philosophy there is that all seasons and elements return to earth before transforming into the next one. So, the last 18 days of each season is called “Doyo (土用),” i.e., the period of earth.

In ancient Chinese calendar, each day was associated with one of the 12 animals in the Zodiac. The "day of the ox” in the Doyo period between summer and autumn is supposed to be the hottest day of the year, perhaps because the sun comes to a certain point on the ecliptic on that day ….

That’s what I think I understood from several websites I went through regarding the "day of the ox.” Corrections by experts would be appreciated. PLEASE!


Anonymous said...


Not much said but the unagi looked delicious!! I think I would've tried to eat as much of it until I popped. Was this at a stall at the marketplace? How lucky you are to get to place your order and have them grill it right there for you. Uramayashii>_< The only unagi I get is either frozen where you have to thaw and reheat it yourself or buy a bento box from some store where they are doing that for you and charging you more money.  

Posted by kyle

Anonymous said...

The unagi looks sooooooo good.... I hope it tasted as good as it looks...Ummmmmm...I must find a Japanese restaurant..... 

Posted by carlyn

Anonymous said...

Hi Obachan,
Unagi is one of my favorite dishes. The meat of the eel is soft, warm, delicious. I think it's one of the highest experiences in life!

Eel. Funny, I would never imagine that I would like a snake-like animal that swims and eats dirt, but I DO!

Please send some Unagi via EMAIL.

Posted by joanna

Anonymous said...

Unagi is my FAVORITE Japanese food, but I totally missed unagi day. I realized that shortly after midnight, haha. Looks yummmmy. 

Posted by Robyn

Anonymous said...

Hey .. Obachan,
I love unagi anytime.. especially with rice..!!


Posted by Big BoK

Anonymous said...

Oh I'm glad, I ate it yesterday too! 

Posted by Jonny

Anonymous said...

Happy Post Unagi Day! I didn't even know that there was such a day, but I was at a japanese restaurant last night and had a unagi bento there. What were the chances? ^^ 

Posted by Jme

Anonymous said...

Hi Obachan,

Unagi is my favorite! YUM YUM! That unagi don looks so good. The bad thing about unagi here is that most often times the eel has been previously frozen, so I don't eat it often. I really miss eating unagi in day!

Thanks for making me jealous! 

Posted by Reid

Anonymous said...

> kyle --- No, this wasn’t at the marketplace. And I bet more than 90% of the unagi I saw on that day were frozen ones. Only rich people who made reservations way ahead of time had real good unagi on that particular day, I guess.

> carlyn --- I would say the pic looks twice as tastier.

> Joanna --- I agree. I still remember the ecstasy I felt when I had a real good unagi donburi when I was in Osaka. We gotta ask someone to invent a mailer that can send food as attachments, with some kind of odor-protection in case we send things like seafood, natto, kimchi, etc. Bill Gates? Doraemon?

> Robyn --- To be honest, I guess most of us are eating lower-quality unagi on that particular day, because there’s a need for crazy mass production. Maybe a couple of days after the craze is a better chance to eat good unagi??

> Big Bok --- You bet!! And for me, mushy rice is a BIG NO NO!

> Jonny --- Oh, so you were one of the crowd, ha? ;)

> Jme --- I hope you enjoyed your unagi bento.

> Reid --- You’re welcome. I have to make you jealous just once in a while because I’m almost always jealous about the food you enjoy over there ;) 

Posted by obachan

Anonymous said...

Oh my.... I'm stopping-over in Japan on my way to NZ... but not until the New Year.... gotta find a way to eat unagi, but in Hollywood all the local Japanese restaurants are v-e-r-y expensive In the east-end of London(UK), where I'm from, they eat jellied eels, but this looks even better.... very yummy photos... thank you. 

Posted by Christine

Anonymous said...

Konnichiwa, Obachan !

Your entry on unagi looks and sounds really delicious! It makes me want to head to the Japanese restaurant a couple buildings away for an unaju!

Lovely blog, by the way. 

Posted by Midge

Anonymous said...

Obachan - yes, you did again! Your unadon looks absolutely delicious, I really miss summer in Japan too (even though I know I'll complain). Thanks for the interesting story about Doyo-no-hi, I didn't know Hiraga Gennai was involved in the unagi history either! 

Posted by keiko

Anonymous said...

> Christine --- Oh you are? Hope you get a chance to eat unagi in Japan. Things must be so expensive in Holloywood. I’ve never tried jellied eels, but heard it is good.

> Midge --- Well, looks like my post made a small contribution to the sales of unagi in other countries ;)

> keiko --- Sorry that I made you homesick again. When I was in Miss., USA, I tried to make something similar to unagi no kabayaki with catfish, but it tasted quite different. 

Posted by obachan

Anonymous said...


Wow!! You made the dish yourself! Looks exactly like what those high class japanese restaurant serve!!

-Makan Kings- 

Posted by Makan Kings

Anonymous said...

Hi Makan Kings,
Well, yeah, at least I did put the unagi pieces on the bowl of rice and poured sauce all over.
BTW, the bowl is one of my collections of dear 100-yen shop products ;) 

Posted by obachan

Anonymous said...

Ok. I am convinced you posted this Unagi Day post just to torture me, Obachan. Like Reid unagi is my absolute favourite... Excuse me while I go and jump out of the window now. 

Posted by OsloFoodie

Anonymous said...

AHHHHH...!!!!  Wait, OsloFoodie!!! I will bring you the best-quality unagi donburi right away! Don't worry, you can pay me later for the dish... and my flights.

Posted by obachan

Anonymous said...

National Unagi Day? Oh I'd definitely be in for that! I looooove unagi. I can never resist its sweet richness, the delightful way it flavours my plain steamed rice... ohhh... *faints* 

Posted by AugustusGloop

Anonymous said...

Woops, sorry that I forgot to respond to your comment, AugustusGloop. I'm so surprised and happy to find so many unagi lovers outside Japan. I was once told (by who? I don't remember) that Westerners cannot stand the thought of eating such a long, slimy fish, and I felt like we were some kind of uncivilized people. But I guess not :) 

Posted by obachan