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All About the Japanese Summer Tradition of Eating Eel to Power through the Summer

Doyo no Ushi no Hi is a uniquely Japanese summer tradition. Every year, people in Japan eat unagi (eel) at this time of year. What is the meaning of this practice? Here is some information about it.

When Is Doyo no Ushi no Hi

Doyo no Ushi no Hi falls on a different day each year, and can be just once a year, but in 2018, it is Friday, July 20 and Wednesday, August 1.

The Meaning of Doyo no Ushi no Hi

Doyo no Ushi no Hi actually exists not just in the summer, but in the spring, fall and winter as well. Doyo refers to the period of about 18 or 19 days before the beginning of each season, known as shiryu, which is around February 4 in the spring (Risshun), May 5 in the summer (Rikka), August 7 in the fall (Risshu), and November 7 in the winter (Ritto). It is essentially around 18 days at the end of each season, almost like an adjustment period before entering the next season.
Ushi no Hi is the day of the Ushi (Ox) of the Chinese zodiac used to measure years, directions, months and days, and comes around every twelve days. So Doyo no Ushi no Hi is the day of the Ox that comes around every twelve days within the 18-day Doyo period.

Why Eat Unagi on Doyo no Ushi no Hi?

The summer Doyo is the period that is considered to be the hottest of the year. During the Edo Period (1603 - 1867), people paid great attention to Doyo no Ushi no Hi, and practiced various measures to prevent heat fatigue and to improve health, such as taking medicinal baths and burning moxa on the skin. The practice of eating nutritious unagi started for the same reason.

Initiated by the Edo Period Renaissance Man, Hiraga Gennai?!

There is a theory that this practice was initiated by Hiraga Gennai, who was a famous renaissance man of the Edo Period (1603-1867). Unagi is actually in season in the winter, so the story is that Hiraga came up with the idea of posting a sign that says "Today is Doyo no Ushi no Hi, the day for unagi" to help a friend who owned an unagi restaurant that was struggling with low sales in the summer. This became a big hit and the shop thrived. This, along with the belief that eating items that start with the same vowel as Ushi no Hi, such as unagi, gives one the strength to survive the summer, resulted in the birth of a tradition of eating unagi on Doyo no Ushi no Hi.

Regional Differences in Unagi no Kabayaki

Unagi no Kabayaki (grilled filleted unagi) is enjoyed throughout the country, but did you know that they are prepared and grilled differently in the Kanto and Kansai regions? They are tasty either way, so try them both ways to find out which you prefer.

Kanto Style

There is a theory that because there were many samurai in Edo (present day Tokyo), unagi were cut from the back so as not to remind them of seppuku by cutting the stomach. It is also said that because people from Edo tend not to be patient, it became common to chargrill the eel in advance and steam them in a box, so that they could be quickly grilled again with sauce when customers arrived. Kanto-style grilled eel is also distinguished by the fact that bamboo skewers are used to grill them and that the head is chopped off before grilling.

Kansai Style

In contrast to the samurai culture of Edo, the Kansai Region was known for its merchant culture. It is said that unagi in the Kansai Region is cut open in the front, based on the expression often used by merchants "to talk with the stomach revealed", which means to talk frankly. Kansai-style unagi is not steamed, and is made soft through grilling techniques. It is also grilled with stainless-steel skewers and with the head intact (which is cut off before serving).

Recommended Unagi Shops to Go to on Doyo no Ushi no Hi

We now introduce recommended unagi restaurants around the country. This time, we focus on restaurants in Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto.

Tokyo - Maekawa TOKYO SKYTREE TOWN Solamachi Branch

This is the TOKYO SKYTREE TOWN Solamachi branch of Maekawa, a famous unagi restaurant that was established more than 200 years ago. The soft and fluffy unagi has a wonderful texture and goes perfectly with the sauce that has been added to over the years. There is a wide selection of items on the menu, with one recommendation being the Unaju (4,212 JPY (incl. tax)), grilled unagi on rice. There are menus available in English, Simplified Chinese and Korean.

Tokyo - Maekawa TOKYO SKYTREE TOWN Solamachi Branch

TOKYO SKYTREE TOWN Solamachi East Yard 7F, 1-1-2 Oshiage, Sumida-ku, Tokyo

Osaka - UNAGI

This is a popular restaurant that serves high quality unagi from designated unagi farms in Japan, that are prepared fresh each morning. Although the restaurant is in the Kansai Region, it serves soft and fluffy Edo-style unagi, where you can enjoy the flavors of the fish that has been steamed and grilled. There is a wide selection of items on the menu, but one recommendation is the Unaju Gozen (2,808 JPY to 4,356 JPY (incl. tax)) that is available for dinner. This is a great set for enjoying the aroma and flavors of unagi.

Osaka - UNAGI

Nihon Shika Center Bldg. 1F, 2-5-2 Sennichi-mae, Chuo-ku, Osaka-shi, Osaka

Kyoto - Hirokawa

This is a famous restaurant that was featured in the 2018 MICHELIN Guide Kyoto - Osaka. It is in Arashiyama, which is one of Kyoto's most scenic spots, and offers views of the garden from the first floor, and a panoramic view of Arashiyama from the second floor reserved seating. The unagi served here is high quality unagi that has been meticulously selected. it is prepared carefully for each guest and is grilled to a perfectly fluffy texture that seems to melt in the mouth. One recommended menu item is the Jo Unaju (4,200 JPY (incl. tax)). There are menus in English as well as staff who speak English.

Kyoto - Hirokawa

44-1 Saga Tenryuji Kitatsukurimichi-cho, Ukyo-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto

If you are visiting Japan in the summer, be sure to have some unagi to power through the hot season.

*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.

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