Have a layover at Narita Airport with several hours to spare? A day trip to nearby Narita town is exactly what the travel doctor called for. It’s just 15 minutes away from the terminal, with all the charms of traditional Japan and few of the crowds. Naritasan Shinshoji Temple is probably one of the best hidden gems the area has to offer. If nothing else, you should visit Narita solely to eat a grilled unagi rice bowl at Kawatoyo.
Finding Kawatoyo in Narita
Having served unagi for over a century on the charming Omotesando Street, Kawatoyo is easily found. Walking to the temple will take you right there. As you approach, you’ll smell freshwater eel grilling over an open charcoal flame, a sweet-smoky scent wafting up the street. You’ll see a steady flow of customers into the restaurant, perhaps even a queue of hungry diners at busier times of the year. Indeed, Narita is incredibly popular with local Japanese tourists who visit the area just to eat grilled eel. Poor Naritasan—ignored for a bowl of unagi rice!
Putting the ‘fresh’ in freshwater eel
Most striking, though, is the eel preparation station at the front of Kawatoyo. Everything is open for all and sundry to see. Watching it isn’t a sight for the faint-hearted, but it is fascinating (vegans, you’ve been warned). At the very least, you know your food is super fresh!
An elderly chef grabs an eel from a tub of writhing live eels, and makes an incision at the neck with one quick stroke. He pins it to the wooden surface with a nail through its head, and slices it open along its back. First he removes the guts, then scrapes the long, skinny bone from the flesh, which will later become deep-fried bone ‘crackers.’ Then he carves the body into two fillets. He tosses them onto a growing pile of eel fillets in the center of the table, where the other chefs push them neatly onto wooden skewers. The whole process takes less than 45 seconds per eel.
A dreamy unagi rice bowl at Kawatoyo
Of course, you can skip the spectacle and head straight to the eating. And what eating it is. Because of domestic overfishing, eel doesn’t come cheap these days. But if you need eel at all costs and are willing to splurge on a meal, nothing less than a full eel on your una-don will do. Even if it leaves you ¥3,600 lighter. If you’re feeling generous, make it 1.5 eels.
Kawatoyo has had over 100 years to perfect the art of grilling unagi, and you can taste it in each bite. The flesh is tender with just enough crisp on the outside. There’s just the right amount of sweet-salty teriyaki-style sauce brushed on, and each grain of rice below is lightly coated with sauce. (This is a very important detail: not all restaurants are as generous with their sauce. That being said, I asked for a small amount of rice.) The sauce reputedly contains eel—all the better to bring out the flavour of unagi! A sprinkle of sansho pepper on top completes this meal.
Get thee to this bowl of unagi
Narita town is definitely a day trip from Tokyo. But if you’re already en route to Narita airport, or you happen to have a layover, there’s no reason not to visit. Kawatoyo’s fabulous unagi rice bowl is well worth the 15-minute train ride from the airport. Try it for yourself!
How to get here
Name: Kawatoyo Honten
Address: 386 Nakamachi, Narita, Chiba 286-0027
Post by Japan Journeys.