I sweat as I made a turn at the junction, trying to figure out where this “Asakusa Unatetsu” place is; with only a paragraph written about it and a small dot marked on the map in the page of the guide book. The evening sun shone with gusto as if it was trying to finish his fire rations for the day. I held my faith and continued walking in the unfamiliar surroundings of Asakusa.
I just completed my trip to the Asakusa temple. The temple was filled endlessly with tourists, Japanese old folks and young teenagers who just finished school, going to the shopping street within the temple for their social activities and maybe, a divine request to pass their latest examination paper.
As I continued walking, the crowds slowly peel away and I was surrounded mostly by regular Japanese folks. Languages I heard around me although still foreign, no longer mixed with Mandarin or English. I looked ahead and saw a Denny’s signboard.
Denny’s in Japan?
I was utterly confused. I dipped my head into my guidebook. Denny’s was written in there. I scanned my eyes from landmark to landmark. Ah-yes, just a few more steps ahead to this elusive Unagi place that the guidebook writers were raving about. THIS GOTTA BE GOOD. I have many disappointing experiences of guidebook recommendation already. But there is a reason I decided to tread on this road again.
A small dark navy blocked-sign board came into view and I heaved a sigh of relief.
I have found it.
A huge fabric banner that bears two eels came into view. One happy and one,crestfallen. I guess this must be it. Asakusa Unatetsu — the famous Unagi place.
I love unagi. What’s not to like? Grilled to tenderness and lathered generously in that sweet sticky teriyaki sauce; the soft, slippery, add with some chewiness piece of meat is absolutely heaven to me. Just thinking about it made my mouth water.
Stepping inside, I was greeted with a familiar shout of “Irasshaimase!” and a server came up to me politely bowed and smiled. Like treading on unknown territories, I returned the server a polite nod and smile.
The server was a man maybe in his late thirties, early forties. Dressed in his t-shirt and pants, with a apron wrapped around his thick waist and a towel twisted into a sweatband ring around his forehead; quickly asked if I would like to have a seat downstairs or upstairs. He spoke in Japanese, which I could not understand. He quickly switched to simple English or rather, Japanese English; understanding immediately I was not local.
The timid me chose downstairs and very near to the entrance. If there is an emergency, I definitely want to be the first one out of that building.
The server quickly returned to me with a leather-cover menu, hot towel and tea. Then he bowed and walked away.
I already set my heart on this highly-recommended ungi dish from the guidebook. Whatever that writer ate, I need to fill my tummy with it too. But when I opened up the menu, I was bombarded with tons of other choices.
Sauce version, salt version, and grilled, steamed, boiled…. what?!?!?! So many types!
Now I understood why one of the eel on that banner was not smiling at all. Worst place for eels to come and best place for me. OH Yeahhhh~
I read through the menu again.
This menu has ENGLISH words? Wait a min. There are Chinese and Korean translations in there too. Best of all, it’s ALL nicely colour-coded.
Wow, nice job. I’m impressed. So tourist-ready.
I waved for the waiter and pointed to the sauce version dish.
“Kore~” I said simply. (*kore means ‘this’ in Japanese)
He smiled and replied, “Okay, Tare Unagi. Saucesu. One-or-too?” I tilted my head, looking slightly confused.
He explained further.
“One, about mmmm….half eel. Two people, one eel.” He smiled as he tried his best.
My eyes returned to the menu, desperate to figure out what alien words he was trying to convey. Sudden realisation hit me.
“One.” I raised my finger.
“Arigatou.” I added.
Sauce version for one person.
He smiled and took the menu and left.
My brain replayed in that conversation again and I understood.
Half an eel for one person’s portion.
The whole eel for two person portion.
The nice server returned with bowls and condiments. One of the main reason I wanted to go to this restaurant because they served REAL wasabi. Oh yes~
Not the grass-green-playdough-crumble mushy thingy that is being served across japanese restaurants in Singapore. The real hard rod stem of a very special radish. Mm-mmm…
And I can bring home whatever is left of that thick green stem if I could not finish it. But alas, I lapped it all up like a thirsty dog, and I didn’t asked if I could get another.
Unlike the regular pungent shoot-in-your-nose mush wasabi kick that I am often served elsewhere, this is like a gentle lover; filling me with warm tingling sensations that makes me craved for more.
After settling down the cutlery, the server tried to engage me in small talk, seeing that I rarely spoke a word of Japanese. He asked me in simple English where I was from and I mentioned “Singapore”, his first response was “ah… Merlion!”
Not that I am not proud of that mythical animal that represents Singapore, but to my amusement, is that a foreigner associates Singapore with a half-lion-half-fish-spouting-water animal. That is, if there is such a thing.
And when I asked if he has went to Singapore before, he shook his head.
“One day… one day…” He said with hope.
I smiled politely. Okay, his reaction was too cute.
Only later then I realised the fascination of Japanese with mascots and icons, and of course, that mandatory photo of themselves drinking water from the Merlion fountain that bears odd similarity to people trying to hold up the Pisa tower. The trend of touristy photos. Ha~
The main cast soon arrived, handsomely dressed in black wooden lacquer style.
A tub of rice adorned with two pieces of char-grilled unagi, lathered in teriyaki sauce that oozed into the rice, staining it golden brown.
Followed closely behind is its sidekick, a light dashi broth hidden within the walls of a lacquered teapot, accompanied by a small white teacup bowl.
The server again returned with a huge piece of paper wrapped in plastic, which turns out to be a guide for eating Hitsumabushi.
3 foreign languages again! Nice job… people of that shop.
Okay, before i start to stuff everything down like a wolf, I think I owe you an explanation of what I just ordered:
What is Hitsu-mabushi?
Hitsu-mabushi is explained by the restaurant as a dish with bite-sized unagi-no-kabayaki (grilled eel with sweet soya sauce) on steamed rice served in a wooden bowl.
And there are 3 ways in enjoying a Hitsu-Mabushi, and there are two kinds of Hitsu-Mabushi.here is a Tare (sauce) version and a Shio (salt) version. Since I preferred the sweet soya grilled eel, I chose the Tare version.
3 ways to eat Hitsumabushi
Of course you want to try the dish in its original glory. The char-grill unagi with a layer of sweet teriyaki sauce oozed into the top layer of pearl rice and a touch of seaweed gives you the real authentic japanese style meal.
2. With spring onions and wasabi
This combination is my favourite. TOPS. Why? Because of the wasabi.
The wasabi and the onion really kicks a punch on the palette. It’s fresh, it’s pungent, I just cry (literally) with every bite.
Like I said, this wasabi still holds its tear-jerking weapon, but it’s not spearing-through-the-nose-and-tear-ducts kind, but rather the touching-drama-scene kind; that is, if you get what I meant. That said, this is STILL my favourite combi.
3. With broth soup
You will want to eat this over and over when you are under the weather. The light broth mixed with the rice resulted in a flavourful soupy delight. I love how it turned into a hongkong style “泡飯” something like a soaked rice type of porridge, and that soup, oh man, the flavour is so light on its own, you can drink it like tea, but when mixed in with the soup, it just gives an oomph to everything.
Surprisingly, this one person portion plus broth plus condiments fills me up. Small-size ladies, or those who are too scared to get fat or don’t eat much, please bring your big appetite boyfriend, husband, partner, bestie; whatever! You definitely will regret if you don’t finish it one way or another.
Nevertheless, you need to walk a distance to get there, and another distance to get back to Asakusa JR station. Some of those would have digested by then.
After I cleared out the tub of rice and finished the last drop of tea, I paid for the wonderful unagi meal at ¥2780, about SGD$37.00. Surprising, not too expensive compared to restaurants in Singapore.
What surprises me most was that despite this is a listing from a guide book, it was modest and the food is not exaggerated or overrated. It was a jewel find.
With a fueled-up body, I stepped out of this small and inconspicuous restaurant, took a look at it again for another time and paced my way back to the station.
I already begun to miss this place.
1-43-7, Asakusa, Taitou-ku, Tokyo, 111-0032
Tel : 03-3841-1360
From Kaminarimon (雷門) 7~10 minutes walk
Tsukuba express Asakusa Station A1 exit about 1 minute walk
Subway Ginza Line Tawaramachi Station about 5 minutes walk
Subway Toei Asakusa Line Asakusa Station about 7~10 minutes walk
Tobu Isesaki Line Asakusa Station about 7 minutes walk
Opening day & hours:
Opens Wednesdays to Mondays from 11.30 am ~ 10.30 pm (Last order at 10 pm)
Close on Tuesdays.
Onwards to another experience, another adventure awaits~