Monday, October 19, 2009

Kawazakana Ryori Hayakou (Higashimurayama, Tokyo)

There is food worth taking a long train ride out of central Tokyo and trudging through chilly weather to experience. Wandering in the quiet suburbs of Higashimurayama, my three traveling companions and I were looking for one Kawazakana Ryori Hayakou (川魚料理 はや幸), the number one ranked unagi shop and the once best rated eatery in Tokyo according to, a user-driven Japan food database.

After attempting to navigate from my printed Googlemap without success we finally gave up and sought the assistance of a very helpful supermarket cashier, who actually went out of his way to draw us a map from the address we gave him. The shop’s façade of was well-worn, humble and typical of any eatery in suburban Japan. Upon entry, we were surprised to find ourselves the only diners. The lone proprietor behind the counter – interrupted from watching the nightly news on TV – might have been similarly perplexed at the sight of four foreign lads entering his shop, far from the tourist bustle of central Tokyo.

We were told to sit where we pleased, and the proprietor offered us tea from his own teapot that was immediately distinguishable to be a high grade tea from its complexity and lingering aftertaste. In broken Japanese we sought to figure out what was recommended in the shop. He asked us if we were hungry (which we were, after a full day of walking around Tokyo) and then urged us to go for the una-jyu – grilled river eel over a bed of rice.

Left: Una-jyu, Right: Clear broth with unagi liver

The unagi, boiled then grilled, had the most delicate flavour, with a light sauce that enhanced the subtle taste of the eel’s flesh instead of smothering it with extraneous sticky sweetness as it is commonly done in Singapore. The eels were of special quality, being amazingly soft, such that they crumbled readily into the rice when pressed with chopsticks. In addition to the eel rice, the meal also came with homemade pickles and a clear soup of katsuoboshi dashi and unagi liver.

Both the proprietor Hashimoto-san and his wife were eager to talk to us, asking if there was unagi where we came from, and whether we spoke more Mandarin or English in Singapore. I really felt their genuine warmth and hospitality despite often being kept from savouring my delicious una-jyu in having to reply. It wasn’t easy communicating as my standard of Japanese was only that of survival Japanese learnt from friends and phrasebooks, but still the elderly couple tried hard to converse with us and make us feel welcomed.

Through our conversations I learnt that Hashimoto-san has been preparing unagi for 37 years and can easily fillet an eel with his eyes closed by now. Their unagi is sourced from Mikawa Isshiki (三河一色), a town somewhere between Tokyo and Nara, and that river eels take about 3 years to grow to edible size. The growth in the first two years is slow, but in the third year the eels encounter a growth spurt by the end of which they are harvested. I also discovered that the rice they use is Niigata prefecture koshihikari, and the tea they served was gyokuro – basically all the best stuff.

We lingered till it was approaching closing time before saying our goodbyes and taking the train back to the sleazy neon-lit Kabukicho for a night tour. Perhaps it was a combination of the weather, having gotten lost and traveling quite a bit off the beaten path, but this was a really unique and memorable dining experience. The meal was wonderful not only for the food, but for the company and kind hospitality received.

川魚料理 はや幸
Nearest train station: 久米川駅 (Kumegawa), on the Seibu-Shinjuku line.

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