Eel: Japan's Beat-The-Heat Secret

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Photo by David Nakamura


Living in Japan during the summer reminds me of sitting in the steam room at the gym after a workout. My native Washington is muggy, but Tokyo has me sweating at a whole other level. For my 10-minute bike ride to work, I pack an extra undershirt and, when I arrive at the office, head immediately for the bathroom to towel off and change.

But that doesn't stop the perspiration. Many Japanese companies, mine included, operate under something called "Cool Biz," a misnamed campaign in which the thermostat is set at 82 degrees to reduce carbon output through air conditioning.

It's no wonder that there is a special Japanese word for heat fatigue: natsubate . "It's where you feel like doing nothing," Juro Osawa, a Japanese reporter friend, explained this week.

After a few weeks battling the Tokyo heat and humidity, my undershirts and I were desperate to try pretty much anything.

Fortunately, Juro had a cure that the Japanese swear by: eating eel, known here as unagi , a nutritious food that is thought to provide stamina through the dog days of summer. The custom is so ingrained in the culture that there are special eel-eating holidays (July 19 and 31 this year) called Doyo No Ushi No Hi .

The tradition began centuries ago and has its origins in a convoluted theory involving the signs of the Chinese zodiac, in which the Ox is the symbol for the coldest winter month. In Japanese, the Ox is usually called ushi , or cow, and so any foods beginning with the syllable "u"--including unagi--is thought to bring a cool feeling with it. ( Ume --salty plums--also are often eaten during summer, but unagi is most popular.)

I'm not going to lie: When I first heard about this tradition, I privately vowed to take a pass. Eel has never been particularly appealing to me, not because of the taste, but because I find it so hideous-looking, swimming around an aquarium tank and slithering snake-like out of a muddy hole.

But I knew such thinking was illogical, especially since, on a few occasions, I had eaten barbequed eel on sushi and actually enjoyed the rich, meaty texture and flavor. Besides, after a few weeks battling the Tokyo heat and humidity, my undershirts and I were desperate to try pretty much anything.

Juro and my friend Tomoko Hosaka, who explore Tokyo every summer for an eel feast, led the way to Ichinoya, an upscale restaurant on the outskirts of Shibuya with traditional wooden tables and bamboo walls. A large mirror and paper placemats inscribed with cartoon eel drawings gave a sense of comic relief to the refined setting. So eager to get started, I mistakenly forgot to remove my shoes, drawing a sharp admonishment from the waitress, who instructed me to put them in a small locker.

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David Nakamura is a staff writer for The Washington Post who believes that safe tap water is an important ingredient for any city that aspires to food supremacy. More

David Nakamura is a staff writer for The Washington Post who missed authentic Japanese food so much that he took a year off to escape to Tokyo on an international affairs fellowship from the Council on Foreign Relations. He has written about politics, education, sports and, every now and then, Japanese food for the Post. He headed a team of reporters that was awarded the 2005 Selden Ring Award for investigative reporting after exposing excessive levels of lead contamination in the District of Columbia's drinking water and the government's failure to notify the public. His general philosophy is that safe tap water is an important ingredient for any city that aspires to food supremacy.

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