One morning on a recent trip to my dad’s hometown of Hamamatsu, Japan, I found myself on a secluded bank of Lake Hamana, overlooking a small dock where seaweed harvesters keep their boats. I was there to see the bodhisattva of mercy, Kannon, a stone statue bearing a prayer to protect the local population of eel, or unagi, for generations to come.
The statue was erected in the late 1930s—just before World War II—with funding from the local fishing and aquaculture groups whose names are inscribed on her granite base. At around 15 feet tall, the statue is unimposing, even friendly-looking, with her basket and smiling eyes. Like many of Hamamatsu’s residents, she appears blissfully unaware that Japan’s freshwater eel is now endangered.
Bordering Hamamatsu’s western edge, Hamana is a ragged mitt-shaped lake in Shizuoka Prefecture, some 40-square-miles in size and linked at its southern end to the Pacific Ocean through a narrow channel. The channel was formed in 1498, when an earthquake broke the land barrier that had separated the lake from the sea. What was once the site of a catastrophic disruption is now host to prized aquaculture industries, unagi chief among them.
The area’s first unagi farm was established in 1891. Today, unagi is one of Hamamatsu’s major exports, famous across Japan for its trusted quality and sweet taste. But it’s more than just an export: Anyone who comes to Hamamatsu will know within minutes of arrival that unagi is this city’s star, a major source of local pride and identity, like crab cakes to Baltimore or lobsters to coastal Maine. The evidence can be found in the snacks on display at department-store kiosks, farmer’s markets, convenience stores, even the gift shop of the local castle: cookies called Unagipie, unagi-flavored soda, unagi-enriched potatoes, fried unagi bones. It seems like every street has its own a certified-local unagi restaurant, many of them more than a century old. Even the city’s current mascot, an adorable incarnation of the 17th-century shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa, features a cartoon eel as his topknot.