Doyo Ushinohi: Unagi Eel Day, July 24th

Doyo Ushinohi: Unagi Eel Day, July 24th うなぎ土用丑の日

Ushinohi: Unagi Eel Day, July 24th うなぎ土用丑の日

Unagi, or freshwater eel, is a very popular food in contemporary Japan and there is a dedicated ‘Eel Day’ in mid-summer (this year July 24th) on which most Japanese eat unagi.

This article tells about the development of unagi cuisine and history of the Ushinohi ‘Eel Day’ custom. This article tells about perhaps Kyoto’s most popular unagi restaurant.

Grilling Unagi at Nishiki Market
Ushinohi: Unagi Eel Day, July 24th うなぎ土用丑の日

Unagi Donburi (Eel Bowl)
Kaneyo Historic Kyoto Unagi Eel Joint (かねよ 鰻屋さん)

About Unagi
After Tokugawa Ieyasu succeeded in unifying Japan with his victory at the Battle of Sekigahara, the capital moved from Kyoto to his base, the provincial town of Edo (now called Tokyo, or ‘East Capital’). Transforming Edo into a modern capital of its day required, among other things, extensive land reclamation projects.

Reclamation projects created temporary lakes and ponds in which unagi quickly invaded and flourished. Land reclamation is low paying work so laborers would simply catch unagi ‘on site’ for free. Physical labor is very hard work and unagi which is high in fat gave laborers the required energy.

In the early Edo period (1603-1868) unagi was considered a low class and unsophisticated food due to the fact that it was caught, chopped, roasted and eaten in the field by laborers and also because of its high fat content.

By the late Edo period though this had changed due to various unagi cooking processes being developed in the capital, namely kabayaki. With kabayaki, fish, generally unagi, is boned, put on metal skewers and grilled over charcoal while being dipped in a thick, sweetened soy sauce several times throughout the grilling process.

Today, unagi kabayaki is usually served on top of rice, as donburi, or unagi-don.

Difference Between Kanto and Kansai Style Unagi
Kanto (eastern Japan/Tokyo) style unagi is first steamed, then grilled kabayaki style. The steaming process causes a good deal of the fat to be removed and the unagi flesh to be soft.

Kansai (western Japan/Osaka, Kyoto) style unagi is not steamed, and therefore it is more fatty and chewy.

Another interesting difference is the way the unagi is cleaned. Edo was the seat of the military (samurai) government of Japan and samurai sometimes had to commit ritual suicide (seppeku 切腹) by cutting their lower abdomen open and slowly bleeding to death in excruciating pain. The purveyors of unagi cuisine were sensitive to this as samurai were among their customers, accordingly they split the eel open from the back, not the stomach; Japanese love this kind of thing. Also, usually the head and tail was removed in the process, though not out of deference to samurai.

In Kansai, in the merchant city of Osaka, there was a saying, ‘talk with your stomach open'; be frank, open and honest. So, in Kansai, the eels were split down the stomach. The head and tail usually remained attached.

About the Ushinohi ‘Eel Day’ Custom
In modern-day Japan, most everyone eats unagi on the Doyo-no-ushi-no-hi (土用の丑の日). This year it is on July 24th, but it occurs one day between mid-July and the beginning of August. The simple explanation why is that this is the hottest time of the year and as unagi has lots of nutritional value and fat content, it gives you the umph to not wilt in the blazing, steamy summer heat.

Historical Development – Eat Eel on Ox Day!
The old calendar of Japan utilized the Chinese Zodiac system of a 12 year cycle with each year being named after one of 12 animals (rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and boar). This is called eto (干支) in Japanese.

Doyo: Between each of the 4 seasons was a period called doyo (土用) that is 18 days in length. The doyo period between summer and autumn (mid-July to early August) is the hottest time of the year and unagi gives strength.

Ushinohi: The days of the week were also named after the same 12 animals and ushi-no-hi literally means ‘ox’s day’, ox is ushi in Japanese. Depending on the year, there could be 1 or 2 ox days during the summer doyo.

In Japan there had long been a superstition that if you ate a food that started with ‘u’, for example, umeboshi, udon, uri, unagi and so on, on ox (ushi) day, as both the day and the food started with ‘u’, you would be healthy.

During the Edo period in Edo an eel shop owner lamented his mid-summer poor sales and sought advice from Gennai Hiraga. Hiraga was a learned man; he was a naturalist, novelist, painter and master of Dutch studies (Western learning), especially science and medicine.

Hiraga said, why don’t you put up a sign that says, ‘Today is Ox (ushi) day, Eat Eel (unagi)!’ The eel shop owner did so and lamented no more and as people learned this was on the advice of Hiraga, other eel shops quickly followed suit and soon it had spread throughout the country and became a custom.

Nishiki Market – Unagi Shop
Ushinohi: Unagi Eel Day, July 24th うなぎ土用丑の日

Nishiki Market – Unagi Shop
Ushinohi: Unagi Eel Day, July 24th うなぎ土用丑の日
This is eel wrapped around gobo root stips and grilled.

Unagi Shop – Sold Out!
Ushinohi: Unagi Eel Day, July 24th うなぎ土用丑の日
This is a very popular unagi store in Nishiki Market and it looks like they could not quite meet demand.

Unagi Shop – Sold Out!
Ushinohi: Unagi Eel Day, July 24th うなぎ土用丑の日
It looks like they sold a lot of eel today!

Grilled Unagi Kimo (liver)
Ushinohi: Unagi Eel Day, July 24th うなぎ土用丑の日

The ‘U’ in Unagi on Shop Sign
Ushinohi: Unagi Eel Day, July 24th うなぎ土用丑の日
うなぎ is unagi, notice on the left how the う (u) is eel-shaped.

Nishiki Market – Grilling Eel
Ushinohi: Unagi Eel Day, July 24th うなぎ土用丑の日
The row in the foreground hasn’t been dipped in sauce yet, so it is still very light in color.

Nishiki Market – Grilling Eel
Ushinohi: Unagi Eel Day, July 24th うなぎ土用丑の日
The tub behind the dude is full of sauce and he dunks them in there several time.

Grilled Eel for Chazuke
Ushinohi: Unagi Eel Day, July 24th うなぎ土用丑の日
Grilled and simmered in shoyu and sansho, small chunks are placed atop rice and eaten as is, or tea is poured over it to make chazuke. At 2,200 yen this is a good deal! Chazuke Unagi is very, very delicious. It is one of Peko’s all-time fav quick and tasty meals.

Nishiki Market – Eel Sushi for Sake
Ushinohi: Unagi Eel Day, July 24th うなぎ土用丑の日

Daimaru Department Store – Eel Stand
Ushinohi: Unagi Eel Day, July 24th うなぎ土用丑の日
These eel are from Lake Biwa, just over the mountain from Kyoto.

Eel Stand Offerings – Unagi Bento
Ushinohi: Unagi Eel Day, July 24th うなぎ土用丑の日

Eel Stand Offerings – Unagi Tamago Dashimaki
Ushinohi: Unagi Eel Day, July 24th うなぎ土用丑の日
This is a Japanese style omelet (tamago dashimaki) with unagi inside.

Daimaru Department Store – Eel Store
Ushinohi: Unagi Eel Day, July 24th うなぎ土用丑の日

Daimaru Department Store – Eel Stand Offerings
Ushinohi: Unagi Eel Day, July 24th うなぎ土用丑の日

Eel Store Offerings – Wild Grilled Eel
Ushinohi: Unagi Eel Day, July 24th うなぎ土用丑の日
The grilled unagi on the right cost 12,000 yen, about $120 USD!!

Daimaru Department Store – Popular Eel Store
Ushinohi: Unagi Eel Day, July 24th うなぎ土用丑の日
The line is at least 20 people long!

Daimaru Department Store – Eel Store Offerings
Ushinohi: Unagi Eel Day, July 24th うなぎ土用丑の日
This eel is 8,400 yen, about $85 USD!

Convenience Store Poster
Ushinohi: Unagi Eel Day, July 24th うなぎ土用丑の日
Eel Day promotional poster

Convenience Store Unagi Bento
Ushinohi: Unagi Eel Day, July 24th うなぎ土用丑の日

8 Responses to “Doyo Ushinohi: Unagi Eel Day, July 24th”

  1. kat says:

    very informative!

  2. […] « Wagashi: Ayugashi or Waka-ayu Sweetfish Shaped Confection Doyo Ushinohi: Unagi Eel Day, July 24th »  Print This Post  Email This […]

  3. Peko Peko says:

    Hello Kat, Very informative? Well thank you! Perhaps that is why publishers are starting to hit on us!

  4. Rachel says:

    Mmm, that Donburi looks so good!
    I just found your site today, and I can’t tear myself away. Thank you for all the information!

  5. veron says:

    Unagi is my favorite dish to eat at Japanese restaurants. Here I am craving this at 2am in the morning!

  6. Peter Chong says:

    Thanks very informative. Unagi is a favourite of mine…love it very much. Interesting difference between Kanto and Kansai.

  7. Peko-P says:

    Hello Rachel, Opps, sorry for the late reply. I guess this batch slipped through. I am glad that you enjoy KyotoFoodie! Please come again!

    Hello Veron, Were you able to get some unagi over there at 2am?

    Hello Peter, Thanks for stopping by KyotoFoodie. Yes, I was surprised at that Kansai/Kanto difference. The Japanese love stuff like that!

  8. […] Today, unagi kabayaki is usually served on top of rice, as donburi, or unagi-don. Kyoto Foodie […]

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