7 March, 2019
Have you ever had unagi? Unagi is freshwater eel and it’s been part and parcel of Japanese cuisine culture for centuries. It’s one of the most expensive dishes you can have in Japan. Cheap Chinese imports are available nowadays, but what Japanese love is domestic unagi, which is super expensive by Japanese standard. If you go to a renowned unagi restaurant in central Tokyo, the cheapest you get is like 5,000 yen for two pieces of fish.
Luckily I hate unagi. I can live without it for the rest of my life. Unluckily, it’s Marcin’s most favorite dish after ramen.
For his birthday, I decided to take him to an old unagi and sushi restaurant, Darumaya, in our neighbourhood. Established some 50 years ago, Darumaya offers hamanako unagi which is the most prestigious unagi brand from Hamamatsu City, Shizuoka Prefecture.
Darumaya was perfect for me for two reasons. One – even the best unagi they offer is 3,700 yen, which much cheaper than Tokyo’s average price of 5,000 yen. Second – the restaurant also offers sushi and sashimi for non-unagi lovers like myself.
On the 1st of March, we visited the restaurant, and we immediately regretted that we had not been there earlier. I’m so proud that this kind of restaurant exists only 10 min ride from where we live. By Japanese standard, Darumaya is a large unagi restaurant with at least nine tables and four private tatami rooms. What I love most about the layout of Darumaya is that they have a sushi counter, where two seasoned sushi chefs serve you face to face. It is so cool and Marcin was so excited that he asked for a photo with the chefs before we were led to our 6 seater-table across from them.
Now what did we order? Of course, the highest grade unagi dish called unajyu for Marcin and an ordinary sashimi teishoku set for myself. Unajyu is a very simple dish – two pieces of grilled unagi on top of rice. For entrées we ordered maguro tempura and zasai pickles.
Needless to say Marcin loved unagi and spoke very little while eating. We were also wowed by the beautiful and delicious maguro tempura and homemade zasai pickles. These were 700 yen and 500 yen, which would have been much more expensive at restaurants in central Tokyo.
The benefit of not living in central Tokyo is the fact that amazing restaurants like this are not overpriced and there is no queue. With more and more tourists coming to Tokyo, we kind of stopped going to central Tokyo.
If you are going to visit Tokyo, don’t just stay places like Shibuya, Shinjuku and Akihabara. Explore greater Tokyo by taking advantage of public transport here gets you everywhere. The closest train station to Darumaya is Keio Line Horinouchi Station, which is only 42 minutes from Shinjuku Station.
Oh one last thing. Darumaya is a family run business and the okami san (an endearment term for the wife of the owner of restaurants and hotels) is amazing. She explains each dish and gives you advice how to eat them. She serves you tea several times at the right time while dining. She stops to chat with you about unagi, the history of the restaurant and the local culture. You don’t get that kind of warm customer service at Tokyo’s busy restaurants. She married the son of the founder of Darumaya some 30 years ago and she has been the behind-the-scene of this 50 year-old restaurant. When I told her that I hate unagi, she said:
“I used to hate unagi before I married my husband. But I realized that there were good unagi and not so good unagi when I started working here. I hope you’ll kindly come back and kindly give us a chance once day.”
At the checkout, she smiled and gave my husband what she called “a small birthday gift”. They were two pieces of tenugui, Japanese traditional hand towel, one with Japanese kanji characters describing hundreds of fish and the other with seven lucky gods of Japan.
When I turn 100 years old, Darumaya will be 100 years old, too. On Marcin’s birthday we found a buddy in our neighbourhood to run for the next 50 years.