Unagi in Narita

Vietnam is a hell of a long way from Pittsburgh. On a positive note, with a 12-hour time difference, there's really no need to reset your watch.

An eight-hour layover in Japan's Narita Airport (which services Tokyo) allowed us the opportunity to explore the quaint town of Narita, a ten-minute train ride (on heated seats) from the airport. Long layovers are common in Japan; we were grateful for ours. In addition to allowing us to visit Japan, however breifly, it also broke up a very long trip. The layover followed a six-hour flight from Saigon, and preceded a 12-hour flight to Chicago (where another 8-hour layover, due to a blizzard, greeted us ahead of our flight to Pittsburgh).

I'd explored online and found an unofficial Narita layover page: http://www.mgnewman.com/narita/index.html This offered promising tidbits-- not least the opportunity to explore the beautiful, 1000-year old shinto temple and its serene gardens.

We arrived in time for the end of a Buddhist ceremony. After removing our shoes we squatted with about two hundred visiting Japanese-- the temple is really quite exquisite and a popular destination-- and listened to the chanting and drumming, as incense filled the room and the saffron-robed priests said prayers. We then explored the scenic garden. Though cool-- a bit of snow remained in the shadows-- it was sunny and clear and the garden offered an austere winter beauty. It wound down to a gurgling brook which we would have enjoyed exploring, if only we had had more time. But lunch-- specifically unagi, or grilled eel-- called.

We walked back up the pretty narrow main street. It was lined with restaurants and even shops that catered to visitors looking to flee the airport. Here's Susan in the main street:

After the bustle of Saigon, Narita was incredibly quiet and delicate. The main street was one-lane, and only rarely did a car come down. Classical music was piped into the town. It was spotless.

Our destination was a restaurant that sold only eel. It is a delicacy in Japan. I was introduced to it here in the U.S. in sushi form. It's usually served grilled with a sweet miso glaze atop sushi rice, secured with seaweed. I love it, and often save it for last on my sushi platter. It's like fish desert. We'd walked past the restaurant on our way to the temple earlier. A couple of chefs were sitting by this low, thick, butcher block table, quickly dispatching live eels with a knife, and deftly butterflying and cleaning them.

You can make out the silver pick stabbed into the table on the left; this secured the eels head during cleaning. The chef, who sat on a stool near the barrels, would reach in and grab a live eel. He'd then make an incision behind the head, killing it instantly (though it still wriggled a bit), then attach the eel to the table with the pick. He'd run his knife along the back bone and opened the eel like a book, then remove the small sack of stomach and other bits behind the skull and discard them. Running a knife down it's length he'd next remove the long spine-- these were kept and dried, though for what use I know not-- possibly stock. He'd then slice the eel into two six or seven inch pieces, remove the head, and pass the eel to an assistant, who'd weave bamboo skewers into them, so they'd stay flat during grilling. The whole thing took about :15 seconds.

Lunch was superb. We removed our shoes and sat cross-legged at low tables. We paid for our single order first ($13). We were brought green tea, and then a lacquered covered box, which revealed shiny, sweet, smoky, glazed eel on a bed of pristine white rice.

Of course we couldn't leave Japan without eating sushi either. So after this we trudged up the hill, back towards the train station, and ate this too:

Then we sat on a United flight for about a dozen hours. Joy.

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