Japan Diaries Day 24 – New Year’s Eel


During my one-month trip to Tokyo, the Dog Days of December between Christmas and New Years continued as I spent time with my fiance’s family in preparation for the New Year…



My fiance’s mother returned on Sunday, and his brother and brother’s wife also arrived for the New Year. New Year’s in Japan is a family celebration, with families gathering from across the country in their hometowns to celebrate. The end of the old year and the beginning of the new is linked with many customs in Japan, but our New Year celebrations this year would be tempered.

New Year Kadomatsu

New Year Kadomatsu 門松
photo by kei

My fiance’s grandmother had passed away earlier in the year, and as a rule you do not celebrate New Year’s as usual when a close relative has passed away. The usual New Years decorations would not be set up, the food would be more basic, and we were not allowed to greet each other with the traditional New Year’s phrase: あけましておめでとうございます akemashite omedetou gozaimasu (Happy New Year). The family also would not send or receive New Year’s postcards.

However, the immediate family still gathered and we still had plans to eat a lot food. I was also grateful to his family for their welcoming of me into their family celebrations and allowing me to play with their dogs practically every time I was at the house.

Unajyu うな重 / Eel in a Box

Once my fiance’s brother and brother’s wife had arrived, my fiance’s father took us to eat unajyu, which is kabayaki unagi (basically, BBQ eel) on top of a bed of rice in a lacquer box. The eel is marinated in a sweet soy sauce and then broiled on a grill. The eel is served with pickled things (tsukemono 漬物) and the eel heart in a soup. The heart has no taste, and absorbs the broth flavor well.


Unajyu うな重 – Broiled eel in a lacquer box – photo by kei

This meal is considered a stamina-building meal, and is especially popular to eat in the summer. It looks like a normal amount of food, but I really needed stamina to eat it. The sauce is quite sweet, and there is a lot of rice underneath. I was the slowest of the family to finish, and I was almost too full to move!

Unajyu is not really a traditional New Years dish as far as I understand, but it’s not something that is eaten on an everyday basis either. Recently, a problem with overharvesting eels has made them much more rare and expensive. Eels can’t be farmed and raised like some fish species can, because for some unknown reason if you have a bunch of eels together, they turn out to all be the same gender. You can’t maintain a stable breeding population like that. Unajyu with its beautiful lacquer box is as expensive as it looks, and so it was a rare treat to eat this stamina-packed dish.

Looking back, I really honestly think I just ate my way through the holidays in Japan. I suppose it’s not much different from America in that way! You get together with family and you eat lots of food. See how similar cultures can be? ^^ I enjoy exploring new cultures.

What kind of delicacies are available in your country? In a country you’ve visited?

Next Up: Japan Diaries Day 25 – Omiyage & Tokyo Skytree Revisited

Japan Diaries 2014

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