If you’re familiar with sushi, you might have encountered unagi on the menu. That’s the word for freshwater eel in Japan, and it’s a real delicacy. In fact, there are entire restaurants dedicated to serving grilled unagi!
Unagi with rice and beer in Kyoto: ocelot’slens / Shutterstock.com
Grilled freshwater eel might not sound appetising if you’ve never tried it before, but don’t let that stop you. When it’s cooked well, it’s one of the most memorable meals you’ll have during your travels. Imagine a bite of fish as tender and toothsome as steamed cod, its crisp exterior doused with a sweet-salty soy sauce. It’s best wolfed down with lots of white rice, and chased with a gulp or two of cold sake.
In West Japan or Kansai, the eel is sliced along the belly and grilled until crispy on the outside. This is how most eel restaurants in Kyoto serve unagi. Eel supplies these days suffer from overfishing, and consequently, a meal of grilled unagi is a little more expensive than your average meal in Kyoto. Expect to spend at least JPY3,000 per person if not more. This does mean, however, that one should be judicious when selecting an eel restaurant worth your money. The restaurants in Kyoto below fit that bill.
- Kane-yo (Central Kyoto; mid-range)
Kane-yo is one the best places in Kyoto to sample unagi (eel). The place positively oozes “old Kyoto” charm and the unagi is delicious.
- Unagi Hirokawa (Arashiyama; mid-range)
Unagi Hirokawa is an excellent Michelin-starred grilled eel specialist located on the main street of Arashiyama. But be warned: Book ahead or wait hours in the queue.
- Pontocho Izumoya (Central Kyoto; mid-range)
Located along the Kamogawa River, Pontocho Izumoya has been serving up deliciously tender and smoky eel for over a century now. As a bonus, it’s pretty tourist-friendly, too.
- Gion Uokeya U (Southern Higashiyama; mid-range to expensive)
Forget eel rice bowls – have you ever had an eel rice bucket? At 1-starred Gion Uokeya U, their signature dish is a wooden bucket filled with rice and eels. What an experience!
- Warajiya (Kyoto Station Area; expensive)
WIth over 400 years of serving unagi under its belt, Warajiya has an eel pedigree to be proud of. It’s located near Keihan Shichijo Station, and best paired with a visit to Sanjusangendo Temple up the road!
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Kyoto Vacation Checklist
- For all the essentials in a brief overview, see my First Time In Kyoto guide
- Check Kyoto accommodation availability on Booking.com - usually you can reserve a room with no upfront payment. Pay when you check out. Free cancellations too.
- Need tips on where to stay? See my one page guide Where To Stay In Kyoto
- See my comprehensive Packing List For Japan
- Buy a data-only SIM card online for collection when you arrive at Kansai International Airport (for Osaka and Kyoto) or Tokyo's Narita Airport. Or rent an unlimited data pocket wifi router.
- Compare Japan flight prices and timings to find the best deals
- If you're visiting more than one city, save a ton of money with a Japan Rail Pass - here's my explanation of why it's worth it
- A prepaid Icoca card makes travelling around Kyoto easy - here's how.
- Get travel insurance for Japan - we recommend World Nomads (and here's why)