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.
A simple noren greeting you at Unagi Hirokawa – image © Florentyna Leow
The main street of tourist hotspot Arashiyama may be crowded with tourist kitsch, but it’s still home to some excellent restaurants. Unagi Hirokawa is one such restaurant, and their claim to fame is – surprise, surprise – grilled freshwater eel. A crafty businessman during the Edo period came up with a marketing strategy claiming that eating unagi during the hot summer months would boost your stamina, helping you to weather the heat. A century later scientists discovered that unagi is indeed chock-full of vitamins and minerals, cementing the tradition of delicious eel indulgence every summer. But hot weather or not, I love unagi, and Hirokawa is one of the best places in Kyoto to enjoy a fillet or three.
A traditional-looking building – image © Florentyna Leow
Unagi Hirokawa has been around since 1967, but was rebuilt and re-opened in October 2009. It’s now a large house with parking spaces in front, no doubt expanded to accommodate the increasing number of travelers hungry for eel. Hirokawa is a short walk and hop across the street from Tenryu-ji Temple, and though it’s always been highly rated for its eel, the Michelin star it recently received has really increased its popularity among both Japanese and foreign visitors.
We’re all in this together – image © Florentyna Leow
The queues at Hirokawa, I think, speak for themselves. While it opens at 11:30am for lunch, die-hard eel eaters begin waiting at 11am. The queues snake around the slope (hurray for disabled access!) and to the benches inside the restaurant itself. Reservations are possible, but only for a minimum of two customers, so solo diners will have no choice but to queue. If you love unagi, though, don’t let that stop you – 1.5 hours is a good amount of time to make some new friends while waiting for food!
English menu – image © Florentyna Leow
Once you’re near the front of the queue, the waitress will hand you English-language menus. They also have descriptions and a few photos, which makes ordering super easy. Rice bowls topped with unagi (una-don) begin at ￥2100. This is not the cheapest unagi in town, but you’re paying for quality. Hirokawa uses fresh farmed eels slow-grilled over high-quality binchotan charcoal; between September and December wild eels are also available, though these have to be ordered in advance.
Another English language menu – image © Florentyna Leow
Incidentally, you’ll notice ‘kabayaki’ and ‘sirayaki’ (which should technically be ‘shiroyaki’) on the menu. ‘Kabayaki’ is what most tourists recognize as unagi in most Japanese restaurants. In this style, the eel is first slowly grilled over charcoal, steamed to remove excess oil and fat, and then grilled a second time while being basted with a sweet-salty soy-based sauce. The ‘shiroyaki’ style, on the other hand, is exactly the same as ‘kabayaki’ but minus the final basting of sauce. It literally means ‘white-grilled’ and so it’s served as is, with soy sauce and/or wasabi on the side. This is the style for those who prefer to enjoy the flavor of the eel itself.
A comfortable and spacious restaurant – image © Florentyna Leow
The ground floor of the restaurant is quite spacious, with mainly Western-style table seating, while the second floor of the restaurant is only for groups that have made reservations.
The well-manicured Japanese garden outside – image © Florentyna Leow
There’s a Japanese garden outside the glass windows, which makes the wait for your food that much more pleasant.
This eel bowl is greater than the sum of its parts – image © Florentyna Leow
Once you’re inside and seated, the food arrives within 10 minutes of you placing your order. Take your time and enjoy your food. I ordered the una-don, a rice bowl topped with three-quarters of an eel fillet grilled in the kabayaki style. Is the eel worth having queued? For sure – I understood exactly why people are willing to stand in line for this. Unlike many unagi specialist restaurants where they go heavy on the sauce to mask eel that’s less fresh, at Hirokawa, the eel really speaks for itself. Even in the kabayaki style, there’s just enough marinade brushed on to add a sweet-salty touch that doesn’t detract from the fresh flavor of the eel. And that texture – tender, toothsome eel flesh! Too many places overdo the eel in the final grilling and leave it chewy and tough. Not here. Here, they’ve charred it just enough, and it yields with the slightest pressure of your teeth.
A special mention must go to the rice. Having grown up eating rice, it takes a fair bit to impress me, but the rice at Hirokawa is particularly delicious and I finished the whole bowl of rice – rare for me! The una-don is priced at ￥2100, but I would recommend at least ordering the una-jyu, which at ￥2800 has one-and-a-half grilled eel fillets for just ￥700 more. It’s a much better deal overall, and if you’re going to wait for an hour or two, why stop at just three-quarters of an eel? They won’t let you add more to your initial order, so you may as well go the whole hog and order a set lunch if you’re feeling flush. And for the record, the grilled eel liver skewers are delicious – creamy-rich, charred just enough with a slight chew.
A meal at Hirokawa does require a bit of a game plan – if you want to minimize wait times, you’ll need to arrive at Arashiyama early enough to get in line. Or, gather up your friends and make a reservation through their website. Either way, if you love eel, this is unmissable. There’s a reason it has a Michelin star. See you there!
Name in Japanese:
Ukyo-ku, Sagatenryuji Kitatsukurimichicho, 44−1
Tue–Sun 11:30am～14:30pm, 17:00pm～20:00pm
Arashiyama Station (Randen), Saga-Arashiyama Station (JR)
Yes, recommended for groups larger than 2
Outdoor seating: No
Website: Official website (English)
Read customer reviews of Unagi Hirokawa on TripAdvisor
About Florentyna Leow
Florentyna Leow is a writer and photographer based in Kyoto, who has written for outlets such as Silverkris, ZenVita and Lucky Peach. Her interests include food, doors, and Thomassons. Read her blog or connect with her on Instagram @furochan_eats.
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