Broiled eel is really nutritious and is believed to have restorative powers. There is an excellent restaurant specializing in eel in Nikko called Sawamoto. In fact, their broiled eel is the best I have ever had.
The current master of Sawamoto is the third generation in his family to run this restaurant established 80+ years ago. He still uses the secret sauce passed down to him by his father and grandfather. He broils the eel over special bincho charcoal slowly and carefully before dipping them into the secret sauce.
How to cook eel
At first, for those who have never eaten broiled eel, I’d like to explain how it is prepared and cooked. This is the way that it is generally done in eastern Japan. First, the eel is cut open and its internal organs are removed. Bamboo skewers are then inserted. Second, the prepared eel is steamed. Then it is broiled over a charcoal fire while being dipped several times into the sauce. This sauce is usually an original that is concocted by the restaurant. It’s said that the sauce itself accounts for half the taste of the dish.
Sawamoto’s menu is quite simple. They have only three broiled eel sets, which include rice, pickles and soup. Niju-unaju 二重うな重 (Double layered eel), Jo-unaju 上うな重 (Large eel) and Una-ju うな重 (Regular eel) are all that they serve. The soup that comes with the set is called kimo-sui 肝吸い which is a tasty clear soup.
Other special touches
Sawamoto spends a lot of time not only on the special sauce, but also on the selection of eel and the charcoal they use. The eel come exclusively from Hamamatsu in Shizuoka Prefecture, but Sawamoto then puts them into a pool containing the pure water of Nikko for a few days. The water of Nikko is soft in taste and contains rich minerals. It removes the strong odor of the eel. The charcoal they use is bincho, which is very expensive. Bincho is commonly used in high-class restaurants that specialize in grilled dishes. In the case of grilled eel, it enhances the taste in a number of subtle, sensitive ways.
25 years ago, when I was a student, I sometimes came to Nikko and walked around the shrines and temples. At that time nice broiled eel was too expensive for me. Each time I passed Sawamoto and smelled the appetizing eel, I had to control myself. But I finally took the plunge and stepped into the restaurant. I ordered Una-ju and devoured it. It was really, really nice. I couldn’t afford it every time, but I did eat there again a few times after that. A few years ago, when I visited Nikko and looked for Sawamoto, the restaurant wasn’t there! I was very disappointed and regretted that I had not come back more often.
But luckily, Sawamoto had merely moved to a new location. The taste of the special sauce and their way of broiling the eel are exactly the same as what I remembered!
Sawamoto is located near the Shinkyo Bus stop, only a 5-minute walk to Tosho-gu Shrine. Because it is so conveniently located, and because its eel is so delicious, Sawamoto is always busy at lunchtime. I recommend that you go there early. If you stay at a hotel in Nikko, it would be better to ask them to call Sawamoto before you go. If they run out of eel for the day, they will close before their regular business hours.