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Eel for all

Omotesando Dori, a culinary haven of grilled delights and regional treats, is just a short trip from Narita Airport

By Craig Gima

LAST UPDATED: 6:43 a.m. HST, Jan 10, 2011

NARITA, Japan » A long layover at Narita Airport is best spent eating.

If you have at least four hours between flights, Narita town and "eel street" are just a couple of train stops away.

Narita, known as the town of eels, is famous for unagi. Its main eel supply used to come from the nearby Tonegawa River and Lake Imba.

Nowadays, fresh eel is in abundance because of Narita Airport, the main hub for international and domestic eel transport.

All along Omotesando Dori, the main street in Narita, are shops and restaurants selling regional foods and gifts aimed at travelers and pilgrims to the Naritasan Shinshoji Temple at the end of the road.

About a 10-minute walk from the Keisei Narita Train Station, the sweet smell of teriyaki sauce and broiled eel drifts in gray wisps from charcoal broilers in the windows of restaurants specializing in unagi.


» Getting there: From Narita Airport, exit through immigration and customs. This won't take long unless it's a peak time when lots of flights are arriving. U.S. citizens do not need a visa. Take the Keisei train to Keisei Narita Station, one or two stops away, depending on whether you are at Terminal 1 or Terminal 2. Cost is about 250 yen, and the trip takes about 10 minutes. Trains leave every 15 to 20 minutes.

» What to do there: It's a short walk around the corner or over a pedestrian bridge from the train station to the Omotesando Dori. Ask for directions if you are unsure. Follow the other tourists or temple pilgrims down the street and look for the unagi shops about midway along the walk to the Naritasan Shinshoji Temple.


It's not for the faint-hearted, but under a street-front awning, a chef reaches into a barrel full of live eels, stretches one out on a cutting board and drives a nail through its head. A few quick slices and the eel is skinned, gutted and sliced into bento-sized pieces ready to be grilled.

An order of fresh unagi don sells for 1,500 yen (about $18), 2,000 yen for a larger portion. You also can order unagi soup; a very tasty, although bony, miso carp soup; and deep-fried eel bones to snack on while drinking beer. Picture menus assist those who don't speak Japanese.

The unagi is obviously fresh and has a clean, nonfishy taste. The flaky meat is served over white rice, which soaks up the sweet teriyaki sauce brushed onto the eel during and after cooking.

The restaurant is always crowded, mostly with Japanese domestic tourists.

If you have a longer layover, spend some time at the Naritasan Shinshoji Temple.

Wash your hands before entering the temple grounds and your shoes before entering the temple itself.

Burn some incense and take in the smoke at the large incense burner in front of the main temple.

Ring the bell at the main temple and a Buddhist priest will give you blessings.

Wooden tablets to write prayers or wishes are for sale along with omamori — good-luck amulets. Popular omamori include charms that are good for safe travel.

You can also buy omikuji — written fortunes. They are available in English, and if you don't like your fortune, tie it to a tree so it will blow away, and get a new fortune.

There are also extensive gardens that provide a calming respite from hectic, international travel.

It's a nice hike. But be warned, there are a lot of stairs and hills.

The unagi don is said to help fortify you for the exercise. But after the large meal and a couple of Kirin, I was more inclined to find a shady tree and peaceful glen for a place to rest before heading back to the airport.

Correction: The Naritasan temple is a Buddhist temple. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated it is a Shinto shrine.

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