TRAVEL / SEASON

The Beginner’s Guide to Yanagawa

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Introduction

In quite some time ago, we wrote about Funagoya and the delicious eel we had there. In this sequel to that, we’re going to write about where those eels came from: the famous attraction of Yanagawa –– literally, the river of willows.

Like Venice of Italy and the Jiangnan region of China, Yanagawa is known as the city of water –– and with water, come canals, bridges, and of course, eels –– it enjoys as much fame as for example Dazaifu, as popular one-day destination for Fukuoka-based visitors.

It is perfect for a one-day trip, because to get to Yanagawa, you just need to take the Nishitetsu from Tenjin, Fukuoka on the Omuta line. The trip only takes around 45 mins.

It is perhaps because the train ride is so short that the contrast comes more vivid. The city of Fukuoka, we all know, is famous for its nightlife and restaurants. But the houses, the farmland –– and certainly the rivers –– gave the city of Yanagawa a peaceful aura. The Japanese coined a word for towns like this: “bed town” – which means bedroom town or suburb in English. This probably explains why it is one of the most popular destinations for tourists as well.

In this article, we’re going to highlight the eels and the gondola ride along the canals of Yanagawa. While this guide is written with the first-time Fukuoka visitors in mind, more seasoned travellers may also use this as a template to build a richer trip (just as we mixed this with our Funagoya trip).
The Eel (Unagi)
While often just called “eel”, the Japanese unagi actually differs from the ones elsewhere (e.g. in the Canton province of China). It is called anguilla japonica, and is distinguished by a relatively slimmer face and thin eyes.

In the old days, the areas near Yanagawa are famous for natural eels, and although nowadays they are almost completely replaced by farmed (cultured) eels, the techniques, know-how and most importantly the deliciousness of the old days have been passed down from generation to generation, making Yanagawa the go-to place for eels in Japan. Further, because the water of Yanagawa is rich with minerals, it is said that the eels can even survive in the cages for 1.5 years without being fed.

In Yanagawa, you can easily find either the signature dish of the “steamed eel” rice (鰻の蒸籠蒸し Unagi no Seiro Mushi) – or the most common “boxed eel” rice (うな重 Una Ju). They both use kabayaki-grilled eels, which refers to grilling the eel in 800ºC~1,000ºC heat, very shortly so that while the surface is hardened the inside is still juicy and soft. What’s more, the charcoal is taken extremely seriously (as you would expect Japanese cuisines to), using only the wood from the Ubamegashi tree (うばめがし), which is said to make the sound of metal when thrown to the grill.

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Credit: Ippei [email protected]

For the steamed eel one, the special sweet-spicy sauce – tare – is infused to the rice and steamed together with the kabayaki-grilled river eel in a steaming basket, whereas the boxed one is that, without being steamed. The steaming is said to infuse not just the richness of the tare sauce, but more importantly the eel’s umami –– a Japanese word that roughly means essence or tastiness –– into the rice.

Due to the intensive competition in Yanagawa, we are told that each of the 20-odd restaurants have their nuanced different way to grill and steam the eels. We went to an eel restaurant very close to the station. While the cost is quite inhibitively high, typically more than 2,000Yen per box – more if you order with a set (teishoku) –– the taste is indeed exquisite, which is completely out of range from the sort of unagi dons you can eat at chained Japanese food restaurants. While we are limited to try only one restaurant, you are more than welcome to try a different one and share your experience below!

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Because the tare is steamed together with the rice, the Unagi no Seiro Mushi is considerably sweeter than its non-steamed counterpart.

The writer has also tried the less expensive Yanagawa Pot (Yanagawa Nabe), which is typically a pot with loach (どじょう) added, mixed with melting eggs and cooked with low heat. However, we were not too impressed by it –– perhaps it was not the best Yanagawa Nabe we could have had! (Welcome to share in the comments if you have had wonderful Yanagawa Nabes!)

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Map

The River Boat Ride

While the eels no longer thrive along the rivers near Yanagawa, we could not afford to miss the famous river boat ride along the canals of Yanagawa. The prices vary depending on the operating company, but are generally acceptable (in Japanese terms) (1,500Yen~1,600Yen).

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The ride was very enjoyable! The reflection of the river and the tranquility of the scenery make it a delight to the heart and eye. We were given interesting hats that boatmen used to wear – a bit like their Vietnamese counterpart –– which is actually practical as the boat will pass through meandering rivers and at times shockingly low bridges.

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Just like we expected, the boat ride –– just like the gondola in Venice –– was filled with tourists (foreign and local as well). (Although you would expect the boatman to speak English –– he didn’t! Well, not unless you are very good at guessing the Japanese way of pronouncing words!)

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However, while the gondola is mainly for tourists, the canals that it sails are not a purely tourist thing. We were told that boats still remain an actual means of transportation among the residents, as evident from the stone steps and entrances to the houses along the riverside. And although the canals are more often travelled by humans than by eels and fishes, interestingly, we saw a stone monument expressing gratitude to the eels once living there.

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The boatman stopped at a shop in the middle of the river (which is like a fastfood drive-thru in a strange way) and introduced the shop owner to us. We bought the ice cream in matcha flavor, which is not too expensive as a “tourist food” (¥300)!

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Map