Eels: An Exploration, from New Zealand to the Sargasso, of the World's Most Mysterious Fish - James Prosek (2010)
Chapter 7. Where Eels Go to Die
Japanese Eel Day poster
Tsukiji, which literally means “landfill,” is built on a former wetland in the delta of the Sumida River. It is the largest seafood market in the world. Inside is a wonder of the fish trade; outside is a series of restaurants and markets selling everything from sushi knives to T-shirts. The bustle begins outside of Tsukiji well before 4:30 A.M., when we arrived—the planes full of fish are landing at Narita Airport from the farthest corners of the world, trucks coming in and backing out, the auctioning of tuna, the opening of Styrofoam containers gleaming with fresh seafood, dead as well as live, in all imaginable sizes, shapes, and colors.
Both of my travel companions, Kunio Kadowaki (native Japanese fixer/translator) and David Doubilet (photographer), had spent a great deal of time at Tsukiji on various assignments for National Geographic.I was looking forward to walking through it for the first time.
The first story that Kunio and David had worked on together was bluefin tuna in 1978. Things had changed in our oceans in thirty years. For one thing, the number and size of our large pelagic fishes, the tuna, swordfish, and marlin, had decreased drastically. Populations of bluefin tuna, an indicator of ocean health, were crashing toward extinction. The major cause of the decline seemed to be overfishing, an increased demand for fish, and a finite supply. Eel populations were not faring much better.
Standing in the muggy morning air thick with the smell of fresh fish, we entered Tsukiji through same door that many a jet-lagged tourist had before. The door leads to a damp, dark hallway that opens onto room upon room of frozen bluefin tuna. Collectively, the tuna, their tails lopped off, white with frost and lined up neatly in rows, make a steaming sea of bodies. Some of them may have come from as far as Australia, the Mediterranean, Nova Scotia, and Cape Cod Bay.
“The king of the market is still tuna,” David said, lifting his Leica to take a photo.
At around 5:00 A.M. the tuna auctions begin—men shouting, some holding coring devices used to sample the flesh, bidding, making notes, and dragging them away one by one. In 2001 a single tuna weighing 444 pounds was auctioned off at Tsukiji for $173,000.
Beyond the auction rooms are acres of stalls and alleys with the scent of the sea, where the purchased frozen tuna are halved and quartered with saws and long sharp knives. As the segments of tuna thaw, beautiful pumpkin orange and mango red colors emerge from the flesh, ribbed and clean-lined and still draped in silver skin.
“How can the oceans support all of this?” I asked David, in awe of the abundance.
“They can’t,” he said.
In the cavernous room where we now stood, narrow aisles led between tanks and crates of fish live and dead. It was like being in the collection rooms of a natural history museum, but without the labels telling you the common and scientific names. Baskets and bundles and boxes of things I could roughly identify as octopuses, clams, mussels, shrimp, salmon, seahorses, lamprey, urchin, squid, cod, eels, snapper, grouper, skate, flounder, swordfish, mackerel, crab, and lobster bulged from all corners. There were of course Japanese characters on signs, posters, and cardboard placards that I imagined described what the creatures were. This world had its own vocabulary, even its own language of commerce.
We came to a counter where three men were cleaning live eels. David’s shooting increased in intensity.
We had come to document the road’s end for the eel. In midsummer, an especially large volume of eels passes through Tsukiji. Eel is the sixth-largest import to Tsukiji overall annually, but now, at high season, it is the third-largest, surpassed in live weight only by tuna and shrimp. More than 130,000 tons of eel are consumed in Japan per year, mostly in the form of a grilled eel dish called kabayaki unagi. The Japanese eat more eel in midsummer than any other season because they believe the flesh gives them stamina in the relentless heat—relief from what they call natsubate, or summer fatigue.
Eel consumption peaks at the end of July on doyo unagi, Eel Day. On that particular day bold, colorful signs, flags, and posters commemorate the event, and eel is sold in every supermarket and roadside convenience store. This year Eel Day fell on the twenty-eighth of July, toward the end of our trip, and the city was appropriately hot.
The custom of eating eel in summer began as a marketing ploy. Actually, the proper name for the day when people eat eel is not Eel Day but doyo no ushi no hi, the Day of the Ox. This story is well told in Theodore Bestor’s book Tsukiji: “An eighteenth-century Edo unagi (eel) restaurateur had the bright idea of commissioning a famous calligrapher to make a simple sign proclaiming, ‘Today is the day of the Ox.’ The fame of the calligrapher ensured that passersby would notice the sign and the eel shop, and make the desired assumption that there was something special about the day and its relationship to unagi. Once made, the connection stuck.”
Kunio said that such clever marketing was a tradition in Japan. He followed with a contemporary example. “Thirty years ago, they never ate chocolate in Japan. Then some savvy marketing guy started a trend where women buy men chocolate on Valentine’s Day. Now chocolate sales are huge in February.” He added, “It is like you eat turkey on Thanksgiving.”*
Eating eel in midsummer may have been popularized by savvy marketing, but there could be some substance to the belief that eel beats summer fatigue. Eel meat has well-known health-giving properties.* It is high in vitamins A and E, containing four times more vitamin A than cheese and eight times more than egg, six times more vitamin E than cheese and three times more than egg. Vitamin A is good for human skin. Vitamin E helps prevent aging. Eel is also rich in fish oils that contain antioxidants to aid the immune system and fight sickness. Because of its high concentration of omega-3 fatty acids, eel has been found to help prevent type 2 diabetes. A native of Kyoto told me, “They have a saying in Kyoto—that the girls have beautiful skin because they eat eel.”
Eel is not commonly prepared at home, but is customarily eaten in eel-only restaurants. Part of the reason is the difficulty of pacifying and preparing the unruly fish.* Also, while cleaning an eel you must be careful not to get eel blood in an open wound or your eyes, as the blood contains a neurotoxin, less than one cubic centimeter of which injected into a rabbit causes instant convulsions and death.** For this reason, eel is never served raw as sashimi but cooked or hot-smoked, a process by which the toxin is neutralized. (It is rumored that the Borgia family of Renaissance Italy had a secret poison that they kept hidden in hollow rings and dripped into enemies’ drinks during meals, and that the main ingredient of this poison was eel blood.)
In the half-light of Tsukiji I put down my camera and took in the colorful buzz of the place. As I watched the pails and tubs of live eels, their metabolism slowed by crushed ice, I couldn’t help wondering if they might have come from a farm in China supplied by Jonathan Yang with glass eels caught in Pat Bryant’s nets in the Pemaquid River in Maine. The probability that these eels had been born in the Sargasso and caught as glass eels in Maine was roughly 40 percent. The rest had mostly come from the Basque region of France and Spain and also had been born in the Sargasso Sea.
At sixty-three, Kunio was grandfatherly and friendly. He wore a photographer’s vest made of black mesh with pouches in which he kept a small notebook, an address book, a camera, and a pen. “I am your guide dog,” Kunio liked to say, repositioning his wire-rimmed glasses. “Without me you are blind in Japan.”
For the remainder of the day we followed our guide dog around Tokyo, dipping in and out of seemingly hidden districts of the city, behind a wall here, along a river there, through a small park with trees. The city was a dizziness of cars and bicycles and lights and signs that all seemed to melt together in the ferocious heat. Somewhere beyond Akihabara, the hyperkinetic electronics district (picture Times Square multiplied by Las Vegas), we turned a corner onto a quiet narrow street where the shadows of potted Japanese maples and bamboo gave the illusion of relief from the heavy air and frenzied city. A small nondescript door led to a cozy restaurant, Kubota, with six tables.
The owner and purveyor of the 120-year-old eel restaurant, Shoichiro Kubota (his father was eel handler to Emperor Hirohito), met us at the door. The restaurant serves only eel and specializes in kabayaki, or grilled eel. Kunio said, “When we talk about a dish of eel in Japan, ninety-nine percent of the time we mean kabayaki.”
Kunio facilitated our entry into the normally closed kitchen. Each restaurant has its own closely guarded recipe for the sweet sauce put on grilled eel, the base of which is mirin (a sweet rice wine) and soy sauce.
“Until forty years ago,” Kubota said, “we served exclusively Japanese eels, many wild caught from the nearby Edo River—but they became too scarce. Now almost all of the eels we serve are farmed.” Kubota did not like to admit that 80 percent of the eels eaten in Japan are raised from European or American glass eels.
“American eels are not as tasty,” he said. “Even the French eels are not as good—like American cherries. We like our native things.”*
Japanese will pay more than ten times as much for Japanese eel as they will for American or European; the same is true for beef, peaches, and melons. In Mitsukoshi, a 380-year-old department store, individual Japanese-grown melons can sell for over $250. Cows born in Australia are raised the last half year of their life in Japan so they can be called Japanese wagyu beef. Recently, Kunio said, there was a story in the paper about how short-necked clams from North Korea had been fraudulently sold for a premium as native Japanese clams. The government exacted fines. “Most Americans would rather have quantity than quality,” Kunio said. “Most Japanese want good product.”
Later in the day, at the Kobayashi Company in another part of Tokyo, I watched eleven men and women at three separate tables cleaning eels, at an average of two and a half per minute. The foreman came around every so often with energy drinks for his workers. At the eel slaughterhouse the pace never lagged. One after the other the eels were taken live out of a tub, pinned by their heads with a steel spike into a hole in a wooden cutting board, and opened; the spine was taken out, and the flesh laid flat into two symmetrical fillets still connected by skin. John Lennon’s “Beautiful Boy” played through a weak signal on the radio. Eel spines, flesh with skin, heads, and guts were all placed into separate buckets, the eel heads still moving after being severed from the bodies. In another room three men were easing several bamboo skewers into each fillet and putting them on a conveyor belt, where they were grilled and dipped in kabayaki sauce by a machine. The foreman told me they could clean, skewer, and grill an average of four thousand eels a day.
Leaving the eel slaughterhouse, I headed across town to the Ocean Research Institute (ORI) at the University of Tokyo to meet Professor Katsumi Tsukamoto, the man who discovered the spawning place of the Japanese eel. His laboratory is the only one in the world that is actively doing ocean research on eels.
“We are able to do our research because eels are culturally important in Japan,” Mike Miller, who works with Katsumi in the Department of Marine Bioscience, had told me by phone. “The food supports the science. If they didn’t eat eel in Japan, I wouldn’t be here.”
I was fortunate to have caught Mike and Katsumi on land, as ordinarily at this time of year they would be on a summer cruise, sampling the ocean for the larvae of newly hatched eels. Their latest cruise, from December through March, had followed a track from Tokyo around New Zealand to Antarctica and back.
Almost every year the team at ORI makes cruises in the Indo-Pacific region, searching for clues that will tell them more about the life history of catadromous eels. The high costs of operating research vessels (at least $10,000 a day) are assumed by the Japanese government. As Miller said, the research is motivated by Japan’s hunger for eel. The thought is that if they knew where and under what conditions eels reproduced, then they might have a better chance of hatching and raising eels in captivity in a cost-effective way. The ability to do so would alleviate pressure on the wild fishery, make eel meat more affordable, and preserve an important part of Japanese cultural heritage.
On entering ORI I passed a young woman in the hall and asked where I might find Mike Miller. Soon enough I was shaking hands with a tall, broad man with a short-cropped beard wearing a plaid shirt; he looked like a lumberjack. Mike brought me into his office and we sat down at his desk. Next to his computer was a framed photo of his expedition team from the previous cruise. He stood beside his much smaller Japanese colleagues, sticking out like a proverbial sore thumb.
Originally from Oklahoma, Mike got involved in eel research through his professor at the University of Maine at Orono, James McCleave. Mike had accompanied Jim on a 1989 cruise to the Sargasso Sea, and though the expedition was not successful in its objective—to catch adult eels on the spawning grounds—he got his first taste of what it was like to be out in the middle of an ocean.
“It’s a form of pure nature that most people don’t even know exists,” he said.
McCleave introduced Miller to Katsumi Tsukamoto at the Ocean Research Institute in Tokyo, and he was invited to join a 1991 cruise in the Pacific on the R/V Hakuho Maru. Miller enthusiastically accepted. Tsukamoto was trying to locate the then-unknown spawning area of the Japanese eel, Anguilla japonica, by cruising the ocean with fine-mesh nets in search of eel larvae.
It would be the fifth trip for Katsumi and the Hakuho Maru in search of Anguilla japonica. Only a hundred or so larvae of Japanese eels had ever been captured, and never in high enough concentration or small enough size to indicate the location of spawning. But on that trip in 1991, one evening near the end of the cruise, Tsukamoto, Miller, and the rest of the crew captured for the first time very small larvae of the Japanese eel in the region to the west of the island of Guam and the other Mariana Islands. It was an evening the team came to call the “longest night,” as they collected and processed more than nine hundred small eel larvae, a quarter inch long or less, before sunrise.
The discovery of the general spawning area of Anguilla japonica was the cover story in the journal Nature, as well as Science News. It was heralded in the Japanese press as one of the great events of recent Japanese history (and made for an auspicious story, as it happened in July, very near to Eel Day). In part because of the success of that trip, Miller decided to move to Japan to work with Katsumi, specializing in the study of eel larvae, not only the larvae of Anguilla japonica but all different species of freshwater and marine eels.
Seated at his desk, Mike handed me a glass vial with about half a dozen preserved specimens of tiny larvae that they’d collected on the previous expedition. It was the first time I had actually seen an eel larva, albeit dead. They were beautiful—like clear willow leaves with a barely visible herringbone skeleton. I swirled the leptocephali in their preservative solution. They momentarily danced on their pin-sized heads before I placed the vial back on Mike’s desk and watched them settle like flakes in a snowglobe.
With a combination of perseverance, knowledge (of ocean currents, salinity, and temperature fronts), and luck, Katsumi’s team had managed since 1991 to catch larvae only days old, or perhaps just hours from hatching. But despite several attempts with traps, trawls, and various fishing techniques, they still had not captured a mature spawning eel.
By this time in my visit it was late afternoon, and Mike offered me a cold Kirin beer from a small refrigerator in his office. It was very welcome at the end of a sweltering day.
“The ocean is a whole other wilderness,” Mike said, taking a swig of his beer. “Sky and clouds and water, with pockets of life here and there. It’s beautiful.” He tried to evoke the ocean’s vastness. “There have been attempts to catch adults,” Mike said, “but it’s a big ocean. You could be fifty meters away. It’s an issue of scale. The open ocean is huge. To get to where eels are spawning is almost impossible. You’d have to be very lucky. You set a trap or pull a net fifty meters on the wrong side, you won’t get them.”
What made it even more challenging was that the ocean is amorphous and dynamic, and from year to year the spawning area would never be in precisely the same place. Still, the scientists were certain that with the proper resources and persistence the secret would be revealed. I had not realized until I began my conversation with Mike how close they had come. Not all of their latest discoveries had been published—new information about the eel was being gleaned daily, collected not only on ocean cruises but also in the lab. Mike told me that Dr. Hideki Tanaka and his colleagues at the National Research Institute of Aquaculture were making great advances with hatching and raising eels in captivity.
Mike was interested in the larvae of all catadromous eels as well as those of marine eels, but his primary interest these days was to find the spawning area of the longfin eel of New Zealand.
“The longfin is one of the few Anguilla species that we have no idea about,” Mike said. “We’ve never identified a longfin larva.” His eyes widened at the thought of finding one. “Katsumi funded the pop-up tag research that Don Jellyman had implemented on longfin eels. They got some info,” Mike said, “but there were no clear results. It didn’t solve the mystery.”
After we finished our beers, Mike brought me down the hall to meet Katsumi. He seemed hesitant to interrupt his mentor, but Katsumi welcomed us warmly into his office. He had a gentle demeanor, a tanned face, dark brown eyes, and dark hair with strands of gray. Katsumi showed me the eel icons on votive plaques he’d collected. The eel in Japan, he explained, is among other things a symbol of fertility and safe pregnancy.
Early on in his career, Katsumi became interested in studying fish migration. His first breakthrough was unraveling the mysterious life history of the ayu, also called sweetfish, a prized food fish in Japan.*Katsumi’s team discovered that ayu spawn in freshwater, the larvae go to sea, and then they come back to freshwater in spring (a fish that migrates between fresh and salt water, but not necessarily for purposes of breeding, is called amphidromous).”We figured it out,” Katsumi said. “But the ayu is easy compared to the eel. The eel is very difficult. Takes time to study. We are the closest team. We are very close.”
Katsumi had navigated a good portion of the tropical Pacific and visited countless islands in Polynesia, Micronesia, the Philippines, and Indonesia in search of eel larvae. He mentioned that he’d visited one especially interesting island in Micronesia where there was a clan of people whose totem is the freshwater eel.
“Pohnpei?” I blurted out.
“Yes,” he said, “that’s it. How did you know?”
This was the island that Jonathan Yang, the eel dealer I met in Maine, had told me about. Katsumi said it was well worth the trouble to get there, a beautiful and wild place with mountains and many freshwater rivers. I made a note about Pohnpei in my notebook.
Katsumi suggested that the three of us go get a bite to eat. But before we left the office he signed a copy of his colorful book of photographs from their voyages on the Hakuho Maru, called Gran Pacifico.Katsumi said that it included his thoughts about the beauty and diversity of ocean life made during months aboard the research vessel. In the back of the book was a poem he had written about eels. He attempted a translation, reading aloud.
“Why do they migrate so far?” he said. “Why so far, why,” he repeated to himself. “Why do they choose this hard life? Why do living creatures live, why do living creatures die?”
Katsumi was in an ebullient mood as we walked down the street away from the office. I felt as though my visit and my questions had caused him to reflect on his travels and his successes.
After two beers at a small bar where Katsumi said he used to go when he was an undergraduate at the University of Tokyo, we walked to a restaurant called Sakuraya to eat dinner. Katsumi spoke poetically about the copulation ritual of manta rays. “They reproduce belly to belly!” he said in amazement, his face full of childlike wonder. And I thought, The best scientists are those who never grow up.
Mike and Katsumi ordered eel and other types of sushi and sashimi. We drank sake and more beer.
Katsumi spoke again of the eels’ mysterious migration. He said that long cruises at sea had made him philosophical. “Why spawn, why die?” he said. “Why, why? Eel is very shy and very nervous, but tough, very hard to understand, very powerful … a wide range of unpredictable characteristics.” He put his head in his hands. “It returns to where it was born,” he said. “How does it know?”
That was the last legible thing I wrote in my journal that night. My scrawl had devolved to eel-like scribbles. All I can remember is that there was a warm collective feeling around the table, big smiles, laughter, and a mutual acknowledgment that there were certain things that would never be known.
Why Live? Why Die?
At the end of their long journey the parents spawn
As their children take the ocean currents back
To East Asian rivers from Mariana.
Adults and young both knowingly make their way alone
And through this travel, life is handed down.
For millions of years, birth and death repeats.
It is relentless.
Why do they do these kinds of things?
Why do they choose this hard life?
Why do living creatures live?
Why do living creatures die?
In Yoshida, an area south of Tokyo known for its green tea cultivation, David, Kunio, and I visited a large industrial fish farm owned by Yoshio Shiraishi, president of the Maruhaiyoshida Eel Culture Cooperative Association. Here Japanese glass eels are fed fish-meal paste in large cement tanks under black plastic tents that keep the fish in the relative darkness they prefer. The 110°F heat in the tents is oppressive but helps maintain the water temperature at an optimal 90°F.
“The hotter it is, the faster the eels grow,” said Shiraishi.
The government no longer allows glass eels from outside the country to be raised in Japanese eel farms. Even if they did, conditions could be hostile to American or European glass eels, which require cooler water that is richer in oxygen. Most of the Japanese glass eels are caught in winter and early spring—roughly between December and April. When the wild glass eels arrive at the farm, the first task of the farmer is to acclimatize the juvenile eels to tank life by feeding them a squid-based powder. Shiraishi said it takes six months to two years for an eel to reach kabayaki size in the farm. “Some little guys, like human beings, take more years to grow,” he said.
The price for Japanese glass eels in 2003 was $900 a pound. In 2004, it was $1,100 a pound. In 2005, the year I visited, glass eels were $3,600 a pound. The price was so high, Shiraishi said, because “they did not catch many that year.” At this farm they currently had 150,000 or so eels in cultivation. Each tank could hold approximately 17,000 adult eels. I asked Shiraishi if American eels tasted the same as Japanese eels. He said if they were raised on the same feed, it might be hard to tell the difference.
Our next stop was the lab that could one day supply this farm with artificially reproduced glass eels.
Kunio did not explain until we reached the gates of the National Research Institute of Aquaculture in Nansei that he had timed our visit to coincide with the day and time—Friday at eleven in the morning—when every week Dr. Hideki Tanaka and his team stripped eggs from ripe female eels and fertilized them.
Tanaka, a slim, soft-spoken Japanese man, met us at the side door to the building and walked us casually around the lab. Room after room was filled with tanks made of clear acrylic in various sizes and shapes, but mostly cylindrical, bathed in a fluorescent purple glow, which, Tanaka explained, simulated the light conditions hundreds of feet below the surface of the ocean. Swimming in the tanks were eel larvae, varying in age from seven to two hundred days. This was likely the closest we would ever come to seeing the early moments of an eel’s life in the ocean.
Tanaka encouraged us to peer into the cylinders where hundreds of small clear eel larvae were dancing irregularly. Many had their heads at the bottom of the tanks, apparently feeding on something that had settled to the bottom. The equipment in the room—filters, lights, instruments for maintaining salinity and temperature—were deceptively simple. These eel larvae were the fruit of consistent and rigorous work that had been ongoing since the 1970s.
There was an enormous amount of pressure on the lab to come up with a simple formula for hatching and rearing freshwater eels in captivity. This pressure only increased as wild populations of eels declined. One of Tanaka’s papers states the problem clearly: “To maintain the natural glass eel resources and to obtain reliable supplies of glass eels for aquaculture, development of an artificially induced breeding procedure for eels has been eagerly desired.”
Eggs of Anguilla japonica were first successfully fertilized and hatched in captivity in 1973 at the University of Hokkaido.* The newly hatched pre-leptocephali larvae, however, could not be kept alive beyond their first few days. Once the fish had depleted their yolk sacs (stores of nutrients that carry fish through the first period of life), the biologists could not get them to feed on their own.
The difficulty was to find what the cultivated larvae would eat, especially when they had no way of studying what the wild larvae were eating in the ocean. “We tried everything,” Tanaka said. A short list of attempted foods included zooplankton, eggs of other fish, rotifers, cuttlefish, shrimp, jellyfish, and mussel gonads. Finally, in 2001, Tanaka and his team found that eel larvae would actively ingest a slurry-type diet made from freeze-dried shark egg powder. On this diet they were able to keep the larvae alive for eighteen days, a record at that point. By mixing the shark egg powder with soybean peptide, krill extract, and a variety of vitamins and minerals, they succeeded in extending their lives further. Finally, when the hatchlings were 250 days old and two inches in length, the scientists watched the leaf-shaped larvae metamorphose into glass eels.
The year we entered Tanaka’s lab was the first that they had raised an eel to the size at which they would normally be harvested at an eel farm, roughly eighteen inches. In a tank on the left side of the room two such eels were taking shelter in PVC tubes.* Their heads were misshapen, their pectoral fins abraded. I asked Tanaka if they’d given them names. “No,” he said, “just a number.”
Tanaka said that his lab requires about $1.8 million a year to sustain all of its projects, two-thirds of which are related to eel reproduction. And though they had had significant success, the ratio of eggs hatched to adults reared was not anywhere close to being profitable in a market environment. After 50 days only 4 percent of hatched eels survived; by the 100th day it was down to 1 percent. A mere handful survived to 250 days.
The high mortality and slow growth rates in the lab were likely due to a host of factors, but given how little was known of the eel’s life cycle in the ocean, they could not be easily determined. Hormones injected into the males and females to make them mature adults caused deformities in the offspring. The eel larvae raised in the lab did not look like larvae caught by Mike Miller and Katsumi in the ocean—their heads were malformed and they seemed to have trouble swimming.*
Tanaka took David, Kunio, and me into a small, nondescript white-walled room where they strip the ripe female eels of their eggs. In eel farming almost all of the fish are males. “No one knows why,” Tanaka said.** To create females for the purposes of propagation in the lab, they feed glass eels estrogen.
Before us was one of three adult females—number 24—that would be stripped of eggs that week. She had just been removed from a bucket, set on a lab table, and anesthetized. She was a sleek eel maybe three feet long, but the entire middle of her body bulged with eggs. The eel gasped slowly, clearly alive. One technician held her while another technician put pressure on her belly, encouraging yellow glutinous masses of eggs to spill out of her anal vent into a beaker.
Tanaka said it was not unusual for one female to produce ten million to twenty million eggs in the wild, but in captivity they are lucky to get one million. The individual eggs are visible to the naked eye, about 1 millimeter in diameter (smaller than the head of a pin), and there are about 2,000 eggs in a gram. I asked Tanaka if he thought adult eels in the wild expire after spawning. He pointed to the female eel stripped of its eggs; she was now dead. “I think it’s very much like this,” he said. “It is so exhausting for them, they probably die.” This particular female was only three years old, while the average spawning adult in the wild was ten to twenty years old. Her eggs were taken to another room, where they were fertilized with milt from a male eel. If, as Kunio had said, Japan is the end of the road for the eel, in Tanaka’s lab, at least, it is also oddly a beginning.*
After visiting the lab I traveled south with Kunio to his home city, Kyoto, and settled myself in a hotel from which I could access all the major temples and gardens. Two days later, on July 28, Eel Day, Kunio and I met up for a celebratory late lunch of eel.
“Observe how Japanese people eat eel,” Kunio said as we entered an eel restaurant called Hamamatsuya in the Gion district (the Gion is one of the most famous places to see geishas in Japan). We took off our shoes and put on slippers.
Behind a wooden counter the staff were preparing the eels for cooking. One by one the live eels were taken out of plastic tubs and impaled through the head on a metal pin inserted into a hole in a wood cutting board. With the quick sweep of a knife, the eel was butterflied open and the spine and anal and ventral fins taken out, keeping the entire fish still attached by the skin.*
“Japanese food is very delicate—made to order,” Kunio noted. “You prepare and then you eat. If you bring it home in a bento box, you eat it soon. If not, it’s like yesterday’s bread.”
After the eel is gutted and the fins taken out, the head is removed and the fish is cut into two equal pieces. The white meat is skewered with four or five bamboo sticks and placed in a basin of water. A few moments later, the skewered eel is taken out and laid on a metal grill over a hot wood fire. It sizzles and crackles as the fat in the flesh and skin is slowly rendered (several times it is also dipped in water and returned to the fire to steam the meat). The chef rotates a dozen or so eels around the grill surface at once, swapping, turning, and fanning before glazing the meat with the sweet sauce of soy, mirin, and sugar, and sprinkling it with sansho, mountain pepper.
As the chef stirred the coals they made a sound like dull wind chimes (Kunio said they use a hardwood from China, like oak). I found it hard to understand how the chef could tolerate the intense heat, but the dry heat from the coals was almost a relief from the muggy, sticky air in the streets of town.
No part of the eel goes to waste. The spine is deep-fried and eaten like a cracker—hone senbei. The guts, unagi kimo, are skewered and grilled—“No guts, no glory,” Kunio said as he sampled a mouthful. The eel liver is served in a soup. Eel is most often served at lunch, at the hottest time of day, as the only course. Kunio said that the Japanese tended not to eat rich, heavy food like eel at dinnertime. You eat it, Kunio says, and you feel like you need to do something, like take a long walk. “Japanese have a taste for fatty food,” Kunio said, “but very little. They like a marbled beef like Kobe, but only two or three pieces. And they always eat with rice. It’s more balanced.”
The eel had a crispy skin and tender flesh. It was rich and flavorful, slightly buttery, and smooth like pâté.*
After my meal with Kunio, I said goodbye and made my way alone through the Gion, imagining that it was spring and the streets were pink with cherry blossoms and peopled by geishas dressed in their kimonos with eel-like trains. I felt a little energetic lift despite the heat; was it the eel I had eaten, or just the elation of being anonymous in a beautiful city?
* In a way he was right. Many historians believe that wild turkey was not even on the table at the first Thanksgiving dinner in Plymouth, Massachusetts. The meal consisted mostly of seafood, including eel, which is to be expected of a coastal town.
** In Ireland, eel fat has been said to be a cure for rheumatism. In rural Illinois, wearing an eel skin around your waist was known to be a cure for lumbago. The astronomer Montanari believed that an eel’s liver facilitated delivery in childbirth.
* The entry for eel in the famous French food encyclopedia Larousse Gastronomique begins with instructions on how to kill an eel: “Stun it by banging its head against a stone.”
** See Leon Bertin’s book, Eels: A Biological Study.
* Some of the native eels eaten in Tokyo restaurants were not raised from glass eels but actually caught as adults in the greater Tokyo area. We spent part of a day on the Edo River with an old eel fisherman who fished with traditional bamboo traps-three sections of timber bamboo with the nodes drilled out, bound together with twine. There was no bait involved, no snare; the traps simply worked on the eels’ predilection for dark tubular places.
* The traditional way to catch ayu is with cormorants. The trained bird dives and catches the fish, storing it in its crop until it is brought to the fisherman.
* Anguilla japonica females were induced into sexual maturity by injections of salmon pituitary hormone, males by injections of human chorionic gonado- tropin.
* Three segments of PVC tube lashed together in a pyramid shape, not unlike the bamboo eel traps we’d seen.
* Some years later I visited a lab in New Zealand (the Mahurangi Technical Institute) where attempts are being made to hatch and raise eels in captivity. I spent a day with the chief scientist, an Iraqi woman named Tagried Kurwie.”We’re hatching them by the millions,” Tagried said. She wouldn’t tell me if they had been able to get the eel larvae to feed, saying coyly, “We believe in a few things that you can get off the shelf.” When I mentioned the deformities I’d seen in the larvae in the Japanese lab, a big, knowing smile spread across her face.”We knew there must be flaws in their techniques,” she said.”They’re doing multiple injections of hormones. We believe the injections are bad for the eels and are producing malformed larvae. If you overdose them on hormone, they will definitely have deformities. One of our breakthroughs is reducing the number of injections from twenty to two.”
** How an eel becomes either male or female is a mystery, though it may have something to do with water temperature, salinity, food type, food availability, and/or density of the glass eel population in a particular estuary, lake, or river system. Generally in the wild, the eels living upstream in a river system are females, and those occupying the lower reaches and estuaries are males.
* Scientists in the field and in the lab agreed that the current exploitation of wild fish resources cannot be sustained. In the future, if people want to eat fish, they will probably have to make them.
* There was one significant difference between the way the eels were cleaned here in Kyoto and the way I’d seen them prepared in the slaughterhouse in Tokyo. In Osaka and Kyoto the eel is cleaned from the ventral side (belly), while in Tokyo the eel is splayed from the dorsal side (back) to avoid mimicking the ritual suicide of the samurai-knife in the belly. Kunio explained that Tokyo was the main city of the samurai and “was more honor-based.”
* I had to admit, I liked the taste of eel. I’d eaten Ray Turner’s smoked eel, eel fried in New Zealand, eel grilled and then pickled in vinegar in Italy, eel steamed and grilled in Serbia/Montenegro, eel stewed in Sweden. On a spring visit to Maine to see Jonathan Yang, I bought two ounces of glass eels for $60 and brought them home to a Spanish restaurant near my home to be prepared in the traditional Basque way-shocked in boiling water, then sautéed in olive oil with lots of garlic. The baby eels (the Basque call them angulas) were served in a ceramic tureen in bubbling hot extra-virgin olive oil, white eels with gray backs simmering with slices of garlic. They are customarily eaten with a wooden fork (to prevent burning your tongue on a metal one). The taste was rich and delicious; the texture was smooth, with a hint of fish flavor. I didn’t know what the fuss was about until I tried them. The crash in eel populations worldwide, especially in Europe, is threatening the future of many traditional eel dishes.