The approach of midsummer brings to mind the following "senryu" comical poem: "Stopping passers-by in their tracks/ Is the smell of an eel restaurant." I don't recall who wrote it, but the words capture a familiar scene. Every summer, cooks throughout the city use fans to spread the savory smell of grilled eel through the summer streets.
The tradition to eat grilled eel on the day of the ox in midsummer dates to the Edo Period (1603-1867).
Some say the practice can be traced back to the pharmacologist and inventor Hiraga Gennai (1728-1780), while others attribute it to Ota Nanpo (1749-1823), a writer of popular fiction. It is said that one of them came up with a catchy slogan to help a struggling eel restaurant attract customers, but the story is nothing more than a legend. Whatever its origins, the practice became a national custom. This year, the midsummer day of the ox falls on July 27.
With the end of the rainy season, some people may suddenly find their stomachs rumbling for eel. But harvesting enough young eels for farming has grown more and more difficult. While the catch has been poor in recent years, it is particularly bad this year, and prices are not just high but skyrocketing. The situation is so serious that some eel restaurants are going out of business.
The price of grilled eel sold in stores is also going up, and I have heard that "substitutes" are selling well. In addition to grilled saury and conger eel, pork ribs cooked in a thick, sweet sauce are also showing up on supermarket shelves. It seems that eel has gone back to being the "special treat" that it used to be in the old days.
The Japanese have such an appetite for eel that it is said they are responsible for about 70 percent of worldwide eel consumption. Other countries are casting a critical eye on Japan for such overindulgence.
Following Europe's lead, the United States is moving toward regulating the international trade of eel under the Washington Convention, which is aimed at protecting endangered species. Although I can't help feeling that the move is aimed at targeting Japanese food culture, it cannot be denied that a warning bell is about to go off with a decline in the eel population.
The following senryu almost seems to form a dialogue with the one above: "In any event/ I take a deep breath/ In front of an eel restaurant."
For those worried about the cost, you could take a deep breath to savor the smell before deciding whether to go inside. With that in mind, this year's day of the ox is shaping up to be rather depressing.
--The Asahi Shimbun, July 18
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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.
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