TOKYO -- People hoping to enjoy kabayaki grilled unagi eel in a special soy-based sauce at the peak of the summer heat -- July 22 is this year's "Doyo no Ushi," a traditional eel-eating day -- will feel the effect of a recent surge in domestic eel prices.
Due to a poor catch for the fourth year in a row, the trading price for young eels, or elvers, has broken last year's record of about 2.14 million yen (about $21,945) per kilogram. The price of live adult eels has also risen.
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While many restaurants specializing in eel kabayaki are compelled to raise their prices, competition with restaurant chains selling cheap imported eel has forced the closure of some old stores.
"Customers just didn't come in anymore," said Takashi Matsushita, the former owner of Suzuki, an unagi restaurant in the Kanda district of Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward. Suzuki closed its doors at the end of May.
Matsushita was the fourth-generation owner of Suzuki, founded in 1909. When he took over the shop in his 20s, Suzuki was a popular eatery known for the wooden layered boxes in which it had served kabayaki for more than 50 years. But the surge in prices of unagi over the past few years weighed heavily on his business. Last year was especially tough, when an awful domestic catch of young eels sent prices soaring past 2 million yen per kilogram, up from only 870,000 yen the year before.
The trading price of live adult unagi at the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo reached an average of 4,492 yen per kilogram in the peak months of July and August last year. That was more than double the price from five years ago.
Matsushita reduced the size of his kabayaki broiled unagi and raised the price of unaju -- kabayaki served in a double layer in a lacquered box -- during summer by 900 yen to 3,000 yen.
However, the 50-seat restaurant was nearly empty, especially at night, according to Matsushita. He later brought the price of unaju down to 2,500 yen, but that didn't bring the customers back.
Still, Matsushita felt strongly that closing the store "would be an inexcusable thing to do to my ancestors." When he consulted his wife, she encouraged him to keep the store.
"I don't need payment," she told him. "Let's try to keep the shop going. You can use some of our savings for it."
However, prices for both young and adult eels never came down this year, with elvers recently costing about 2.6 million yen per kilogram. The price for live adult unagi was an average of 4,573 yen in May. The prices only swelled Suzuki's losses.
He finally made the unhappy decision to close the shop. "I just wasn't able to offer delicious unagi to customers at the prices I used to anymore," he said.
During a period just before Suzuki closed the shop, many regular customers came in for one final meal. Matsushita used the profits from this last hurrah to pay his two remaining cooks retirement bonuses.
"I just hope unagi prices will go back to the level where salaried workers and families can enjoy them again," he said.
According to the Tokyo unagi kabayaki traders' association, there were about 130 unagi restaurants in the capital in 2003, but there are only 95 today. Old shops run by individual owners have been the likeliest to close in recent years, according to the association.
Asabaya -- a famous unagi restaurant in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, once beloved by novelists Yasunari Kawabata and Jiro Osaragi -- closed down in January.
"If the situation remains unchanged, shops will close their doors one after another this year, too," said Yasuyuki Wakui, head of the national federation of unagi kabayaki traders' associations, who runs a unagi restaurant himself in Tokyo's Chuo Ward.
The poor catches of young eel are attributed to reasons such as overfishing, development of rivers that serve as unagi habitats and climate change.
Also having to deal with soaring unagi prices, chain restaurants and retailers are trying to retain customers by keeping price hikes as small as possible and even lowering prices by cutting various costs.
Beef bowl chain Yoshinoya increased the price of its regular unagi bowl made with Chinese eel by 100 yen last year, and upped the price another 30 yen on June 1 this year to 680 yen. So far, sales have been about even with last year, according to the restaurant chain. "It's a seasonal favorite, so its popularity is deep-rooted. We are doing our best to keep price hikes as small as possible," said a Yoshinoya official.
Convenience store chain Ministop is keeping the price of its "Unagi futomaki-zushi" (unagi thick roll sushi) the same as last year's 680 yen, but has reduced the number of pieces per serving from eight to six. "Sushi gozen," a newly offered unagi thick roll, is priced at 880 yen. The amount of unagi in it was made relatively small, but a variety of other ingredients were included.