Fishing for compliments
Close to Tokyo’s international airport, Sarah Nicholson explores the family traditions – and 60 eel restaurants – of Narita.
KIKO Ishibashi has seen great change since moving to Narita City in 1972. When the young bride arrived in the Japanese settlement to join new husband Kikutaro, and work in his family’s famous restaurant, the destination was a sleepy rural settlement with a modest main street and a few residential roads surrounded by vast hectares of quiet farmland.
But the bucolic character was set to disappear when the Japanese government announced plans to build a new international airport near the village after postwar development prompted the airline industry to outgrow its previous accommodations at Haneda Airport on the western side of Tokyo Bay. Narita International Airport – or the New Tokyo International Airport as it was christened upon opening in 1978 – prospered to become one of the world’s busiest hubs, now hosting 98,000 travellers and 490 aircraft movements every day, with nearby Narita booming to support the new army of airline staff.
“Narita was slow when I first moved here, and I thought it was so boring at that time, but that changed after Narita Airport opened,’’ the Ishibashi clan’s matriarch explains during a brief lull in the lunchtime rush. “I didn’t expect we would get such business from the airport, but there are so many airline people working there that we have a full house almost every day, this street is only 20 minutes from the airport and the airline people want breakfast and dinner at all different times.’’
The Ishibashi’s restaurant Kikuya – or Chrysanthemum House, as it was named after getting the nod from the royal family to use its emblem – isn’t just a Narita gem but one of Japan’s most esteemed eateries serving seafood and the traditional freshwater eel that’s a rare and prized delicacy.
The Ishibashi family has been running the culinary icon for 11 generations, with Ishibashi’s son showing interest in taking over the 300-year-old business when his parents retire. It’s one of the few establishments still able to serve eel – or unagi – now the catch has become rare and skyrocketing in price.
“Today, we find 90 per cent of our customers want
REVERED SITE: The grounds of Naritasan Shinshoji Temple. The temple has a history of more than 1000 years with a three-storied beautiful pagoda (main); and barbecue eel at Chrysanthemum House (right).
iStock, Sarah Nicholson