Beating the Dog Days in Tokyo

Eels on skewers and handkerchiefs on subways: it just wouldn't be summer in Japan without them

LIKE every place else on planet Heat Wave, it's been a miserably hot summer in Japan. Temperature records have been broken, water has been rationed, and millions of eels have met a fiery end.

Eels? We all have our national customs. In Japan, one of them is eating eel in the summertime.

They are split, skewered, grilled, chilled, steamed, basted with sauce, and grilled again. Then the skewers are removed, and another batch of eel fillets, each one about five inches long and an inch-and-a-half wide, goes out to the customer.

Unagi, as eel is known in Japanese, is tangy, rich with fat, and extremely tender. There are some barely perceptible bones. Somehow, eating them is supposed to give you the strength and stamina to conquer the heat, or so say unagi promoters.

Tsutomu Fujita runs a traditional eel place in a Tokyo neighborhood - lots of diffused lighting, earth tones, and tatami mats. On a really hot summer day, especially in July when eel publicity peaks, his kitchen turns out about 400 servings, compared to 100 in winter.

Eel isn't cheap. In a modest establishment like Mr. Fujita's, unagi runs about $18 a serving, along with rice, broth, some pickles, and tea. In a high-end unagiya, with a lot more bells and whistles and a waitress in a kimono instead of a tee-shirt, you can pay $180. On the other hand, a summertime special of takeout unagi from a 7-11 store costs less than $7, but you have to supply your own diffused lighting.

There's not a lot of range in eel cuisine. Some chefs steam to drain fat; some don't.

``The job itself is monotonous,'' says Fujita, a third-generation eel man who has been at it for two decades. ``It's a matter of introducing your own style into the preparation.''Once you have developed a taste for unagi, you are almost ready to face a Japanese summer. But your wardrobe must first include at least a half-dozen handkerchiefs, or, as they have been labeled by clever expatriates, sweat rags.

It just doesn't do to board a Tokyo subway perspiring uncontrollably. Everyone else has a handkerchief with which to pat at the beads of sweat, keeping the face and neck dry. Many people carry a fan, too.

It seems impolite not to combat perspiration with an absorbent counter-measure. Sans sweat rag, you stand there awkwardly, using your hand as a squeegee or maybe rubbing your face on your sleeve. Leaving the house without a handkerchief quickly begins to feel like forgetting a wallet.

Sweat is a complex issue in Japan. In general, people seem averse to perspiration and strive endlessly for the dry look. But it's not quite that simple, since Japanese also enjoy taking incredibly hot baths in groups, where commingled perspiration is an inevitability.

This topic is not merely one for idle conjecture. Toyohiko Miura, senior researcher at the nonprofit Institute of Labor Science in Kawasaki, has conducted a study comparing the sweat characteristics of people in tropical countries with those of the Japanese. Japan is a subtropical country, meaning it's not quite as torrid as a tropical one.

Mr. Miura reports that Japanese have 20 percent fewer sweat glands. He says his compatriots can't weather the heat as well as people in tropical countries since Japanese sweat ``badly'' - putting out a lot of liquid without much temperature reduction.

This summer, Miura has been urging Japanese businesses to close their offices on hot days to protect workers. But he says he is frustrated because his advice has gone unheeded.

Maybe the executives are banking on the workers eating eel.

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