Top 3 Most Popular Freshwater-Fish Dishes in Japan

River Cusine

When thinking of Japanese fish cuisine, what comes to your mind?

Most likely, sushi and sashimi, the quintessential choices. These dishes predominantly use sea fish, a reflection of Japan’s identity as an island nation where seafood is a culinary staple. However, it’s not always been about the bounty of the sea, especially in inland regions far from the ocean. Here, river fish has played a significant role in the diet.

I believe a fundamental aspect of Japanese philosophy is to utilize local resources over imported ones. River fish, less abundant and circulated than their oceanic counterparts, haven’t spread much outside Japan. This limitation has fostered a unique cultural aspect that’s predominantly experienced within the country.

So, what about river fish cuisine? There are several dishes that any Japanese person would instantly recognize. In this article, I will introduce three such river fish dishes, offering a glimpse into the rich and diverse Japanese culinary culture that extends beyond the well-known seafood delicacies.

1. Unagi Kabayaki(Grilled eel with kabayaki sauce)

In a blog article about Japanese river fish cuisine, one must begin with Unagi Kabayaki, grilled eel with a special kabayaki sauce. This dish stands apart in the top three, known by every Japanese person and having specialty restaurants dedicated to it across Japan. Considered a delicacy, its preparation process is deceptively simple: the eel is split open, coated with sauce, and grilled. However, each step – splitting the eel, making the sauce, and grilling – encapsulates traditional skills. Phrases like “three years to skewer, eight to split, a lifetime to grill” highlight the dedication to perfecting this craft. The sauce, made using eel bones and heads, is so valued that it’s said to be saved even in a fire.

I’ve had the chance to eat river-caught eel myself. While homemade kabayaki is tasty, it often turns out somewhat hard and retains a fishy smell. This personal experience makes me appreciate the expertise of restaurant dishes even more. Imagine first enjoying delicious eel in a restaurant, then catching and cooking a wild one yourself – an experience worth trying! This experience will definitely enrich your completion. If the opportunity arises I may be able to take you on such a tour.

Eel specialty shops are abundant in cities like Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto, with each region offering its unique take on the dish. Interestingly, you can even find such shops at Narita Airport. This exploration of a simple dish’s depth is truly reflective of the Japanese culinary spirit.

The photograph in this article is of Tsujiya, a notable establishment in Gifu Prefecture. Gifu is a central hub for river fish cuisine in Japan, offering a wide array of dishes, not limited to eel. While eel dishes are found throughout Japan, Gifu distinguishes itself with its unique variety of river fish cuisine.

2. Ayu no Shioyaki (Salt-grilled sweetfish)

The second noteworthy dish in Japanese river fish cuisine is Ayu no Shioyaki (salt-grilled sweetfish), a dish undoubtedly as popular as it is delicious. While Ayu doesn’t have as many specific specialty stores as eel, it enjoys widespread popularity across Japan. This fish has a life cycle of only one year, and the prime time for catching larger, mature Ayu spans from summer to autumn, making summer the prime season for this delicacy.

In Japan, during summer, many rivers feature temporary special facilities known as ‘Yana,’ specifically constructed for catching Ayu. These Yanas often include or are associated with restaurants, providing a customary setting to savor the freshly caught fish. Ayu is also a frequent feature in local festivals, marking it as a more widely accessible fish compared to eel.

The preparation of Ayu is deceptively simple: salt and grill. However, the grilling method greatly affects its texture and flavor. Trying to grill Ayu at home usually results in the fish being overly cooked on the outside, yet remaining watery inside. In contrast, slow-grilling over charcoal transforms the fish into a deliciously crisp treat, palatable right down to the bone. Although some restaurants in cities like Tokyo serve Ayu, they are less common than eel-focused establishments, and their availability is mostly limited to the summer months, likely due to challenges in ensuring a stable supply.

For the best experience of Ayu, I recommend visiting a Yana. There, you can immerse yourself in the full experience, appreciating both the river and the fish. Sweetfish is ubiquitous across Japan, and through my research, I frequently study this species. Upon request, I’d be delighted to offer insights into the underwater life of these fascinating fish, showcasing a captivating part of Japan’s natural and culinary heritage.

Yana, traditional Japanese fishing platforms, are found throughout Japan, but they are especially abundant along the Nakagawa River. Although this region is relatively close to Tokyo, access might not be as convenient as one would hope. However, it’s definitely a place worth visiting.

3. Koi no Arai(Carp sashimi)

In the third of our exploration of Japanese river fish cuisine, I delve into Koi no Arai, often likened to carp sashimi. This dish is unique and stands apart from typical sashimi. The process involves briefly immersing the raw slices of carp in hot water, then quickly cooling them in water. This temperature shift firms up the flesh, creating a texture that is not as tender as regular sashimi but has a distinctive, satisfying crunch.

A classic way to enjoy Koi no Arai is by dipping it in vinegar miso. The chilled, firm flesh paired with the tangy sauce offers an irresistible texture and flavor.

Carp is a fish found everywhere in Japan, including Tokyo. The key to a good Koi no Arai is using carp raised in clean water, as it eliminates any unpleasant odor. Carp specialty restaurants are as numerous as eel restaurants, with the most famous carp cuisine found in Saku City, Nagano Prefecture. In this region, far from the sea, carp has been a precious source of protein for a long time. The Koi no Arai made from carp raised in the cold, pristine waters of Saku is particularly exceptional.

Interestingly, despite its simplicity, the taste of Koi no Arai varies significantly from restaurant to restaurant in Saku. It’s fascinating how such a straightforward dish can offer such a diverse range of flavors, depending on where it’s prepared. This variance is a testament to the depth and diversity of Japanese culinary culture.

Uotoshi is my go-to restaurant for river fish cuisine. Their carp sashimi is exceptional – a true delicacy. The place also offers eel and catfish dishes, making it a perfect spot for those who appreciate the diverse flavors of river fish.


How did you find the journey through Japan’s river fish dishes? All these dishes are the epitome of simplicity. This fundamental simplicity, refined over time, forms the essence of these dishes. Rather than relying on aAll thesece of ingredients, these recipes focus on maximizing the natural goodness of a single primary ingredient. This philosophy, it seems, resonates deeply within each dish.

Starting your culinary journey in a restaurant in a major city is an excellent first step to experiencing these delights. However, as a next step, I’d encourage you to explore the natural habitats of these fish and understand how people have traditionally utilized them. If this article inspires you to embark on such a journey, to connect more deeply with the source of these dishes and the culture that cherishes them, then it has fulfilled its purpose. This exploration is not just about tasting food, but about experiencing the harmony between nature and culinary art that defines Japan’s river fish cuisine.