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Finding heaven in hell: the hot spring cuisine of Beppu

February 15, 2018

The writer and Buddhist priest Kon Toukou wrote that he had no great interest in the heaven as depicted by great writers of the likes of Dante, John Milton or William Blake. Rather, their visions of hell held much more appeal. For him, Beppu was the closest place on Earth to these depictions. “Though you may not be able to see demons,” he wrote, “it is clear that one false step, one slip, will bring you to a rapid demise.”

He’s not wrong. Beppu is home to several onsen (hot springs), which might look inviting but are actually close to 100°C. The area is renowned for its seven “hells” – hot springs of such fierce temperatures that they are definitely for viewing only.

Located on the east coast of Oita Prefecture on the southern island of Kyushu, Beppu is one of Japan’s most famous onsen towns. And although the landscape might be compared to hell, the gourmet scene is more like heaven. Locals are partial to soul-satisfying comfort food such as toriten (chicken tempura) and the supremely fresh seki-saba (high-quality branded mackerel). But I arrive in the town to chase the celestial cuisine that has sprung up alongside the scalding hot water.

Where there are onsen, there are ryokan – traditional Japanese inns that often include tatami mat rooms and communal bathing. Many in Beppu make use of the mineral-rich water said to have healing properties. And many offer decadent multi-course meals, sometimes served directly in the guests’ quarters.

I’m settled on a zabuton (floor cushion) at a low table in a traditional tatami room, and a lady is constructing a work of art before me, all laid upon a beautiful flower-decorated paper mat. To the right of a multitude of tiny dishes is a menu with no less than 13 entries, finished with today’s date. That’s an important detail – efforts have been taken to create this banquet out of not only local but also seasonal ingredients. This is an essential element of washoku (traditional Japanese cuisine) and one of the criteria that led to its selection as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2013.

I am a little overwhelmed by the sheer volume, so I take a sip of the aperitif, a sweet plum wine known as umeshu, and decide to proceed according to the menu. I pick up a cocktail glass of intricate delicacies that look almost too beautiful to consume. A brown and white perfect spiral reveals itself to be a dried persimmon roll that is surprisingly savory. A fruit tomato grown in Saiki further south down the coast introduces flickers of umami.

Next, the sweet earthiness of pumpkin is offset with the umami tang of a cream cheese topping. The smooth texture of this is counterbalanced by the crunch of herring roe, which has the crispness of a raw pepper but the freshness of the ocean. I follow this with anchovies, cooked to crispness and their robust flavor mollified by a sweetened soy sauce. Yet another contrast is provided by the bitterness of the leaves of sansho pepper (Japanese Sichuan pepper).

In just one cocktail dish, I might have already toured the local area twice over. But there is much more to come. A cube of local herb-fed pork belly melts in my mouth supported by a tender slice of Japanese white radish. The sawara (Spanish mackerel) nigiri sushi is exquisite – in Oita, the fish is particularly popular in winter as it gains fat before the spawning season. I pry sweet crab flesh from a claw, and follow it with mustard-topped nanohana (rapeseed blossoms) that hint at the coming of spring.

Sashimi of the season arrives on a leaf-shaped plate. Among the achingly fresh sea bream and salmon, the creamy roe, and the tantalizingly sweet shrimp lies half a kabosu, a local citrus fruit grown almost exclusively in Oita Prefecture. I coat the sashimi with its gentle fragrance.

Although I’m very studiously focusing on each plate in turn, it’s hard to ignore the enormous wooden box of luxuriant beef. It’s like treasure in a box; I’m sure it would be winking stars at me with a cheeky “ting” if it could. This is premium Bungo beef, a highly prized local brand, known for its long fattening period and resultant excellent marbling.

At last, it’s time for this centerpiece. A flame is lit beneath the box and – perhaps in a tribute to the environment – the meat is steamed for 1-2 minutes. It’s more thickly cut than beef used for hot pots, and almost springy in texture. I tentatively dip it into a creamy sesame sauce – not too much – and take a bite. The fat instantly dissolves, releasing a wave of irresistible umami. Each bite is an experience that must be enjoyed singularly and fully.

Admittedly by this point, I’m beginning to reach my limit. Why don’t you take your bath before dessert, the lady serving me suggests. This sounds very sensible. Like most ryokan, this guesthouse has communal bathing facilities divided by gender, but it also has a “family bath” which can be reserved for private use. I’m delighted to find it’s a han-rotemburo – a semi-open air bath. I am enveloped in hot water as the icy winter air caresses my face. Back in my room, I tuck into seasonal fruits accompanied by a charred wheat pudding, and sleepily contemplate how I’m going to ever eat again.

Breakfast is also a multi-dish affair, with the difference that everything is laid out at once.  A map of the entire island of Kyushu is placed on my table detailing how, as much as possible, all items have been sourced from the local and abundant nature. The herb pork makes a reappearance – it’s from the Kuju Highlands and is raised on a vegetable feed of four kinds of herbs, producing a meat low in fat but rich in vitamin E, B1 and oleic acid. Thin, tender slices are cooked before me in a soymilk hot pot containing handmade tofu and locally-grown spring onions.

There's sea bream ryukyu, a dish of marinated sashimi, a meibutsu (famous item or dish) from Oita Prefecture – it’s a lightly sweet and refreshing start to the morning. I tuck into Miyazaki Prefecture’s meibutsu – chicken nanban – fried chicken coated in a tangy tartar sauce. Heading even further to Kagoshima Prefecture, there’s crisp deep-fried silver-stripe round herring. And leaping further south to Okinawa, I slurp mozuku – a kind of edible seaweed in wonderfully tangy vinegar, which is possibly even better than coffee for waking you up in the morning.

It’s a heavy meal to start the day, but more food is to come. Street vendors are dotted around town, selling eggs, pork buns, and vegetables among others, all cooked directly in the hot spring steam. Since no oil is used, this is considered a very healthy cooking method that locks in the natural flavor and nutrients of the ingredients. However, your healthy eating spree may be short-lived, unless you can resist the widespread local offering of steamed custard pudding.

The process is called “jigoku-mushi” – literally hell-steaming – and I head to a try-it-yourself facility for some hands-on experience. Here I purchase a ticket for a steaming box and a separate ticket for an egg and potato selection. Under instruction, I slide open the door to the cooking area. Furious billows of steam rush at my face as I wade through the white fog to my allotted number. I lower my ingredients into a bamboo basket into a box in a steam jet above 100°C!

The timer beeps – 7 minutes for an egg on the softer side, 30 minutes for the potatoes – and I have a freshly steamed and very healthy meal. It’s an entirely DIY-affair – I fetch my own cutlery and seasonings, and experiment with flavors. The highlight is the sweet potato, which requires no enhancement and should be revered as a natural edible gold.

I savor the sweetness, watching rising wafts of steam. Even if Beppu is hell, I’m quite happy to stay for some time.

Text and photos: Phoebe Amoroso

Chobo no Yado Shiori
2218-5 Minamitateishi, Beppu-shi, Oita Prefecture
+81 (0)977-22-9771

Jigoku-Mushi Kobo Kannawa
5 Kumi, Furomoto, Beppu-shi, Oita Prefecture
+81 (0)977-66-3775

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