Oita; Cooking in Hell

In June we took a day trip to Oita to enjoy cooking over natural steam and bathing in the infamous Oita hot springs. This was a trip organised by the lovely Noriko and taken with her daughter, Hinako, her brother, and Joe and Kate.

The day started out with a visit to a shrine in a place called USA. It is well known in the area for selling products with the statement ‘made in USA’ written on them. A little misleading perhaps…The shrine was peaceful and surrounded by lush nature and fancy insects. Check out the picture of the raving caterpillar Joe and I stumbled across. It was ready to light up the sky with its neon suit.

We then went to explore a bit of Oita for some very special cooking. It is something you can only do in this part of Japan, and so naturally it was pretty popular. You can steam a range of food over ‘hell holes’ which have tapped down below the surface to release the steam from the boiling waters below. This is known as Jigoku Mushi cuisine and is said to encourage all of the natural nutrients of the food to be easily absorbed by the person enjoying the food. This method of cooking dates back to the start of the Edo period in 1603, so with such a long history, the art of cooking over these hell holes has been perfected. My 15 minute fish was some of the most delicious steamed fish I have ever eaten!

We were lucky enough (after a fair wait) to get a spot at Jigoku Mushi Kobo, which is a kitchen staffed by volunteers and run by Oita council. In this environment you can steam the food yourself, and get a real idea of how the cooking process works. Each food item has a different time needed in the cooker, so it is important to place them in wicker baskets in the correct order. Then, as the time passes, you can simply lift the next item out with ease. I say ease, don’t forget to put on the heavy duty gloves – the steam can reach 100 degrees celsius!

After stuffing our happy faces, we then went off to enjoy one of Oita’s many onsens. If you live in Oita, or are a very adventurous tourist, you can make the most out of the hot waters below the surface, with many free public baths around the place. We opted for a paying number and enjoyed relaxing in the alkaline waters. We had all enjoyed a free foot bath and leg steam a little earlier in the day, so it was nice to have some full body submerging.

Feeling suitably relaxed, Noriko decided to show us another foot onsen famed for its natural beauty. This one was set in the hills and in a very beautiful and natural environment, with birds signing and insects buzzing merrily about. However, on arrival, it was indeed natural but  decidedly ugly in truth. It is custom, as you would expect, for mixed open air onsens in Japan to be foot onsens or ones you wear your costumes at. Unfortunately, this one seems to have been hijacked by a group of old men who enjoy letting it allllll hang out, even around the women and teenage girls. In fact, one of them was doing a bit of gardening, fully naked. With sheers. Risky behaviour indeed. He wasn’t happy about our clothes wearing ways, and so we were shooed away from the free natural onsen. Really, we were pretty happy to leave! The place had a ‘flashing cars at night in parks’ sort of vibe, not helped by a large sign at the entrance telling women to stay in groups after a really serious crime took place (the first such sign I have ever seen in Japan!)

The day ended with a beautiful drive back to Shimonoseki through the valleys surrounded by mountains. The meat eaters stopped off for some fried chicken too! It was safe to say we returned home at 9pm very happy but totally exhausted after another wonderful Noriko arranged trip.

Thanks #Oita! And of course, Noriko.

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