When making your pilgrimage to Beppu, the unrivaled hot spring mecca of Japan, keep in mind that this sprawling old town in Oita Prefecture is almost as famous for its seafood cuisine as for its healing waters. The following is advice to the lucky traveler who makes it to this beautiful corner of Kyushu, but first a disclaimer; I discovered and fell in love with Beppu a very long time ago, not with the food, nor the hot springs, nor the incredible culture and scenery, but with the amazing and warm-hearted people.
How it is different
Situated at the westernmost reaches of Japan’s inland sea, Beppu is at the end of a deep bay just above the Bungo straits, where the nutrient rich waters of Japan’s inland sea (seto naikai) meet and mingle with the Pacific Ocean, producing some of the richest fisheries in the country. This is a region of picturesque coastlines, rugged islets, azure seas and jutting peninsulas; on clear days one can see the promontory of Shikoku shimmering in the distance across the deep blue, plankton rich waters.
What to look for
Just a few of the specialties of Beppu’s seafood cuisine include shiroshita karei (local “white belly” flounder), seki saba and seki aji (blue and jack mackerel; seki referring to the “barrier” at the narrowest part of the straits), okoze (devil stinger), tachiuo (scabbardfish), and last but not least torafugu (tiger globefish.) The mackerel of these waters are especially noteworthy, appearing to live year round in the fast flowing waters, in spite of being a migratory species. The jacks are celebrated for their iridescent, golden skin color, as well as their firm, savory flesh.
The preparation is just as novel
Some of the above are prepared as you might find them in Tokyo or (more likely) Osaka, others in a ways typical of Oita prefecture alone. For instance, while the dangerous but delectable devil stinger might be simmered in a lightly sweetened sake and soy broth, your mackerels could be presented as straight sashimi, or Ryuku style, lightly marinated in ginger, soy sauce, sake and green onions, a recipe made popular in this very part of Japan.
My mouth is watering. How are you doing?
Among Japan’s connoisseurs
Most of the above fish are rated five stars – extremely delicious – on the authoritative Japanese website www.zukan-bouz.com. But that’s a nationwide rating. Imagine how these fish will taste in Beppu, or anywhere in Oita prefecture, freshly harvested from the nutrient-rich, fast flowing waters of the Bungo waterway. [Note: the above named website also rates the level of knowledge involved in fish appreciation; knowing about such delicacies as shiroshita karei or seki saba will put you smack dab at the five-star “Expert” level. Not bad, grasshopper!]
How to find the best of the best
Needless to say, every fish – everything – has its season, so you are not going to eat all of this over a honeymoon weekend in May. Rather, I suggest that you find a place specializing in the local catch, and inquire what is in season (utter words jiki or shun, both meaning ‘in season’.) This will do several things: it will tell your Japanese chef that you are seeking the best, whatever that may be, and that his efforts to provide it will not be akin to throwing pearls to swine.
If you’re really on a mission
But just in case you want to compare a favorite from elsewhere in Japan with the best of Beppu, here’s what to look for at particular times of year:
- Spring – jack mackerel
- Spring to summer – devil stinger
- Summer – scabbardfish
- Summer to winter – flounder
- Fall to winter – blue mackerel
- Winter – globefish
However, the truth is that this fishery is so unique that even the normal seasonal variations aren’t the same, with many species at the top of their game for many months of the year.
Now for the hard part
OK, about where to eat in Beppu? That is the tough part. But here is my personal favorite: Enya Sengoku. You need a reservations, so call: