A Primer to the Seafood Delights of Beppu

Beppu 4When 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.

Local catch, including the very delicious, and extremely difficult to prepare Devil stinger (inimicus japonicus.)

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.

Ryukyu w Ikura
Ryuku style sashimi.

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!]


Tachimaki 2
This delightful invention, called tachimaki, is barbecued scabbardfish wrapped around bamboo, and is found only in Beppu.

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.

Fish salad


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:

For the Japanese Hot Spring Enthusiast

Jalan.net (www.jalan.net) a Japanese publication promoting domestic travel to the Japanese traveler, has published its members’ “Top Hot Springs of Japan” selections for 2018.  I’m always complaining about the silly and inaccurate travel writing on Japan by English-language writers, so if you’re a traveler or newcomer to Japan, and interested in soaking in the country’s amazing hot springs, this might be helpful information.

Nyuto Onsen Village, December 2017. Photo by Tetsuro Akagi

The survey covered 327 hot springs, meaning the top picks are just a drop in the proverbial bucket.   A few of my own (rather biased) opinions follow the lists (after the photo!)

A beautiful (and free) public onsen in Nozawa, Japan.

Most-visited (by those voting) in the past year:

Hakone – (Kanagawa) 1466

Beppu – (Oita) 963

Kusatsu Onsen – (Gumma) 923

Atami – (Shizuoka) 921

Kinugawa – (Ibaragi) 722

Most Anticipated (for a future, first-time visit)

Yufuin Onsen – (Oita) 2696

Nyuto Onsen Village – (Akita) 1933

Kusatsu Onsen – (Gumma) 1767

Beppu – (Oita) 1708

Ibusuki Onsen – (Kagoshima) 1574

Highest Satisfaction rating:

Takayu Onsen – (Fukushima) 97.1%

Nyuto Onsen Village – (Akita) 95.6%

Shirahone Onsen – (Nagano) 95.5%

Utoro Onsen – (Hokkaido) 94.8%

Manza Onsen – (Gumma) & Kinosaki Onsen (Hyogo) 94.2% (tied)

The Jalanet article notes that Beppu’s position climbed the most in this year’s rankings, apparently due to a strong positive response from twenty-something voters to its “Hot Spring Gardens” campaign of last year.

Beppu is both the largest conglomeration of hot springs in Japan, and an old coastal resort city (in some ways like Atami) in Kyushu, so it is a place to explore for all types of bathing opportunities, from guerilla (rock baths up in the hills) to plush inn-style (search out Myoban Onsen) to public mixed-bathing (Beppu Hoyo Land) to old-fashioned bath houses (Takegawara Onsen.)

If you make it all the way down to Beppu (a one-hour flight from Tokyo, or seven hour train ride), you should visit nearby Yufuin Onsen, at the top of the Anticipation list.  Set in a spectacular basin beneath a ruggedly beautiful volcano (Mt. Yufu), it offers a number of lovely (and pricey) inns with beautiful baths. There are also plenty of cultural amenities for those interested in Japanese arts and crafts.

Also worth noting, at second-place on the satisfaction rating, is Nyuto Village Onsen. (This is on my hot spring bucket list, for sure.) Tucked away in the mountains of northern Japan, it boasts a seriously deep winter. Just imagine the outdoor baths, the snow, and the quiet. I’ve included a photo taken by a friend who visited there just this December.

Wow. Where else in the world, right?

A few of the above winners offer English websites:







I’m sorry I couldn’t write about all 327 hot springs covered in the Jalan.net survey.  Someday, right?


Goto Onsen and others 025
Maria B. demonstrating proper mixed bathing etiquette at Goto Onsen, Beppu, Japan