Knowing a place is a journey one can begin but never end. How land, climate and culture shape what we use, appreciate and eat varies with a diversity impossible for our minds to fully comprehend. And there lies the joy of it. If you are willing to look, there is always something new to discover.
Zoomed out, the food and culture of Oita Prefecture have obviously been shaped by the region’s high mountains, deep forests, winding coastline and intense thermal activity. Yet zooming in, these broad categories splinter into countless new divisions, each with their own unique features. There is much to discover in this unique region in northeast Kyushu, just a 90-minute flight from Tokyo.
The grand vistas of the volcanic Kuju Mountains in the middle-west of the prefecture are another world from the hidden shrines and temples tucked into seemingly every corner of the forested hills of Kunisaki Peninsula. Dining on an exquisite flounder species found only off the coast of castle ruins in Hiji is an entirely different experience from digging for clams on the Matama Beach in Bungotakada while waiting for one of its famous sunsets, though the two sites are only about 40 kilometers apart.
Still, this is an interconnected world, and the reason a thing exists sometimes stretches over thousands of kilometers and hundreds of years. Gazing up on the serene visage of Fudo Myoo, a Buddhist “wisdom king,” carved eight meters tall into a sheer cliff in Bungotakada, one might wonder what motivated people more than 1,300 years ago to create such a monument.F
The answer is related to the nearby presence of Usa Jingu Shrine, a massive ancient complex that heads roughly 44,000 Hachiman shrines nationwide. This important shrine’s location in northern Kyushu places it directly in the pathway Buddhism took as it entered Japan via Korea, which received it from China, which got it from India.
Thus a religion born at the foot of the Himalayas wound its way through Asia for centuries before reaching the shores of Japan, where it mixed with the native Shinto faith to generate a sort of “partnership” spirituality that produced a flowering of religious practice, art and architecture in northern Oita.
The Kumano Magaibutsu cliff carvings were made as a part of this flowering and are located at the edge of Kunisaki Peninsula. Many of these ancient practices and traditions live on in this almost perfectly round bulb of land jutting into the Seto Inland Sea. The area has an astounding variety of temples and shrines, ranging in character from the elegant mountaintop rock garden of Saieizan Kozan-ji Temple to the intimate forest setting of Monjusen-ji Temple.
Yet spiritual devotion is not the only thing that thrives in Oita’s quiet forests and hidden valleys. Such a setting also happens to be perfect for growing mushrooms, specifically the shiitake variety. Oita Prefecture is by far the largest producer of “genboku shiitake,” or those grown directly on logs. The locals usually use a variety of chestnut oak.
People unfamiliar with this style of mushroom cultivation may be intrigued by the lines of roughly meter-long logs standing vertically on the forest floor, which are a common sight along the prefecture’s winding mountain roads.
These are mushroom “farms” and when inspected closely, the logs are seen to have little pellets drilled into them every 10 centimeters or so. These pellets have been seeded with the shiitake fungus, which grow into plump brown mushrooms every autumn and spring for a few years until the logs disintegrate. During harvest season, another common sight in the Oita countryside are shiitake spread out under the sun on bamboo drying mats in people’s driveways.
Oita Prefecture is also known for its hot springs. The amount of hot water generated by the thermal activity under Beppu is second only to Yellowstone National Park in the United States. This becomes even more impressive when one considers that Yellowstone is around 70 times larger than Beppu by area.
This ultra-concentration of hot spring activity is evident just looking out over the city, which is built on the sides of mountains sloping sharply down to the sea. There are plumes of steam everywhere, all the advertising the city needs to show its onsen bona fides.
Of course, just saying Oita has a lot of hot springs fails to do justice to the wide variety of bathing experiences available, which range from the “carbonated” springs of Nagayu in Taketa to the ultra mineral-rich Tsukahara Onsen, which sits right next to an active volcano and is known as one of the three great medicinal baths in all of Japan.
Of course, hot water is not the only way to enjoy Oita’s thermal activity. Many baths have dry and steam saunas, and being buried in one of Beppu’s “sand baths” is an experience not to be missed.
With so much natural heat on hand, the residents of Beppu have found other ways to use it besides bathing. Farmers place greenhouses on top of steam vents so they can grow tomatos, flowers and other produce even in winter.
In some places the steam coming from the earth is hot enough to cook with. A few businesses have built giant enclosed steamers around the vents, where people can purchase or bring in their own vegetables, meat, seafood, eggs and even dough to be cooked with onsen heat, which imparts a mild mineral flavor to the food that is distinctive without being overpowering.
With a long coastline running mostly north to south along the Inland Sea roughly to its outlet to the Pacific Ocean, the sea and its bounty play a major role in what makes Oita Prefecture special.
The flounder mentioned above are called “shiroshita karei,” which literally means “below-the-castle flounder,” because this variety is only found in a particular spot not far offshore from the ruins of an Edo Era castle in Hiji.
Why this particular spot? Because a freshwater spring bubbling up from beneath the seabed creates the perfect conditions for a species of small shrimp upon which the flounder feed. Shiroshita karei is typically eaten raw as sashimi, dipped in “ponzu,” a mixture of soy sauce and citrus, often lemon but in Oita usually local yuzu or kabosu.
The best seafood to eat on a visit to Oita depends on the time of year. Different types of mackerel (saba, aji) and sea bream (madai) are available in different seasons, along with shellfish in autumn and winter, and numerous other species only found in certain places at certain times.
One somewhat difficult to classify Oita delicacy is suppon, or soft-shell turtle, a specialty of the Ajimu district of Usa. Not a sea product and not a fish, these reptiles are unusual enough that even most Japanese have never tasted one. Tradition holds it to be an excellent source of vital energy, and suppon is typically served in a hearty stew.
If a journey to Oita is not possible in the immediate future, people in the Tokyo area can enjoy the region’s culinary specialties at Zarai Oita, located in the Ginza district near Yurakucho Station. Please see click the link for more on this establishment. (https://japanrestaurant.net/en/shop/zarai-oita-ginza/)
The above only scratches the surface of what can be discovered in Oita. The town of Usuki in the south has more ancient stone Buddha carvings, and the highlands of the prefecture’s west are known for beef and dairy products. There are towering waterfalls, the highest mountain on the Kyushu main island, wild hypnotic fire matsuri, stylish film festivals, wakeboarding, horseback riding and even a ski hill. Come to Oita. The closer you look, the more there is to discover.
Story by Carl Stimson
From WINING & DINING in TOKYO 58