Beppu, Oita Prefecture, has long been known as one of the top onsen destinations in Japan. With eight major hot springs areas, you can find onsen anywhere from the popular city center to the quiet little resorts. But this city is not only abundant with hot springs, it also generates geothermal steam that reaches 100° C and even above—so hot that it can actually cook your food!
Jigokumushi (地獄蒸し, literally means "Hell Steam"), is what this cooking method is called. A very simple yet unique way of cooking that has been practiced since the Edo Period. Jigokumushi restaurants are popular for tourists coming to the Kannawa area, which main attractions are the Jigoku of Beppu
, boiling ponds that are open for viewing. In some of these restaurants, customers could also try cooking the food themselves, an interesting experience when you go with friends or family.
The first jigokumushi restaurant I went to was the Jigokumushi Kobo, a little bit on the expensive side, but was very nice and memorable. They had both indoor and outdoor tables, with the seating area outside shielded by roof and curtains. Right under every table was a foot bath, so you can enjoy your food while dipping your feet in warm water.
But how does this cooking method actually work? These restaurants have their own steam, piped into cooking stations made from concrete, called the jigokudama. The food then will be arranged in a bamboo tray, placed on a metal basket with long handles, before you put them into a well-like hole. This spot then will be sealed with a big wooden lid, and that’s it! All you have to do after is just to switch on the pipe and wait for it to cook. Cooking time varies depending on the type of food; hard-boiled eggs, for example, would take you about ten minutes, while soft vegetables like spinach would be done in three minutes. No worries about the time, though! The staff will tell you when it’s ready, or in some places, they’ll give you a timer that will make a sound once your food is done.
Thick white steam comes out like crazy when the food is cooked, and it’s not too hot to stand near it if you want to take a closer look, but for those who wear glasses like me, zero visibility is guaranteed. Also, for safety, the restaurants provide gloves to wear when you’re putting in the basket and taking it out, so you won’t accidentally burn yourself.
When you eat, dipping it in soy sauce is optional, but pretty much anything cooked in jigokumushi-style doesn’t need any seasoning, not even a pinch of salt. The steam seems to bring out the natural flavor of the food, creating the perfect combination of healthy and tasty. As for the menu itself, the most popular are seafood and vegetables, but other options such as eggs, meat (often sliced thinly like when you have shabu shabu), and steamed buns are also common.
Other jigokumushi restaurant that’s also very famous is the Jigokumushi Kobo. Here you can rent the cooking station starting from 20 minutes for 340 yen, and you’re able to either purchase food at the restaurant or bring your own food from outside (they will charge you for at least 500 yen). Note that this Jigokumushi Kobo is very attractive to tourists and therefore is often packed, so if you find the place to be crowded then just get yourself on the waiting list, and use the waiting time to stroll around the area. There are foot steam bath and foot bath available free of charge near the facility, while at the front, there’s also a spring water drinking fountain, good to warm you up especially in cold weather.
When you visit Beppu, make sure to drop by Kannawa and try your own Jigokumushi food!
There are a lot of jigokudama here, numbered so customers won’t forget which station their food is in.
Open: 10 a.m. – 10 p.m.
Address: Kannawa Furomoto 228-1, Beppu
Open: 9 a.m. – 9 p.m.
Closing Days: Every 3rd Wednesday (or on the following day if Wednesday is public holiday)
Address: Ideyuzaka zoi, 5-kumi, Furomoto, Beppu