The taste of “Onsen Prefecture” that grew out of people’s living
Located in the northeastern part of Kyushu, Oita Prefecture has a total area of 6,341 square kilometers, covering 119 kilometers from east to west and 106 kilometers from north to south. Approximately 70 percent of the prefecture's land is covered with forest and fields, including the Kujyu Mountain Range, otherwise known as the “roof of Kyushu,” as well as Mt. Tsurumi and Mount Sobo.
The main and branch currents of the Kuroshio flow throughout the year along the coastal areas of the southern part of the prefecture, which is a rainy area with high temperatures and humidity all year round. The coastal area between the Saganoseki Peninsula and Nakatsu City has a moderate Seto Inland Sea-type climate with average temperatures of 15-16 degrees Celsius. Meanwhile, mountainous areas further inland and basins experience harsh winters with strong northwesterly winds and northerly winds that blow over the mountains. The winter temperatures can drop to as low as minus 3 degrees Celsius in the mountainous areas in the west, where summer resorts such as Yufuin and Mt. Kuju are located.
Oita is also well known for its hot spring resort destinations. Hot springs are scattered all over the area with the Kirishima Volcanic Belt extending from the prefecture’s north to south and the Hakusan Volcanic Belt from west to north. Oita is the No. 1 prefecture in terms of the number of hot spring sources and the volume of flow from hot springs. Of the 10 types of hot spring water found in Japan, Oita Prefecture offers eight. For all these reasons, Oita Prefecture has promoted its attractions domestically and internationally as the best “onsen prefecture” in Japan.
Video provided in part by: “SHUN GATE,” a website for the transmission of information on Japanese food culture Video provided in part by: “SHUN GATE,” a website for the transmission of information on Japanese food culture
Shop interviewed: Kotsukotsuan
The nation’s top consumer of chicken with a well-established wheat-eating culture
People in Oita are known for their ravenous consumption of chicken. According to a survey by the Statistics Bureau of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications targeted on the prefectural capitals and ordinance-designated cities, chicken consumption in Oita City ranks among the top in Japan.
A range of chicken dishes that developed in various parts of Oita include fried chicken, “tori-ten” (fried chicken tempura), “game-ni” (braised chicken), and “tori meshi” (rice cooked with chicken and burdock), which is said to have originated in the Edo period. Until quite recently, it was not uncommon for ordinary households to raise chickens, and when a “parent bird” kept for its eggs stopped laying eggs, the chicken was killed and used in cooking for local events and celebratory occasions.
Since the old days, wheat and other grains were cultivated primarily on the plains in Oita Prefecture. Most of the grains are ground into flour. The culture of flour consumption gradually spread to different parts of the prefecture as exemplified by a typical dish named “dango-jiru,” a miso soup with lots of ingredients including flour dumplings made by kneading wheat flour. “Yaseuma,” a traditional Oita snack with a simple, homey flavor is made by kneading flour and water into flat noodle shapes, which are then boiled and sprinkled with sugar and sweet kinako flour (finely grounded roasted soybeans). The name “yaseuma” is said to date back to the Heian period when a young lord demanded his nanny named “Yase” to give him food, saying, “Yase, uma” with “uma” meaning “umaimono” or something delicious.
Also, each region of Oita Prefecture has its own unique food culture. Let us take a look at the four regions: northern, central, western, and southern regions.
Gorgeous ceremonial feast to light up ceremonial events
The northern region is home to a wide variety of local food cultures, reflecting the diversity in their characteristics: Nakatsu City, which retains the atmosphere of the Nakatsu castle town, Kunisaki City where “Rokugo Manzan,” an esoteric religion with the elements of Buddhism, Shinto and mountain worship developed, and Usa City, known as the birthplace of restaurants that specialize in fried food.
A pressed sushi dish named “mosso-zushi” that developed in the Sanko district of Nakatsu City is said to have a history of some hundreds of years. “Mosso” refers to a mold used to measure the amount of cooked rice or to serve rice to individuals. By extension, it also refers to pressed rice dishes that are pushed out of the mold and onto a plate. In addition to white rice, sticky rice and maze-gohan (mixed rice) were used for “mosso-zushi,” a ceremonial dish that is served after the Konpira Festival in spring or a Shinto ritual. Oshizushi or pressed rice, which enabled an even distribution of cooked rice, was the perfect way to serve rice in an era when rice was a valuable commodity.
Himeshima Village, located off the Kunisaki Peninsula, is the only village in Oita Prefecture. The waters near Himeshima overlooking the Suonada sea area provide excellent fishing grounds where a whole range of seafood including sea bream, octopus, and Japanese tiger prawn, is caught. A fresh sea bream is used whole to make the traditional village dish “taimen,” a lavish feast served at ceremonial occasions. For this dish, a sea bream with its head intact is cooked with sake, salt, and soy sauce and boiled udon noodles are added at the end and mixed.
This dish is served at ceremonial occasions or when the families of the bride and bridegroom get together before a marriage ceremony – in respect for the pun on the term “taimen,” which in Japanese refers phonetically to both “sea bream noodle” and “face-to-face.” Decades ago, people used to make homemade udon noodles for this occasion, which exemplifies how the flour-eating culture is ingrained in Oita.
Distinctive food culture shaped by the influences of Western culture
The central region consists of municipalities such as Yufu City, Beppu City, Oita City, and Usuki City. Located in the center of Oita Prefecture, Yufuin attracts a large number of visitors as the quaint townscape continues to captivate visitors from in and out of Japan.
Fishermen based in Beppu Bay, located along the central region, employ different fishing methods ranging from seine net fishing to small-scale trawl fishing, gillnet fishing and small-scale trap net fishing. The area is home to some 300 species of fish including red rice prawn, sea bass, red seabream, and tiger puffer, ensuring a plentiful catch throughout the year for the locality. Among them, the whitebait caught by seine net fishing has become popular by the name “Bungo Beppu-Wan Chirimen.” Also, marbled sole caught in Hiji Town is marketed by the name “Shiroshita Karei.”
Since the establishment of the provincial capital in the 7th century, Oita City has prospered as a political and economic center. The Christian feudal lord Otomo Sourin, who came to the throne at the beginning of the Sengoku period, ruled over most of Kyushu at the height of his power. When Portuguese ships began to arrive in 1551, the influences of Western culture – including the latest music, drama, and medicine – began to spread in Japan. Pumpkins that were presented to the feudal lord during the time were named “Sorin Pumpkins,” the same species that is still cultivated today.
Towards the end of the Edo period, the Bungo Province was divided into smaller clans including the Funai clan, Hiji clan, and Usuki clan. The foundation of the culture established by Otomo Sorin, however, persisted and was passed down from generation to generation. In Usuki City, where the Usuki Clan Office was once located, “ouhan” (yellow rice) has become a local delicacy. This rice dish, which is colored yellow using dried cape jasmine seeds, is said to have been influenced by paella, a dish introduced from Spain.
Eccentric fish dishes that evolved in the mountains
The western region of Oita, which borders Kumamoto and Fukuoka prefectures, comprises Taketa City and Kokonoe Town , which are surrounded by the Kuju mountains, Hita City located along the Chikugo River, a class A river and the largest river in Kyushu, and its tributaries, as well as Kusu Town .
Hita is a town that flourished during the Edo period as a tenryo, a district under the direct control of the Tokugawa shogunate. Merchant houses and storehouses that still stand in various parts of the city convey the atmosphere of that time.
A local dish that is essential to the bon festival in the Hita city area is “taraosa,” dried cod gills and stomach, which has a unique appearance that resembles a gigantic toothbrush. The dish is prepared by soaking the dried fish in water; the fish is then chopped and simmered in a sweet and salty broth. “Taraosa” is made by processing Pacific cod, which was caught in Wakkanai City, Hokkaido, which is then shipped to Hita City via Hakata.
During the Edo period, sea fish was a prized commodity in Taketa City, an inland area located far from the sea. Since people who lived there had little access to fresh seafood, they began to devise ways to eat fish without wasting it, which led to the development of a local dish named “atama ryori,” which literally means “head cuisine.”
All parts of the fish are eaten with “atama ryori.” Saw-edged perch, longtooth grouper, grouper, and other large-sized fish are used for this dish, which is made by boiling the gills, fins, guts, and other parts that are usually discarded, in addition to the flesh. People used to serve this dish at the year’s end or to guests during the New Year as it keeps fairly well once cooked. Years ago, it was not uncommon to see people cleaning large fish on a big verandah in their home.
Taste of the local dishes created from the lives of ordinary people
Saiki City and Bungo Ono City are located in the southern part of the prefecture. In 2005, Saiki City merged with five towns and three villages in the prefecture’s Minamiamabe District, making it the largest city by area in Kyushu. Saiki, which has mountainous, plain, and coastal areas within the city, is blessed with plentiful harvest from the sea and mountains.
A seasoning paste named “gomadashi” has been traditionally passed down in fishing towns in the Saiki city area. “Gomadashi” is made by grinding grilled fillets of white-fleshed fish together with sesame seeds, mirin, and sugar, and seasoned with soy sauce. “Lizardfish” is often used as the fish ingredient in this dish because it is caught all-year round. People used to make their own “gomadashi” seasoning at home. “Gomadashi” comes in handy because it keeps for a long time and it can be prepared in advance.
“Gomadashi” is a multipurpose seasoning: it can be mixed in ochazuke, a simple dish made by pouring green tea over cooked rice with an assortment of savory ingredients, or used as a topping for hiyayakko, or chilled tofu. Locals like to top udon noodles with gomadashi to make “gomadashi udon.” The dish gained nationwide popularity after it was mentioned in a Tokyo radio program in the early Showa period.
Bungo Ono City was inaugurated following the merger of seven towns and villages including Ono, Mie, and Inukai towns and Kiyokawa Village. Sitting on a basin and surrounded by Mt. O-toge, Mt. Yoroigatake, Mt. Sobo, and Mt. Katamuki, Bungo Ono’s geographical features are far from ideal. Still, the abundant water resources provided by the class-A Ono River make it one of the foremost farm production areas in the prefecture.
Life in farming villages has produced a simple snack named “jiriyaki." To make this local snack, flour is mixed with water to produce somewhat runny batter, which is spread and cooked on a skillet to make thin crepes. The crepes are rolled with brown sugar at the center before serving. Jiriyaki makes a perfect snack for children, and farmers also ate it between meals during their farm work. There are many theories on the origin of the name; some say the word “jiri” comes from the expression “jirijiri,” which means to bake slowly in Japanese, while others argue the name originated in the word “jirui,” a term that denotes runny conditions in local dialect. Local children enjoy the rustic taste of this snack that cannot be found in today’s confectioneries.
Many of the local dishes of Oita Prefecture are the works of the lives of the ordinary people. The simple and unassuming taste of local cuisine including chicken and flour-based dishes continues to delight many people in this day and time. Oita’s allure extends far beyond the “onsen prefecture,” as is evident in its history and palate.