Beppu & Oita
Hello foodies and welcome to the next instalment of ‘DadBodEatsUK goes to Japan’! If you haven’t checked out the previous flogs then go have a look now. This edition is going to cover the first part of an amazing sporting weekend! We’re going to visit Oita and experience some amazing adventures, some glorious rugby (briefly) and of course, some fantastic food and drink! Oita is on the South Island of Japan and it was the only place we visited down there. It was very humid, with a tropical climate and amazing, green countryside. It was the setting for one of the best weekends of my life. From a travelling point of view, it is the centre of an area full of amazing Onsens (hot spring baths). From a foodie’s point of view, this district is famous for octopus balls! Anyway, enough preamble. Let’s get down to flogging – that doesn’t sound great does it!
After leaving the Shodo Island behind us and getting back to the mainland, we took a bullet train down to Beppu, in the Oita prefecture. This is a smallish town where we had a hostel for one night. We got in pretty late, so we just grabbed some food from a supermarket before picking up a few beers and chatting to some fellow rugby fans from France and Wales. It had been a long day, so we hunkered down for the night, ready to wake up for an early Onsen before the big match – England vs Australia! We woke up buzzing with nervous energy and set off to find an Onsen to calm our nerves. After going to the nearest one, we quickly realised that it was a tourist trap. Mark used his Japanese experience to find a spot that was actually good. The only hitch was that this one was well out of town, up in the beautiful green hills. We decided it was worth the walk, so we started to march. Eventually, we got to a smaller settlement which was tiered beautifully up the hillside. The place we were headed is called Myoban Yunosato Onsen and it was absolutely stunning. It’s a fully natural hot spring, infused with sulphur which is supposed to be very beneficial. It’s meant to be particularly good for arthritis, and considering I’ve got a dadbod in my twenties, my knees will definitely be happy that I did this!
Mark had been to a few Onsens when he was in Japan before, so he knew the etiquette. This was very important, because they are traditional places, which need to be respected. First rule is that you have to be completely naked. 2nd is that you have to take a flannel/towel. 3rd is that you must wash yourself thoroughly before you go into the main baths. 4th is not a rule but it’s my advice: don’t be a prude! Your enjoyment of this will be 10x greater if you get over the nakedness quickly. This is particularly important for British readers, as we are not great at being relaxed in the nude (Germans will be fine). Anyway, Mark and I went through this process and then went outside to the main baths. It was stunning with a view over the hillside and steam rising off the pool. The water looked kind of chalky because of all the minerals and there was a slight smell of sulphur, but nothing too eggy. Now, remember this is a naturally heated bath. When I got in, I was expecting it to be warm, but not roasting. How wrong I was! This was hotter than any bath I have ever ran for myself. Luckily, I was driven in by the urge to regain my modesty, so I ploughed on in and found a spot to sit. After the initial scalding, the water felt beautiful and cleansing; the fact we were outside in the lovely open air only added to this feeling.
After a minute or two, I became acclimatised to the heat and started to relax into it. It was an incredible feeling, added to by the sense of community which was clear to see amongst the other bathers. It came across as a relaxing Saturday morning ritual where people could have a catch up. After around 10-15 minutes, I had to get out and cool down. For this they had showers with stools around the side. Cooling became one of my favourite parts of the experience. The showers overlooked the valley and from them, you could look over the barrier that stopped people below getting an eyeful. It was a wonderful view, and surreal to see when standing there, tackle out (as the expression goes)!
After alternating between boiling and cooling ourselves for an hour or so, we needed to get going so we would arrive in Oita in time for the match. We got dressed and started marching back down towards Beppu. On our way, we came across a nice little restaurant. I have found it on google maps and it’s called Myoban’udon. It was a charming place, with only a few other customers. We both got a very simple egg on sticky rice dish. The egg cooked as you mixed it in, and it was seasoned with soy and spices. It was a perfect starchy breakfast to fill us up and get us ready for the day ahead. The only downside was that they had a lovely looking selection of extra toppings on a table in the middle of the room, which you could help yourself to. The one that caught our eye was some crispy looking shallots. Being over excited by free toppings, and hungry from our adventure up into the hills, we added a big spoonful before trying it… it was stale! This was a very sad moment because if they had been fresh and crispy, they would have been the perfect accompaniment for the soft rice. However, as it was, we had to try and scrape them to the side and avoid them the best we could. It was a set-back, but only a minor one! We scranned what we could pretty quickly and then managed to catch a bus back down towards our hostel. After collecting our bags, we went to a minimart to get some beers and Japanese-style hooch before getting a bus from Beppu to Oita, where England would be playing Australia that very evening.
When we arrived in Oita, I had no ticket to the match, but we were meeting Mark’s father, Philip, at a hotel there. He was part of a tour group, organised by rugby fans and as such, the other members were all there for the game. Philip had tipped me off that there might be a spare ticket, so I was hoping that I might be able to buy it for a reasonable price! When the tour turned up, their flight had been delayed, so everyone was in a bit of a rush. We met them in a hotel lobby and Philip introduced me to James, who, without hesitation, and with incredible generosity, which I will be eternally grateful for, gave me a ticket for the Rugby World Cup (RWC) Quarterfinal! I still cannot believe my luck when I think about it now!
We made our way to the buses which took us to the ground and boarded with high spirits and cans of beer. We arrived to a beautiful setting for a drink, with views of the surrounding mountains and building tension. Then, it was finally time for the game. I went and joined James and my new friends from Yorkshire and settled into a fantastic game for England. Two of England’s tries were scored right in front of me! We were all going mad with excitement and left the stadium feeling giddy. After reconvening with the Weavers and other members of the tour group, we headed to Johnny’s Bar for a strange take on Western-style food. This would not have been Mark or my first choice, but things developed, and it turned out to be a fantastic night! An example of the food from Johnny’s was a wafer-thin filo pastry pizza with some slightly bizarre meat and cheese. It seemed to take around 30 minutes to get one of these… Then there were some distinctly average nachos and other unexciting Western imitations. After reading this, you might be asking how it was a ‘fantastic night’ (to quote myself). Well, due to the rather mediocre food and the slow rate which it arrived, we had to keep ourselves entertained with drinks.
Johnny’s Bar Food: Tums/5
Then, after we had been there for a while, some new arrivals came. It turned out that we had ended up in the haunt of the British rugby media. People like Eddie Butler, John Inverdale and Tom May, to namedrop a few. We ended up chatting with them and having a great time. This was only improved by the arrival of a very welcome package. Apparently, the mayor of Oita was so happy that there were so many people coming to see his beautiful prefecture that, as a message of gratitude, he had sent his son with a load of incredible takeaway sushi for us to try. Suddenly, the lack of decent food was a great thing! The Mayor’s son was keen to downplay the quality of the sushi, partly because he was modest and also because it wasn’t the best by Japanese standards… but oh my god was it good compared to what I am used to. There was an excellent balance between incredibly fresh and simple items and then some richer more decadent pieces. These were packed with beautiful fresh fish and lovely elements like sweet but spicy mayonnaise. There was a great variety of seafood involved too, which I always love. I had everything from the standard salmon and tuna, to eel, octopus and of course prawns. Now, I know you can get all these things in most sushi restaurants but remember that this was ‘just’ a takeaway. Also, every element had exactly the right texture and balance. I just love the combo of sweet, fresh tasting fish with the salty richness of soy sauce. Then, the wasabi kick adds the final crucial element and rounds the whole thing off with that glorious fiery aftertaste. You just can’t beat it!
After battling the pundits for the best pieces of sushi (I’m only half joking), the ‘adults’ started to trickle away. Mark and I were left to our own devices once again. It had been a long day, so we weren’t feeling particularly rowdy or desperate for a big night out. On the other hand, it wasn’t quite bedtime. Again, Mark found a small bar that happened to be just down the street from Johnny’s Bar. I think it was called Rock Bar Spiral. It was epic! It had a really cool vibe that was somehow plush but dingy at the same time. It was smartly laid out with fairly tasteful leather furniture, but the reddish lighting gave it a bit of a seedy, underground feel. This was not a bad thing at all and added to the 80s atmosphere. Behind the bar there was a brilliant mixture of booze and vinyl. They were even playing some classic rock records to show off their collection. It was brilliant! When we ordered, we were surprised at how cheap the drinks were. I got a Japanese whisky – I think it was a Nikka and Mark got a cocktail, but I cannot remember exactly what. Both were delicious but served in no hurry because the barman was clearly enjoying chatting to the regulars and choosing music. This didn’t bother us because it felt in keeping with the relaxed vibe of the place. And it helped that the drinks were good when they came!
We sat at the bar and soaked up the atmosphere of the tightly packed room. It’s amazing how you can understand roughly what’s going on, even when you don’t understand a single word of what is being said! Our neighbours tried to help give us the lowdown of how things worked. They didn’t speak loads of English, but we worked out that they were telling us to help ourselves to the bar snacks which were in front of us. Sadly, after all the food we’d already had, we couldn’t manage any more! In the end, this was a bit annoying because it turned out that there was a cover charge that was added on regardless of what you had (something to watch out for!). This included all the snacks and service, but we were too full to take advantage! Despite this slight hitch, it was well worth visiting because the atmosphere and music was just so good. If we had known more about it, we would definitely have gone for longer and taken advantage of the food, and in my case the whisky. On that note, if you like Scottish Single Malts, you should definitely try some Japanese whiskies. They are fantastic! I remember mine being quite smoky but really smooth on the palate.
Rock Bar Spiral: Tums/5
Anyway, that was the end of that night and this is the end of this blog! I was hoping to fit my whole time in Oita into this one, but as you can see, too much happened. Next time we will have a bit more rugby, a bit more adventure and an epic dinner party! Don’t forget to like this article, comment with any thoughts or suggestions and subscribe, so you don’t miss the next one!
Yours in food,