In Beppu, Japan Residents Steam Food In Communal 'Hell Ovens'

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Be honest, if you had a geothermal hot spring in your neighborhood and someone had manufactured an oven that trapped the rising steam, you'd use it to cook your food, wouldn't you? If so, you'd be joining a long lineage across multiple cultures of those who have cooked with the natural resources their home nations have graced them with. In Iceland, they bake rye bread in the heated sands of hot springs. In Japan, though, they steam their food in hell (via Atlas Obscura).

No, Japan does not have direct access to Satan's Kingdom. What it does have is a bevy of hot springs that are the result of volcanic activity. Beppu, a city on Japan's island of Kyushu, is home to the highest concentration of hot springs in the nation. Roughly 2,300 springs gush over 100,000 liters of steaming water every minute. One can only conclude that the citizens of Beppu would use this natural wonder to their advantage, right? Correct! The method of cooking with the steam from the hot springs is called jigoku-mushi, which literally translates to "hell-steaming."

Cooking in hell

The neighborhood of Kannawa in Beppu is home to an unusual, yet extraordinary sight. Large brick or concrete ovens billowing steam litter the streets and houses of this section of the city. According to Atlas Obscura, these contraptions are called jigoku-gama or hell ovens. They are designed specifically to channel the steam generated by the geothermal hot springs below. All one needs to do is twist a nozzle and a jet of steam will cook anything from vegetables to dumplings to prawns.

This method of cooking dates back to the Edo Era of Japan, which occurred from 1603 to 1868. During this period, the cooking technique was rudimentary, making use of whatever cracks the steam made in the earth. It was during the following Meji Era that the jigoku-gama's were constructed and initially used for free amongst locals until shrewd-minded entrepreneurs saw the financial potential in inviting tourists to cook their food in hell. Today, hell steaming is still very much a tourist attraction. Several restaurants and stalls exist within Beppu that offer the experience of allowing your food to be cooked in hell. According to Japan Experience, the jigoku-gama's are set out front of the eatery, and foods like eggs or sweet potatoes are steamed in bamboo baskets in front of your very eyes. If you're interested in a humorous take on this cooking experience, watch the final episode of James May: Our Man in Japan for a good chuckle.