Suppon Turtles, Ajimu, Oita Prefecture すっぽん 東椎谷の滝, 安心院, 大分県
Suppon (Asian soft-shell turtles) are considered both a power food and an extravagant delicacy in China and Japan. They are said to give strength to the infirm, potency to men and an extraordinary pleasure to the palate.
While the performance-enhancing properties of a bowl of suppon are hard to prove, a forbiddingly expensive delicacy it remains to this day in traditional-style upscale restaurants in Kyoto and Tokyo. There are ways to get around the latter problem, though. Now, what about the pleasure to the palate? I went to find out.
Today a part of Usa City, Ajimu is what one could describe as deep countryside. There are occasional buses to Ajimu from Usa, but there are no buses from Beppu. There is no train station in Ajimu. To get around, you need your own means of transportation, a rental car or motorbike or a bicycle if you don't mind the mountains.
I went on an early March day to Ajimu by car from Beppu on Route 500, passing by the African Safari Park. It is worth stopping right at the Ajimu town welcome sign. The town sign features a picture of a suppon turtle with a glass of wine in hand, vine grapes above it. Wine and turtles are the distinctive products of the town.
The sign is located right behind a bridge. Look down from that bridge and you will see an impressive waterfall far below. It's not the only waterfall Ajimu has to offer but more on that later.
Passing by Keishoji Temple with its Hell & Heaven Cave, I drove closer to the center of Ajimu.
At the crossing of Route 500 and Tsubusa River, the local river of Ajimu, there is a Michi-no-eki. A roadside rest house with shops selling local farm products and a restaurant inside.
The rest house could have provided a first taste of suppon that day: they have suppon soup with either soba or udon noodles on their menu for as little as about 800 yen. I had tried it on a previous trip. It was not bad but today I had more ambitious plans.
The rest house is a good place to park the car and take a little walk along the Tsubusa River.
Inside the shallow river are many over-grown rocks. In summer, wild suppon like to take a sun-bath on those rocks, I had heard. It would be easy to spot them with a little patience and luck, locals said.
But it was early March and the turtles had other things to do than looking at the still snow-covered Mount Yufu in the distance.
Before eating a creature, it might be good to find out where they grow up, I thought, and when I spotted the sign for the Inoguchi suppon farm to the right of the highway, I turned in.
Miss Inoguchi was happy to give me a tour of her farm. Besides suppon, she also breeds eel and river crab, she told me. But I came for the suppon. They lazily floated in a concrete basin. Miss Inoguchi grabbed a net and quickly fished two of them out.
They are dangerous, she told me. You have to handle them carefully. In fact, they are quite aggressive and tend to snap at whatever gets within their reach. That's why they are often called "snapping turtles" (though the actual Snapping Turtles in North America are a totally different breed).
But not only their mouths are strong, the long necks protruding from under their shell are their main organ of power. Miss Inoguchi took a suppon and placed it onto its back. Within a few seconds, the suppon had its neck stretched out and via its power, turned itself back onto its feet.
I headed further inside Ajimu. The town center feels more like a village. An old one at that, though. With beautiful kote-e on almost every traditional building. Kote-e are historic plaster relief images relating to the family or business owning the building.
A kote-e, showing a scene by the sea with a big fish jumping up from the water underneath a waterfall and a suppon curiously watching on, was on the wall of the Yamasa Ryokan, arguably Ajimu's most famous restaurant.
As the name implies, the Yamasa is a real ryokan (Japanese inn). It's possible to stay there overnight and get served suppon dinner and a suppon-laden Japanese breakfast. But it's also possible just to stop by for lunch.
Throughout the year, a teishoku (set) lunch meal here is a good bargain compared with the suppon restaurants in Tokyo and Kyoto. But make no mistake. The folks here know what their suppon are worth and charge the according price. Lower than Kyoto for sure but still hefty.
The best time to arrive for a steal of a good meal is the month between Valentine's Day and White Day (February 14th to March 14th). In that period, the suppon restaurants of Ajimu get together and promote a joint program called Ajimu Hike. It means that you can enjoy a suppon teishoku lunch in each participating restaurant for only 2.800 yen.
A Japanese teishoku consists typically of a main dish with various appetizers, side dishes and desserts.
After entering the Yamasa through its noren curtain (sporting a suppon drawing, what else), sitting down and ordering, the first and for some folks perhaps a bit perplexing part of the meal arrived. Raw turtle blood.
"Do you want to have a shot of shochu in it?" the waitress asked. Yes, sure, I would have liked that. But driving a car meant that I had to decline. Then, how did it taste like pure and raw? Like juice from exotic low-sugar berries, I would say.
Suppon tempura (turtle meat battered and deep fried) arrived while the nabe pot simmered on the table over a quietly burning piece of paraffin. Eventually, the nabe was ready.
The nabe consisted of boiled chunks of suppon meat in a broth with mushrooms and various vegetables. The juicy meat had both rather fatty and lean parts and there were some small bones to be careful with. The taste was hearty and elegant at the same time. That might be one of the reasons why suppon is so highly regarded in refined traditional Kyoto cuisine.
Higashi Shiiya Waterfall
After a meal like that, a little exercise might be in order, I thought. Like a light hike to the Higashi Shiiya waterfall, one of the great but little known attractions of Ajimu. Driving back towards Beppu, I turned right onto a small country road (the intersection has an English-language sign) and soon arrived at the fall's parking lot. An elderly couple maintains the parking lot and after paying them 200 yen in parking fees, I was ready to hike to the fall.
The hike goes through a narrow gorge, the trail is close to the river, partly under arching rocks with icy cold water dripping down from above. But the rock surface below the feet is of a rough variety and fortunately not slippery.
After about 15 mins I arrived at the spot where the Higashi Shiiya Fall crashes into a pond of cold fresh water. The fall is often called the "Kegon of Kyushu." Rightly so. Like at the famous Kegon Fall near Nikko, the water cascades down straight from above, 85 meters here at the Higashi Shiiya.
The pond below the fall is surrounded by a circle of steep rock walls reaching to the sky and lined by piles of huge boulders on the ground. Those boulders must have come down from somewhere above, their fall triggered by typhoons or earthquakes in the not too distant past.
Time to top off the day with a relaxing bath in a Beppu Kannawa hot spring bath on the way home.
Access - Getting to Ajimu
The nearest train station is at Usa. There are a few buses from there to Ajimu. There is no public transport from Beppu to Ajimu.
From Beppu: Route 500 straight to Ajimu
From Usa: Route 387, turn onto Route 42 shortly before Ajimu.
From either side: Usa - Beppu Road (Toll Road). Get off at the Ajimu exit.
Suppon farm Inoguchi Shokokai www.shokokai.or.jp/44/445221S0001/index.htm
(in Japanese, with access map)
Open daily from 7am to 6pm, phone: 0978-44-0305
www.suppon-yamasa.jp (in Japanese, with access map, menu, prices)
Lunch from 11am to 3pm.
Overnight stay: check in from 3pm, check-out 10am
Information on the "Ajimu Hike", the annual bargain price season between Valentine’s Day (February 14th) and White Day (March 14th) / information on all Ajimu suppon restaurants www.usa-kanko.jp/events/detail/230 (in Japanese, with access map, click on the restaurant signs on the map to find information on all Ajimu suppon restaurants)
Ajimu on google maps