Visiting Big Hell: The Black Eggs of Owakudani

Tatsuya and I set off down the seacoast road in the morning, enjoying the blues and greens of the water. We turned right and abruptly found ourselves heading for the mountains, astoundingly green, steep, and shrouded in mist.

West along the ocean road

Haze

Toward the mountains

We reached the crest of a steep peak and looked down into a valley filled with Lake Ashino.

Ashinoko (Lake Ashino)

The main town on the shore of Ashinoko is Hakone, famous for its “pirate” ships.

"Pirate" ships!

Hakone also featured prominently in the classic anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion as the site of Neo-Tokyo 3. I put on the Eva theme as we drove through the town, noticing vending machines decorated with Eva characters. None of my labmates have seen Eva, so it’s extra funny when they’re watching videos on YouTube of human-powered aircraft with the theme song playing in the background and they have no idea where the music’s from.

We sat down on a bench outside of town to view the lake as we ate lunch, onigiri, garlic chicken, and cherry tomatoes. A little path ran down along the shore, so we followed it north.

Wooded path meanders

Cobblestones

The path led to a large red torii, or gate, at the shore of Ashinoko.

Ashinoko Torii

Lapping at the torii foundation

Toward the torii

Torii dedication

After lunch, we drove up a narrow mountain road into the gathering fog with dozens of other Japanese tourists following suit. What was up this hill? The guidebook, being in Japanese, wasn’t much help.

Sulfurous fumes

After waiting in traffic on an incline for hours, we snagged a parking spot and headed past omiyage stores advertising black eggs. What? Like the black Chinese century eggs?

Black egg (the original)

Hello, black egg of Ōwakudani!

The stench of sulfur spread down the hill as the fog blew over us. I hadn’t packed a sweater and was starting to get a little cold in the wind. Out of the mist we could make out a small ropeway hauling baskets of something up the mountain.

Ropeway for transporting black eggs, kuro-tamago (黒玉子))

The further we climbed, the more the smell increased as we passed hot springs and vaporous streams. The name of this place used to be Ojigoku, or “Great (Big) Hell”, but was changed to Owakudani, or “The Great Boiling Valley” before a visit by the emperor in 1876, as it wouldn’t do to have the emperor visiting a place known as hell.

Volcanic gases

Spring

What was so interesting about this particular sulfuric spring that hundreds of tourists would wait in a mountaintop traffic jam for hours?

Those black eggs, apparently! Steamed in the fumes of the stinking springs, ordinary eggs have their shells turn black and their centers perfectly hard-boiled. The result: kuro-tamago, 黒玉子, or black eggs. Tatsuya and I bought a pack of five: each egg adds seven years to your life, but don’t eat more than 2.5 or bad things will happen. What woe will befall you? The omiyage shops were silent on that matter. The tiny ropeway transported raw eggs from the omiyage stores to the spring, where the eggs took a sulfur bath, and were then either sold to tourists on site, or sold further down the hill in the more accessible shops.

Tatsuya shows off the black egg package

Long tables are set up for consumption of the black eggs, still warm from the spring as you crack them on the wooden surface.

黒玉子

The inside, I promise you, tasted perfectly normal. Probably one of the better eggs I’ve had, up there with the ones from the Billers’ hens. There’s a ridiculously cute video of how the eggs are made here; photos of the view of Mt. Fuji from Owakudani on a clear day here; and a little more history of the area here.

I didn’t think that Owakudani could possibly be more unique after providing delicious black boiled eggs, but I was wrong. An omiyage shop advertised for green-looking ice cream; I assumed it was just another place selling the ubiquitous green tea-flavored frozen desserts, just like everywhere else. Tatsuya told me to look more closely at the hiragana on the giant plastic cone: it wasn’t matcha they’d used to flavor the ice cream, but wasabi (わさび)! I ordered a cup of it, enjoying the spicy and sweet tastes as wisps of sulfur blew down the mountain past us in the cold wind.

A few more shots from Hakone and Owakudani are here. Itadakimasu!

2 thoughts on “Visiting Big Hell: The Black Eggs of Owakudani

  1. Your photos are always phenomenal. Thank you for taking the time to record this, and for sharing it with us! Utterly fascinating.

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