A little while ago, I visited one of Hakone’s popular attractions, Owakudani. Some time ago the Japanese realised that hot volcanic water wasn’t just good for sitting and relaxing in but that you could use it to cook, too. And so it was that geothermal activity came to be a method of cooking that created a new kind of egg: the black egg.
There is a ropeway up to Owakudani which is said to offer some amazing views of the area from above, but my wife and I opted to drive up winding narrow roads until we came to a large car park, some gift shops and a terrible smell. The smell was sulphur. It was coming from nature’s cooking pot in the mountains above. It was not unlike the stink bombs I used to buy from local joke shops when I was a child in Britain. We stood in the car park and looked up to where we were going. Amongst the dense green trees of the mountains were barren patches of brown, grey and red, and from those patches were large plumes of rising smoke. Volcanic plumes coming straight from the earth itself. You could understand why this area had once been called Jigokudani – the valley of Hell.
A roped-off pathway took us up stone steps, closer and closer to the smoke. The smell got stronger and signs warned us of the dangers you faced in coming here. In English, the word ‘Warning!!!’ was written in yellow on a brown sign and followed by three exclamation marks, just in case a simple, ‘Warning!’ would make us a bit too complacent. Under this word was further explanation: ‘A lot of injurious volcanic gas are drifting around this Owakudani trail. Please don’t stop and stay here long, and especially the person in following conditions listed below are forbidden to enter.’ Five kinds of person were forbidden in a series of star-marked explanations. They were, and again I quote:
‘A person who is asthmatic and has a dedicate bronchus
A person who has heart disease
A person of weak constitution
A person who doesn’t feel well except for the above
A person who is under the influence of liquor’
As I was reading this, wondering whether or not I was of weak constitution and hoping I didn’t have a dedicate bronchus, I was being attacked by the sulphuric fumes. That rather made the next part of the warning a bit alarming. It warned that breathing in sulphur dioxide could be fatal. It highlighted fatal. Then it warned of hydrogen sulfide, which didn’t warrant any highlighting because it was simply likely to cause, ‘Conjuctivitis and a fit of coughing.’
The smell was getting stronger the further we went, but there were plenty of other tourists, some who looked distinctly weak of constitution, and as far as I could tell none was about to drop dead. Still, I did wonder if this was a foolish risk to take just for a egg.
At the end of the path smoke was coming out of the ground all around and in front of a souvenir stall was a roped-off, blue-grey pool of hot water. A man clad in a baseball cap and t-shirt, but with industrial rubber gloves and boots was dropping metal cages of white eggs into the pool. In a few hours they would come out with completely black shells and be sold at the souvenir stall by staff with evidently strong constitutions.
The eggs are sold in brown paper bags of five while they are still very hot to touch. When you peel away the black shell you find a standard hard-boiled egg. Eating one is said to add seven years to your life. We ate ours with hordes of other people at a table scattered with little black eggshell flakes. They were nice, in the way that eggs are usually nice. The main difference was that you were eating them in a smelly environment that could bring on a coughing fit or death.
But we were okay. We wandered back down the path stopping at a point said to offer stunning views of Mount Fuji in days of better weather. There were signs telling us other parts of the area were closed off due to recent landslides. Long slips of red rubble and rocks remained as evidence.
If you visit Hakone, it would be best to do so on a day of clear skies, where Mount Fuji will simply add to the pleasure. But we had enjoyed our trip anyway and it was with some satisfaction and a small sense of indestructible complacency that I drove home, safe in the knowledge that I would now live 28 years longer than I would have done that morning.
Or so I thought. But when I told a student about our trip and the eggs, he said, ‘Oh yes. One makes you live seven years more. But you must never eat more than two and a half.’