The Best Wagyu to Try – Japan's Great Variety of Beef
Japan is home to many indisputably authentic and premium dishes. With sushi taking the lead as Japan’s signature dish, wagyu has got to be next in line, at least in terms of fanciness. Strangely enough, though, there is not a lot of information regarding wagyu outside of Japan. What do most people know about it in foreign countries? It’s fatty and tender, it’s pricey and served usually in tiny portions. And the best there is is called Kobe beef.
And whilst Kobe beef is a perfect example of wagyu–and has its fame for a reason–it’s not the only premium wagyu beef you can treat yourself with when in Japan.
Read on to discover the many different spots to taste the yummiest premium beef that Japan has to offer.
Wagyu: Unraveling the Term
First of all, a little bit of context: what exactly is Wagyu?
The term wagyu (和牛) literally translates to “Japanese cow”. But this doesn’t mean that any cow born and/or raised in Japan will produce wagyu beef, nor does it mean that the cow must be born or raised in Japan. Confused? It’s not as complicated as it sounds: Wagyu is a term used to refer exclusively to four Japanese breeds of cows: Japanese Black, Japanese Polled, Japanese Brown or Red, and Japanese Shorthorn.
These cows have been bred for generations, going through a thorough process of selection of the best beef to ensure soft, marbled, tasty beef. And even though it’s not a requirement for the cattle to be born or raised in Japan for it to be wagyu, the origin denominations do have strict rules in these matters. That’s when the Kobe wagyu comes in.
Kobe beef, just as any other Japanese wagyu brand, gets its name from the place where the cows were raised and the beef produced. The cows are generally born elsewhere–although typically within the same prefecture–and are transported to a farm in said place before they turn 12 months, where they are bred in small lots and fed not grass but a rather pricey feed, usually made of rice, hay, and wheat. The amount and frequency of feed that these cows get is carefully crafted–hence the small-lot breeding for better control–and allows for the farmers to control the output quality of the beef these cows will produce.
Stress-free, Beer-drinking Cows?
Now, if you have a bit of prior knowledge regarding wagyu, you might have heard the whacky story of how these Japanese cows get daily massages, are fed beer and listen to classical music. Well, I’m sorry to burst your bubble, but those are myths, or at least that’s not the case nowadays. Stories like these seem to keep being told despite their unlikelihood, as they help justify the expensive price tag on the wagyu, and make for a fun backstory that fuels Japan’s eccentric reputation.
So, what makes wagyu beef so special, you ask? It’s the way the intramuscular fat is evenly distributed within the meat to allow for what is called marbling. The best marbling produces tender and soft beef, with a rich yet soft, buttery flavor.
And what makes Kobe beef so special? Well, the rules for determining which beef is worthy of the ‘Kobe’ tag are infinite and very strict and they make it an undoubtedly superior meat cut but, frankly, the same applies to other brands of wagyu. In fact, wagyu in Japan being sold as such must meet a number of criteria and quality standards that are too long and boring to enumerate here. The bottomline is that Kobe beef isn’t the only authentic and delicious wagyu out there, so let’s take a look at other excellent wagyu beef options you can try while in Japan that are definitely worth your bucks.
Premium Wagyu in and around Japan
Matsusaka Beef – This has to be at the top of the list. Within Japan, many even consider it better that Kobe beef, and it tends to be more expensive. The Japanese are all about remaining local when it comes to produce, so you’ll typically have to be in or around that place to truly enjoy origin-named foods in all its glory. With Matsusaka City being a bit off the beaten path, it becomes a rare gem to enjoy while on a trip to beautiful Mie prefecture. I tried it in the form of gyudon (beef-topped rice bowl), which might not be as great as it is in yakiniku form, but hey! It’s what my pocket allowed for and I have absolutely no regrets-- that stuff melts in your mouth!
Fun fact on Matsusaka wagyu: it is said that the beef comes only from virgin female cows.
Kobe Beef – It’s the most famous one, and for a good reason. Although Japanese people will tell you there are at least 3 or 4 other wagyu in Japan worth the same fame, truth is this beef is the one that managed to cross frontiers and make wagyu popular internationally. Most Kobe beef comes from Tajima cattle, in the north of Hyogo prefecture, which is also a brand on its own. It is said that only castrated male bulls produce Kobe wagyu.
Omi Beef - From Shiga prefecture, home to Japan’s largest and most beautiful lake, this beef is famous not only for its uses in traditional Japanese dishes such as yakiniku and shabu shabu, but also for being used in French cuisine, both within and outside Japan. It is mainly either exported overseas or consumed within Shiga, so why not take the chance to enjoy this exceptional beef while appreciating the wonderful natural views of Biwa Lake?
Yonezawa Beef - This famous beef from Yamagata prefecture tends to be in the top three of the wagyu list. Another of the brands with many strict rules, but that is easier to find throughout Japan compared to Matsusaka or Omi beef.
Shodoshima Beef, AKA Olive Beef - This exceptional delicacy comes from the Shodoshima island in Kagawa prefecture, and it's a relatively new concept. Cows are given a special feed that contains dried olive skins and this is said to give the meat a juicy and extra soft feel and taste. It’s becoming famous as some of the world’s most expensive beef, so it’s a delight reserved for a few.
Iga Beef - Another contender from Mie prefecture is beef from Iga City (otherwise known as the ninja city). Iga borders Shiga prefecture, and thus the beef naturally shares many similarities with both Omi and Matsusaka Beef. This more widely unknown brand of wagyu also prides itself on being mostly consumed in Iga city exclusively and, with a considerably more moderate price tag than its neighbor the Matsusaka beef, it’s a workaround of sorts to try the closest to Matsusaka beef while in Mie, without busting your savings.
Hokkaido Beef - Even though Hokkaido is better known for its great fish and seafood, the northern island also produces some of Japan’s finest beef. This should come as no surprise, since Hokkaido’s dairy is regarded as the best in the country. There are many brands within Hokkaido beef, each belonging to a different part of the prefecture.
The list doesn’t stop here: premium top-quality wagyu is produced all over Japan. The main prefectures for wagyu production are Hyogo, Iwate, Yamagata, Ibaraki, Chiba, Mie, Shiga, Kyoto, Miyazaki and Kumamoto. As you can see, wagyu beef is everywhere in Japan and, if you stick to local production, you’re guaranteed to enjoy some of the best, most fresh beef in the world.
So, hopefully, if you’re lucky enough to travel around Japan like that (and your wallet is ready for the ultimate beef challenge!) you can get to try some of the world’s finest beef the way the Japanese argue is the only way: from farm to table, right where it grew up.