Wagyu Beef in Japan
Kobe beef is probably the most famous type of wagyu, but did you know there are many other kinds of Japanese beef? Wagyu literally means ‘Japanese cow’, so any type of beef that came from a cow that is of a Japanese breed can be called wagyu, whether the cow grew up in Japan or elsewhere. Wagyu is known for its excellent quality and the fattiness of the meat. If you come on a tour to Japan and like meat, you are definitely going to want to try some wagyu for yourself. Did you know that the very best wagyu is barely exported and almost only available in Japan?
General Characteristics of Wagyu
Wagyu is of superior quality because the cattle that they breed with in Japan are carefully selected individuals with more physical endurance than average, and this meant that breeding cattle had more fat cells in their muscles. This is what causes the marbled meat that wagyu is so famous for; the white stripes running all over the red meat. Wagyu is so fatty that it can be prepared using minimal or no butter or other oils, as the fat dripping from the meat is ample to make the meat not stick to the pan and give a wonderful flavor.
The breeds of wagyu we see today were ‘created’ right after Japan opened its borders in the Meiji Period. This is when original Japanese cattle were mixed with British and European breeds to create new types of cattle. Breeds from outside Japan were once again banned from mixing with wagyu in 1910, but there are quite strong regional differences within Japan because many areas are quite closed off from the rest of the country allowing for different types of wagyu to evolve. Most wagyu are black, but around 10 percent of wagyu is a red type, these are the breeds from Kochi and Kumamoto in the south of Japan.
Types of Wagyu
There are 4 types of Japanese cattle; the Japanese Black, Japanese Brown, Japanese Shorthorn, and the Japanese Polled. Furthermore, there are 200 different brands of wagyu, depending on which region they are from, but all of these 200 brands are of one of the 4 types of cattle. The tastiest wagyu is said to come from the Japanese Black subtype of Tajima cattle because these animals were raised to pull heavy agricultural machines and thus have a very high fat content in their muscles. Matsusaka beef is of the Tajima type, and according to most locals, this is the best beef in Japan and probably in the world. These are also the cattle that are raised in luxury with a rich diet, an alcoholic drink every now and then, and sometimes even a massage.
Then there is Kobe beef, probably the most famous type of wagyu in the world. Kobe beef also originates from Tajima cattle and is raised with the utmost care and high-quality feed. The taste of Kobe beef is slightly sweet and the fat in the meat melts faster than average. It is also good for people who easily get heartburn, as the texture is so smooth that there is a lower chance to get stomach problems after eating this meat.
Also from a region near to Kyoto is Ohmi beef, which comes from cattle raised with as much care as cattle that produces Matsusaka beef and Kobe beef. Cattle also mostly drink water that is sourced from lake Biwa, which contains very clean water. The fat in Ohmi beef is more viscous than in other types of beef, which is what gives the meat a very soft texture.
Raising of Wagyu in Japan
Beef can only be sold as wagyu if it is raised according to certain quality standards. First of all, the feed needs to be of a special quality. Wagyu cattle are fed rice straw, whole crop silage, and concentrate with extra vitamins and calcium, and sometimes they even drink sake in order to increase their appetite.
Wagyu cattle also need to grow up in a nice, stress-free, and comfortably cool environment, because stress during life will work its way into the meat. They are treated well by the farmers, and instead of a number, they all get names. To make them feel extra relaxed, farmers sometimes play classical music for the cattle and give them massages. Also, where most cattle are only raised for 15 months before slaughter, wagyu cattle are raised for 3 years.
All wagyu is graded, so it is clear how the meat should be priced. First of all, a yield grade is given. This is the percentage of meat that comes from the carcass, more than 72% is considered good, between 69-72% is moderate and below 69% is low. Then the meat quality is graded between 1 and 5, 1 being the lowest quality and 5 the highest. Marbling, color, firmness, and fat are graded.
How to Enjoy Wagyu
While most people would think about steak if you are talking about beef, wagyu is actually better enjoyed in other ways. Eating wagyu as a steak would not only be expensive, the flavors come out better if you eat wagyu when it is thinly sliced and eating wagyu as a steak could cause stomach issues because of the high fat content. Cooking styles like sukiyaki and shabu shabu work much better for wagyu, and you get to try different cuts as well. The pictures above show wagyu eaten in the sukiyaki style.
One of the best pairings of alcohol with food is to have a glass of sake with a wagyu sukiyaki meal. Why does this pairing work so well? While wagyu beef would also work well with wine because of its acidity that cuts right through the full, fatty flavor of wagyu, more acidic sake also makes for a great combination. Kimoto and Yamahai sake are a bit rare, but make for great pairings with wagyu. Honjozo is also a good match because of its heaviness and acidity. The rule of thumb is that sake has to be on the heavier, acidic side to work well with a full-flavored dish like wagyu.
Best Wagyu Restaurants in Tokyo
If you are coming to Japan or are already here, having a great wagyu meal is one of the experiences you shouldn’t miss. Let us give you some insider tips on the restaurants in Tokyo that serve wagyu with the best cost-performance;
- Sumibi Yakiniku in Monzennakacho
- Ushigoro S. Ginza in Ginza (if you want to splurge)
- Ginza Hitsujiya in Higashi Ginza
- Ajikura Horumon Club in Shibuya (budget option)
- Rokkasen in Shinjuku (great value lunch)
Of course, when you come to Japan on one of our package tours, you will have access to our free concierge service so we can make a reservation for you.
Your Japan Tour
As seasoned Japan experts, we can help you create your perfect Japan tour including experiences like the best wagyu meal in your life. Contact us to start planning your unforgettable holiday to this fascinating country full of once-in-a-lifetime experiences, culture, history, nature, and delicious food!