Wagyu. Just one mere word can often be enough to cause a food-lover’s mouth to being to water. Wagyu beef is world-renowned, and for good reason. As chef Federico Heinzmann of the Park Hyatt Tokyo has said, “Wagyu is not just meat. It's all the things that Japan is famous for... Tradition and quality and conviction.”
While some wagyu cows do get the royal treatment in the form of beer baths, musical concerts, etc., the true reason behind the deliciousness of their meat is due to a combination of their genetics and their feed. They are also grown for longer periods of time (30-35 months vs. 15-22 months in other countries), leading to the meat’s stronger flavor and distinct marbling. While it is a common misconception that “wagyu” refers to a specific strain of cows, in reality, the term is used to describe any beef cattle bred in Japan. The “wa” means Japanese, while the “gyu” means cow.
“Wagyu” is a more general term; three specific strains of wagyu beef that are particularly famous: Kobe beef, Ohmi beef, and Matsusaka beef. These are all grown in the Kansai region of Japan, where they all start out as Tajima Beef calves in the Hyogo Prefecture, and then moved to farms in the other regions from which they will gain their names.
Matsusaka beef is grown in Matsusaka, Mie Prefecture, and is known for a marbling that beings to melt even at human body temperature, leading to an exquisite taste. Meanwhile, Kobe beef, which is grown in Kobe, Hyogo Prefecture, is known for its sweetness and special aroma. Ohmi Beef is raised in the Shiga Prefecture, and is known to have the only wagyu beef to have fat with viscosity.
Ready to try it? Here are some of Japan’s meat-lover’s paradises:
Kobe Chinatown (Kobe) $
For a cheap way to taste Kobe beef, heading over to Kobe’s Chinatown is your best bet. Its main square is home to food stands that sell Kobe beef bowls, Kobe beef ramen, and a variety of other Kobe beef-based dishes for <¥1000 (my recommendation would be the Kobe beef ramen for ¥300). While objectively the quality of beef they use is not on par with most Kobe beef restaurants, it is a great low-cost way to test out the renowned beef.
One example of such a stall is shown below; this particular one is sponsored by Kobe city's Kobe Beef association. For those looking for a larger splurge, they also have Kobe beef steak options as well.
Rokkasen (Tokyo) $$$$
This steakhouse is a great place to try Matsusaka beef, and it’s all you-can-eat buffet options make it the perfect place to eat wagyu beef to your heart’s content. Rokkasen specializes in yakiniku, Japanese BBQ, and you’re able to grill meat to perfection right in front of you. Gurunavi, one of Japan's largest food/drink websites (similar to Yelp in the U.S.) ranks this restaurant's "Tsubaki Course" as first place in the Yakiniku category. While this course offers six courses in total -- including all-you-can-drink, all-you-can-eat yakiniku, and all-you-can-eat shabu-shabu -- it is definitely in a splurge at ¥10,300 per person. Rokkasen also offers seafood/vegetarian options to satisfy every person in a travel group.
Steakhouse Yoshida (Kyoto) $$$
Steakhouse Yoshida is the place to go to try Ohmi beef. It specializes in the teppanyaki style, using an iron griddle to cook the meat to the ideal point. Its set courses are a great option, allowing you to calibrate your meal based on hunger level and the other side dishes available. Its convenient location close to the Gion district makes it a great place to stop by for dinner after exploring the temples in that area (and to perhaps celebrate spotting a geisha!)
Kobe Ishidaya (Kobe) $$$
Arguably the best place to try Kobe beef in Kobe, Ishidaya is a collection of high-end restaurants that all specialize in serving Kobe beef from Hyogo prefecture. While its specialty is teppanyaki, it also serves Kobe beef in several other ways, ranging from sukiyaki to hamburger steaks (a Japanese-spin on hamburgers which does not involve bread buns), to foie gras.
- President Obama of the United States specifically stated that he wanted to eat Kobe Beef before one of his visits to Japan.
- Ohmi Beef marinated in miso was used as a medicinal cure for the shogun during Japan’s Edo era.