Translated by Lester Somera
Wagyu Beef Guide: Where To Enjoy Kobe Beef And Other Wagyu Brands
While Wagyu beef is popular, few people can define exactly what "Wagyu" means. Let's learn about the types of the Japanese beef known as Wagyu, and discover some Wagyu restaurants in the Tokyo, Osaka, and Kobe area.
Written by ニコ
What Is Wagyu Beef?
Wagyu cattle are proprietary in Japan, and the name refers to specific breeds of cattle. The brand has nothing to do with where the cows were born, how long they were raised or where they were raised. Beef from all purebred Wagyu cattle is treated as Wagyu beef.
However, the definition of Wagyu is strictly determined. There are currently four cattle breeds certified as Wagyu: Kuroge (Black), Akage (Brown), Mukaku (Polled) and Tankaku (Shorthorn). All four have gone through generations upon generations of selective breeding, creating cattle that provide soft, delicious beef without a strong odor. About 90% of all sold Wagyu is of the Kuroge variety.
Another thing to note is that the tag “Japanese cattle” is easily confused with Wagyu, but it merely refers to cows which were raised in Japan. Cattle raised in Japan for a long enough period of time are designated as “Japanese cattle,” even if they were originally imported from somewhere else.
Table of Contents
1. Wagyu and Other Cattle Brands
2. The Price of Wagyu
3. The Meaning of Kobe Beef
4. The Difference Between “Wagyu Beef” And “Kobe Beef”
5. Trivia about Kobe Beef
6. Where to Eat Wagyu and Kobe Beef in Japan
7. Popular Wagyu Hamburg Steak Restaurants
Wagyu Cattle and Other Cattle Brands
Within the Wagyu classification, there are brand-name cattle like Kobe and Matsusaka, which are generally named for their regions of origin.
This naming convention contributes to branding recognition, which is a major boon for regional vitalization. While standards vary from brand to brand, there are many strict criteria which must be met for beef to be allowed to use a given brand name. These criteria include the place of birth, the family pedigree and breed, how the cows were raised and for how long, as well as the quality of meat.
Kobe beef and Matsusaka beef are said to be two of the top three Wagyu brands in Japan. However, opinions are split on whether Omi beef and Yonezawa beef, both delicious and high quality in their own right, should be included in this select group. For this reason, there are also strong arguments for naming Kobe beef, Matsusaka beef, Omi beef and Yonezawa beef the top four Wagyu brands in Japan.
Incidentally, there are 15 grades (ranging from C1 to A5) within the Wagyu classification; the grade of a given cut is dependent on its yield rate and the quality of meat. A5 beef is regarded as the absolute best, and some restaurants take pains to only serve A5-grade beef. Keep this in mind when you’re looking for a steak restaurant.
There are many other brands, some of which we will introduce below.
Tajima cattle could be called the rootstock of most Wagyu-branded beef. Brands like Kobe beef, Sanda beef and Awaji beef get their cows from Tajima cattle lineages, which are then raised in the brands’ respective regions before meeting Wagyu classification standards. Furthermore, even the cattle herds of other beef brands across the country, like Matsusaka, Omi, Maesawa, Sendai and Hida, can contain Tajima cattle, and sometimes use Tajima cattle lineages when improving their breeding stock; they all have some part of Tajima in them.
The Tajima region in northern Hyogo prefecture has a storied history of cattle breeding, and there are even ancient documents that talk about the suitability of Tajima cattle as plow animals and as food.
Matsusaka beef comes from Kuroge Wagyu breeds, and the cattle should have been brought into Mie’s Matsusaka beef production region no later than a year after being born; the classification refers only to cows which have not yet given birth.There is an excellent balance of red meat and fat in Matsusaka beef cuts, and they are a model example of what is known as “marbled beef.” The cows are given beer to drink in order to keep their appetites up, and massaged so that fat is spread uniformly throughout their bodies. It is said that many cows are treated remarkably well, almost embarrassingly so. Thanks to that treatment, Matsusaka cows are raised to produce incredibly soft and delicious beef.
Omi beef comes from Kuroge Wagyu breeds and the terms refers to the most fattened cows from within Shiga Prefecture. Omi cattle are raised in the lush areas around Lake Biwa, Japan’s largest lake, which are blessed with many mountains and other natural features. Few of these cattle are shipped out of Shiga, making Omi a very rare brand of beef. Omi beef’s exceptional balance of red flesh and fat make it perfect not just for Japanese food but for French food as well, so it is exported overseas comparatively often. Omi beef is used at many French dining establishments, including Michelin-starred restaurants.
Yonezawa cattle come from Yonezawa City in Yamagata Prefecture, and must have been continuously raised in a registered cattle barn in the city for over 18 months. Cows must have never given birth, and bulls must have been castrated. Once the cattle have passed a strict quality assessment, they are recognized as Yonezawa beef. In the 1870s, a trader, Charles Henry Dallas, was invited to work as an English teacher in Yamagata, He fell in love with the taste of Yonezawa beef and took some back with him to Yokohama, which is how the brand became known throughout Japan.
Gifu Prefecture, located in the center of Japan, has vast forests, clean water and air, as well as environments which experience major temperature swings between day and night, depending on the season. Within this beautiful natural setting, carefree, fat, healthy Hida cows amble through their pastures. These Kuroge Wagyu cattle are fattened for over 14 months by authorized cattle producers and should have spent the majority of their lives in Gifu. Cattle which meet the meat quality standards are then recognized as Hida beef.
Saga cattle are raised in Saga Prefecture, in the Kyushu region. The area’s temperate climate and a stress-free lifestyle of the cattle give Saga beef a tenderness and well-balanced fat content, with a sweet depth of flavor suitable for all sorts of beef dishes, including steaks and shabu-shabu.
Hokkaido Wagyu Beef
While Hokkaido has a well-deserved reputation for the fresh milk that serves as the basis for its cheese, butter, ice cream and other dairy product exports, many of the calves for Wagyu cattle, including Tajima cattle, come from Hokkaido. There are also many Wagyu cattle of high-quality stock, reared all over Hokkaido. This includes breeds like Soyakuro cattle from the island’s northernmost tip, Kitami and Tokachi Wagyu cattle from the east, Biei and Furano Wagyu from central Hokkaido, Hakodate Wagyu and Mitsuishi cattle from the south, and more.
Shodoshima in Kagawa Prefecture pioneered olive cultivation in Japan, and is also said to have been one of the first areas in the country to start raising Wagyu cattle. Olive cattle are raised in the warm climate of the Seto Inland Sea region and fed squeezed olives; this gives their meat a characteristic juiciness that is reminiscent of olives. There are even fewer olive-fed Sanuki cows, which generally only give birth to one calf apiece. Due to the extreme rarity of this beef brand, it is only sold at designated meat shops.
Wagyu Beef Prices
While prices vary by brand and current demand, a sirloin block of Wagyu beef can cost from 30,000 to 100,000 yen. Of course, that price only goes up when ordered at a restaurant, so Wagyu is a true feast. Let’s take a look at one specific kind of Wagyu that really stands out: Kobe beef, with worldwide popularity and comparatively high price tag.