Japan is a country of so many culinary highlights that it can often be overwhelming for the visitor to know where to begin! From the delicious street food dishes like takoyaki and yakisoba right up to the premium, high-end restaurants offering kaiseki cuisine, Japanese food is always tasty and high-quality.
However, nothing in Japanese cuisine says luxury quite like the world famous Japanese beef, wagyu. For many people, their first experience with wagyu beef may have been the famous Kobe beef which hails from the city of the same name and has become very popular throughout the world.
However, "wagyu" is a blanket term that covers all Japanese beef. Four of the most famous particular types of regional beef in Japan (namely Kobe, Mishima, Yonezawa and Matsusaka) are all famed for their marbled fat effect; incredibly rich and creamy taste; melt-in-the-mouth texture and; rather less fortunately, high price!
During the wagyu ranking process, the important aspects of "wagyu" beef are evaluated. The Japanese Beef Association ranks each cut of beef according to its marbling and yield grade, the lowest grade of beef being C1 and the highest grade of beef is A5. Only A3 to A5 ranked beef can be sold in Japan as certified wagyu. Be aware that the price of an A5 beef steak, depending on the size and weight, can easily top 30,000 JPY and the top-range wagyu cows themselves are often sold for 30,000 USD or more!
Whilst Kobe beef may have achieved international fame and be considered as Japan’s best cut of beef, the other wagyu beef options are just tasty and luxurious. In fact, many Japanese consider some of the other wagyu beef as tastier options and today we would like to introduce the beef that is in fact considered the best of Japan’s wagyu, a well-kept secret, Matsusaka beef.
Matsusaka is a small, rural region and city of the same name in the prefecture of Mie (about halfway between the cities of Osaka and Nagoya). It is Matsusaka city and its surrounding countryside that is the home to the famous beef dish, with people traveling from all across Japan to this quiet corner of the country just for the opportunity to taste the dish that has put the city on the map.
Originally cattle in this area, as with the rest of Japan, were bred for farm labor and the cows were small and muscular. This changed however upon the arrival of Europeans who introduced the Japanese to eating beef. Since then the area of Matsusaka has been at the forefront of premium wagyu.
Matsusaka beef is so highly regarded because of its flavor, richness, and distinctive marbled texture. In order for the beef to be considered Matsusaka beef it must first meet a strict standard. The cows are specially selected and take 3 years to mature. The beef can also only be distributed by a select number of farms in the area. In fact, the concept of what constitutes a true piece of Matsusaka beef is so strict that the cows are even given their own individual 10 digit ID numbers so they can be tracked and verified!
The beef itself can be eaten either as a Matsusaka beef steak at one of the many teppanyaki restaurants that can be found in the city or cooked in a more traditional method as shabu shabu where layer thin slices of beef are briefly broiled in a hotpot and eaten or sukiyaki where thin slices of beef are eaten with raw egg and vegetables.
Here are a couple of great places to start your Matsusake beef journey, right at the source.
Experience the delicacy in the heart of Mie Prefecture itself during this farm-to-table experience with a local family in Mie. Everything from the water to the vegetables (and of course, the Matsusaka beef), is from the local area.
Harvest the produce yourself from a local vegetable patch, stop by a mushroom shed, and collect the "miracle water" which supposedly is the secret behind the longevity of the locals, straight from the source. But the melt-in-the-mouth wagyu beef is the star of the sukiyaki hot pot, impossibly tender and juicy.
There are several good options when it comes to where you can try Matsusaka beef. These are mainly located in Japan’s major cities (Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, Sapporo etc). However, in Matsusaka city itself, there are many excellent options where you can try both Matsusaka beef steak and the traditional shabu-shabu and sukiyaki. One of the most famous and well known options for trying the beef in the city is the Dream Ocean Restaurant, which offers a wide variety of different options and includes both the wagyu steak and sukiyaki options. Reservations are essential for this restaurant as it tends to be booked out in advance but the restaurant does also offer English language menus.
For many travelers, it may be something of a challenge to make it to Matsusaka city during their stay in Japan. However, there are also several excellent Matsusaka beef restaurants in Tokyo that are easily accessible for most foreign visitors to Japan.
Here are some of the best places to enjoy this coveted wagyu beef in Tokyo.
Rokkasen is one of these options where customers can experience a fantastic all you can eat Matsusaka beef experience including steak and shabu shabu! The restaurant is located only a shirt walk from Shinjuku Station, one of the main arteries for traveling round the city.
Another great option for Matsusaka beef in Tokyo and perhaps the most well-established place to try this special brand of wagyu outside of Mie prefecture is Toyoken. Established in 1889, this fantastic fusion restaurant offers customers the chance to sample Matsusaka beef in a number of different and inventive creations, such as their signature black curry and beef hashed rice as well as their A5 ranked steak option. Located in the heart of the city, a short walk from Akasaka-Mitsuke Station, this is also a very easily accessible option.
Last but by no means least, Ginza Ishizaki located in the heart of the Ginza district offers a further excellent option to try Matsusaka beef in a variety of different styles. The restaurant is also famed for its unique method of cooking the beef which requires it to be gently heated in sesame oil before being left to rest for 30-40 minutes and then cooked.
Matsusaka beef is certainly not something that most people can afford to eat every day as it is certainly something of a rare treat, but meat-eating visitors to Japan should certainly go for a once in a lifetime splurge and sample this truly delicious wagyu. Many foods that are considered a luxury experience can sometimes be over-hyped but this one certainly is not. Your wallet may regret it but your tastebuds certainly will not!