The first thing I realized doing this story is that Kobe beef is a much more rarified product than I’d thought. Kobe beef isn’t just beef from Kobe, and its certainly not the same thing as “wagyu”. As I was told multiple times, real Kobe beef is a particular breed of cow (Tajima-ushi), raised in a particular place, in a particular way, and then graded according to strict criteria by the beef mandarins in Kobe.
Only about 2000 Kobe beef cows go to slaughter a year, which is a tiny tiny proportion of the total beef consumed in Japan. Which is why at the one shop in Tokyo that sells Kobe beef (Shinjuku Isetan), it goes for about $500 a kilo. It’s illegal to export Kobe beef, so if you want the real thing you’ll have to come to Japan.
Down in Kobe I followed the cows from pasture, to cow shed, to dining table. I was very lucky to be shown around by Haruji Kawamura of Biftek Kawamura who owns a number of restaurants in and around Kobe, and a new one in Ginza. He told me that he buys up to a third of all the certified Kobe beef a year.
I took my digital recorder with me this time. Don’t forget to turn the sound one when you view the slideshow above.
Here are some photos from my archive too. All the Kobe beef photos are here.
Top Tajima-ushi/Kobe beef cattleman Kazutaka Seto. He’s holding a certificate for meat from one of his prizewinning cows. Each certificate has a copy of the cow’s nose-print, and details of three generations of ancestors.
Seto had a picture of this cow on his business card. The meat was graded at A12, the top rank. A10 means that the amount of marbling (fat!) is about 50%.
No pictures of cows being fed beef and massaged sadly. Seto and Kawamura told me all that stuff was “just for the TV cameras”. Apart from anything else, if the cows drank beer they “might fall over a break a leg”. And there goes an x-thousand dollar investment.
Happier times . . .