Better than Kobe: Takayama Japan, 2015

In the last post but one, where we attended the cooking class in Kyoto that featured Kobe beef, we teased that the Kobe was not the tastiest beef we had in Japan. And in fact, we had tastier beef two days later, in Takayama.

After Kyoto, we took the train along the north coast to Toyama, then down to Takayama for a couple of days because I (Stephanie) wanted to visit Shirakawa-go, a small heritage village comprised of traditional gassho-style farm houses.  If I get a chance to post about that, I will, but for now I’m focusing on our lunch in Takayama after visiting the village.

The trip was a half-day tour, and we got back to Takayama about 1PM, hungry.  On the bus ride, several other tourists had been asking the guide about Hida beef, the specialty beef of the prefecture. The guide strongly suggested that they try some if they hadn’t already. So when we looked at the map of nearby restaurants the hotel provided and saw that the closest one was a Hida beef specialty restaurant, we had to go.

We carefully tromped a couple of blocks through the snow and ice to the spot indicated on the map, but when we got there, were a bit nonplussed to see what looked like a small meat market instead of a restaurant. A bit of investigation revealed that the restaurant was up a steep flight of stairs, located on top of the market. Up the stairs we went, to be greeted by the proprietor. He was a garrulous man, and soon we knew that he was not only the owner of the restaurant, but the owner of the ranch where all the beef he served came from. His wife made all the sauces they served, and his daughter was at university in the U.S.

He took us over to a refrigerated case full of cuts of beef in Styrofoam trays wrapped in plastic, and explained that we were to pick the pieces we wanted and he would take them into the back and slice them up for us.  He said that normally he suggested 250-300 grams per person, but then smiled up at Toby, who was bundled in several shirts and his puffy coat, patted him on the belly, and said “You, maybe 350.”

We picked a cut that was about 700 grams, maybe a bit less (I forget), then he showed us the next case, which was full of vegetables, and explained we could take as many as we liked, they were included in the price. He bustled off to the back while a woman, I assume his wife, sat us at a table with a small grill in the center and brought out a couple of chunks of smouldering wood charcoal.

The man came back bearing a plate with sliced beef on it, seasoned with a garlic salt mixture and sliced green onions, and explained that we should cook it a few pieces at a time, one minute per side.

Before I get to the taste of the beef, I’ll drop in a bit of a lesson here: Kobe and Hida are both from the same breed of Japanese black cattle, known as Wagyu over here in the States (“Wagyu” just means “Japanese cow” and there are 4 breeds).  “Kobe” and “Hida” are just grade designations/standards, sort of like “prime” and “choice” in the States, and there are limits to the number of cows that can be designated as Kobe per year (and possibly Hida, but I don’t know), so they’re not separate breeds. You may also have in mind images of feeding cattle sake and massaging them, and those are sales propaganda films. Kobe and Hida beef-producing cows are treated well, but not significantly different than normal cattle.

Now. If you remember, the Kobe beef we had was basically essence of beef. It was so marbled that it had no texture to it and almost evaporated the moment it hit your tongue, leaving behind a deep, rich beef flavor. This Hida beef had less marbling than the Kobe, but that in no way made it worse. In fact, to our taste, it made it better. The beef had a bit of chew, although extremely tender, which made the experience feel way more like eating beef, instead of experiencing it, if that makes sense.

Near the end of the meal, the owner brought us a notebook in which many tourists had written kind messages to him about his restaurant. One of them was from a family who said that because they were from New York they knew beef, and this was fantastic. Feeling competitive, we added a message below theirs that explained we were from Texas and therefore were more expert on beef than any New Yorker* could possibly be, and that it was fantastic.

*Tongue in cheek!

So! If you’re ever in Takayama or another place in Hida prefecture, we highly recommend trying Hida beef. We thought it better than Kobe and it was 75% of the price. That lunch cost us, I think $75-80 and it was worth every penny.

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