Despite having been born and bread in Kobe—the capital city of the Hyogo Prefecture in Japan—I can’t say I’ve known the existence of Kobe Beef my entire life. Back in university, my friends from outside of Kobe talked about it and I found myself wondering what all the fuss was about.
The first time I tried Kobe beef in Kobe was about five years ago. And that was because a non-Japanese friend wanted to try it while he was in town.
I ordered a steak and sashimi, and noticed the raw work of art as it arrived. After the first bite, I succumbed to the rich flavour that oozed out of the marbled strip. It was rather expensive lunch, although the price would’ve tripled had it been dinner. However, now, with more awareness of the subject, I’m not entirely sure whether the beef I had at that restaurant really was Kobe Beef.
The meat is a brand and trademark of the Kobe Beef Marketing & Distribution Promotion Association, which was formed in 1983.
Kobe Beef has made it to the cover of guidebooks, indicating that it’s a part of the special Kobe experience. It must never be confused for beef that’s simply consumed in Kobe or beef that comes from the cows raised in Kobe, though. The meat is a brand and trademark of the Kobe Beef Marketing & Distribution Promotion Association, which was formed in 1983. The association was set up in order to protect the authenticity of the Beef. Genuine Kobe Beef is the meat of Tajima cows (only heifers and steers), or Tajima-gyu, that successfully passes all strict tests of standard and receives the emblem of the Kobe Beef chrysanthemum. The cows must be pure-lineage Tajima-gyu, raised by registered farmers and slaughtered at registered slaughterhouses in Hyogo.
The origin of the term “Kobe Beef” goes back to the late 19th century when Japanese ports had been opened to the world after over 200 years of sakoku (or national isolation). Meat was not a part of the main diet in Japan until after then. Back in the 7th century, Emperor Kanmu issued a decree to ban the consumption of meat based on the teachings of Buddhism. Like a blind eye was turned to the existence of Shinto, an indigenous religion, meat was ignored, and vegetables and fish were given preference.
Until around the time of the Meiji Restoration in 1867, cattle in Japan were used for labour. The Japanese never considered meat to be a source of national pride. It was an Englishman who made Kobe Beef an international sensation after having eaten the novelty meat of Tajima-gyu in Kobe.
Located in the northern part of Hyogo Prefecture by the Sea of Japan, the terrain for Tajima is surrounded by mountains and spring water—a nurturing den for Tajima-gyu. The Tajima area is also known for onsen (hot springs) rich in minerals. Day and night temperatures differ drastically. The climate makes the meadows dewy, which is what creates the perfect, nourishing environment for Tajima-gyu.
It’s a common myth that cows used for Kobe Beef are massaged, listen to classical music and drink beer. The Kobe Beef Marketing & Distribution Promotion Association don’t flat-out deny that on their website. They say each farmer has their own unique methods of raising future Kobe Beef cows.
It’s no wonder that the authenticity of Kobe Beef demands to be honoured. The Beef is a legacy of both Tajima and Hyogo. If you’re ever fortunate enough to experience it, please admire the marbled meat in front of you. Let its juice drip all over the grill. Let it enrich the flavour of a Shabu-shabu hot pot. Meanwhile, I’ll be saying Kanpai to your one and only Kobe Beef experience.