He wakes me every morning with that sweet gentle voice of his, calling my name with even more affection than the day before. ‘Come outside, it’s a beautiful day,’ he says, and he leads me into the wide serene pastures where we frolic and play. He strokes my black hair with a soft brush, then proceeds to tickle me all over with his playful touch. We walk along the beautiful river, drinking the fresh natural spring water to quench our thirst. We toast to our time together with a bottle of beer which I happily guzzle down. Mozart playing in the background, a little tipsy, I fall into a state of absolute bliss as he massages me all over with those strong masculine hands. Life is good…
…very good, for the black-haired wagyu cattle raised in Japan that live a privileged and pampered life. Daily massages, shochu hair and hide treatments, classical music, long walks, a special diet made with homemade okara and grains, and lots of beer sound more like the luxurious life of an A-list Hollywood celebrity, but the extent to which these Japanese farmers go to treating their cows (better than their own wives) culminate in an unrivaled cut of supreme beef.
Kobe beef is world renowned, but it is only 1 of the trio of ultimate Japanese beef supremacy- the top 3 brands of the ‘Sandai Wagyu’ being Kobe, Matsuzaka and Yonezawa. All are beautiful works of culinary perfection, their intricately marbled patterns of snow white fat melting easier than butter and bursting with refined flavor.
This past January I made a pilgrimage to the Ise Jingu in Mie prefecture, the most sacred and holiest of Shinto shrines in Japan, to honor my roots and receive blessings for the new year. On my way back to Tokyo I made a separate pilgrimage to Gyugin restaurant in Matsuzaka city, one of the most highly regarded temples of Matsuzaka beef.
Just as one would expect a plethora of pizzerias in Napoli, there are as many as 30 specialty Matsuzaka beef houses in Matsuzaka city. All, including the top 3 restaurants called Gyugin, Wadakin and Mimatsu, boast prime cuts of the prized meat and crowd their walls with photos of legendary champion cows to augment the experience. Gyugin is the locals’ restaurant of choice, including 3 taxi drivers, a train conductor and numerous store owners whom I carefully interviewed that day. The restaurant is tucked away in an old merchant neighborhood at the foot of the Matsuzaka castle, housed in a 2 story wooden structure that still resonates with Meiji era architecture.
In Japan in the 1800’s, meat was randomly cut up in cubes and used in mixed batches regardless of the muscle cut, thrown into a large pot with scallions and miso. At the turn of the Meiji era in the late 1800’s, butchering became more of a precise art with a deeper understanding of preparation and aging, with an emphasis on select cuts for use in specialty dishes like amiyaki and sukiyaki. It was around this time that Ginzo Kobayashi, born as the 3rd son of a field farmer, followed his ambition to make it big in the city. He got his first job at a butcher shop called Yonehisa. After learning the craft of butchering and the ins and outs of raising premium cattle, he opened his own butcher shop Gyugin at the tender young age of 22 in the heart of Matsuzaka city. That was 1902. Today, almost 110 years later, Gyugin remains a sacred site for Matsuzaka beef and a historical icon of sukiyaki.
As with any Japanese craft or restaurant, Gyugin exemplifies the Japanese philosophy of kodawari- the uncompromising and almost stubborn devotion to excellence and attention to detail in the pursuit of perfection. In the end, kodawari leads to consistency, a quality that I find most important in a restaurant. At Gyugin one will find the sukiyaki prepared in exactly the same way as it was 110 years ago- only with soy sauce and sugar- to honor the same flavor, quality and tradition that it was built on. The beef and its beautiful sashi (marble) speak for itself.
Gyugin offers 2 other ways to enjoy Matsuzaka beef: shiochiri, a lighter sukiyaki using white soy sauce, kombu dashi and white pepper, and mizutaki, essentially a shabu shabu with ponzu and white sesame dipping sauces. Yet sukiyaki is the shining star here, the taste that made Gyugin history, with 3 grades of beef to choose from. Our server recommended the middle grade called Take for 8,400 yen per person, not by any means a middle grade price, but the best balance of fat, meat and flavor.
Every meal is prepared by your server to ensure perfect execution and flavor. Large slices of Matsuzaka beef, hand sliced to order by a seasoned butcher who cuts as precisely and evenly as a machine, are gently draped into a cold iron pot with a cube of beef fat that begins to melt like butter once the heat is turned on. Slowly the meat starts to sing, first a low hum then a gradual fortissimo with sputtering sounds of melting fat. In goes the sugar, then kijoyu soy sauce, an overly simple concoction for such a grand display, yet its slow caramelization releases a sweet intoxicating aroma that grips you with a visceral pang of hunger.
The white sashi (marbled fat) slowly turns translucent as red turns an appetizing brown. Meanwhile the most perfect fresh farm egg, its bright orange yolk standing taut and almost a gravity defying vertical, requires a strong puncture of the chopsticks to get through the elasticity of its membranes. It’s a powerful and vigorous specimen of egg, one that can stand up to the heartiness of the sukiyaki. We all whisk the egg in silence as our eyes fixate on the simmering pot of meat.
After what seems an eternity, a glistening slab of beef is lowered into my bowl. I gently toss it around with my chopsticks, coating the large surface area with a light application of whisked egg. The first bite is phenomenal- an explosion of sweetness quickly followed by the creaminess of egg, then a slow injection of fatty meat that liquifies with each careful bite. Tender, silky, savory yet light, I now see why so many have dedicated their lives to this wagyu.
Beef, warm white rice, kurazuke daikon pickles, repeat, and within minutes the first course is done. It’s time for the vegetables now, a palate cleanser before another intense round of Matsuzaka gyu. Carrots, onions, enoki mushrooms and mitsuba cook briefly in the beef glaze, enjoyed in a simple ponzu kombu dashi dipping sauce. After another satisfying round of beef sukiyaki that tastes even better than the first, we are served the final savory course of tofu and scallions, then a refreshing yuzu sorbet.
Gyugin Yoshokuya next door serves Westernized Matsuzaka beef dishes like beef cutlet, grilled steak, beef curry, beef katsu and hamburger, a popular joint for families with children. However, to really appreciate the essence and beauty of this glorious wagyu beef in its purist form, an evening of sukiyaki at the original Gyugin restaurant is an experience not to be missed. The most prized beef in the world, created from tender love, care and years of pampering, is truly one of the most delicious foods that I have ever had the privilege of savoring.
Mie prefecture, Japan
11am-8pm, closed Mondays
Random trivia: Did you know that the song ‘Sukiyaki’, by Kyu Sakamoto, remains the only Japanese-language song to hit #1 in the US (1963 US Billboard Hot 100)?