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05/15/2015

WAGYU WONDERLAND

I’ve enthused a lot about food in my previous blog posts, so I suppose it would be fair for one to think that perhaps, the topic might have grown stale to me. However, when it comes to the story I’m about to tell, my mouth still waters each time the images flash through my head: the softest, pinkest slab of beef I’d ever laid eyes upon, softly sizzling on a bed of butter as it slowly but surely approached medium-rare perfection. For those even just slightly familiar with the world of Japanese beef – otherwise referred to as “wagyu” (“wa” meaning “Japanese” and “gyu” meaning “beef”) – Kobe beef may be what you’re thinking of right now. Whilst close, in this blog post, I will be paying homage to what I consider a pretty well-hidden gem in the world of wagyu: Hida Gyu, or “Hida beef.”

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I’ve always been a huge fan of nicely-marbled beef, and to this day, I still sometimes think back to that rush of elation I got the first time I tried Kobe beef. This story takes place a few weeks after that day, after I had returned to Tokyo. It was a day in March; I had an unbearable craving for good beef, but not enough money to take a second trip all the way down south to Kobe. So, what did I do? I turned to the eternally reliable, truest best friend of man: the Internet. Unfortunately, I failed to find a worthy, affordable, and nearby substitute for Kobe beef. I opened up to my friend Lester – who had previously spent 3 years in Japan as part of an English teaching program – about these woes. Lester told me about the town he had been stationed in, a small town somewhere up north of Tokyo in the boonies: Hida Takayama. “It’s got better beef that Kobe,” I remember him saying.

“Ha, better beef than Kobe,” I scoffed at the mere concept. At best, I had been hoping for an only-slightly-disappointing substitute. However, Lester had successfully piqued my interest. I looked up a bus to Hida Takayama (for those already interested, the Willer Express Bus provides a straight shot to the Takayama bus station from downtown Tokyo), packed my bags, and was on my way the following week.

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The prospect of discovering a steak “better than Kobe beef” buzzing amongst my thoughts, it was hard to get any sleep on the 5-hour bus ride. I’d preemptively looked up an affordable Hida beef restaurant – a little mom and pop type shop called “Kyouya –” prior to my departure, and made a dash for it the second I got off the bus. I’d also downloaded the restaurant’s menu in advance, so I wasted little time when it came to place an order.

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Flowery prose do little justice to what I experienced when I took my first bite, so to put it plainly: it was delicious, and yes, Lester had been right all along – it was better than Kobe beef. To me, what makes wagyu a novelty is the softness and savory greasiness of the steaks, and Hida beef proved itself the epitome of such a definition. One pleasant surprise that actually surpassed the beef, however, was how nice the people of Hida were. I’d arrived on a snowy day without an umbrella, and left the beef restaurant with a free one in hand, a present from the owners. The next morning, on my way to the station, I was stopped by an old lady, who thanked me for coming all the way out to Hida.

This is about all there is to this story: really good beef, and really nice people. It was one of my most successful trips, and though I am still being made fun of for having spent over $300 to go get beef, I can proudly say I have no regrets. All I had to do was not eat or leave my room for the three weeks that followed. But other than that, it was a very good experience!

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