The quintessential tourist image of Kyoto cuisine is one of a refined “bento” (boxed lunch) containing all sorts of small treats, but heavy on fish, tofu and vegetables, with much attention devoted to presentation and tastes that are sublime, but not overpowering. Certain Kyoto vegetables like “kujo negi” green onion form the base of many local dishes, while Kyoto tofu is famous throughout the country for its quality.
But one food item not traditionally associated with Kyoto is beef. While Kobe beef is world famous and along with Omi and Matsuzaka beef is considered Japan’s finest, sparking spirited debates among fussy foodies over the merits of each, the idea of visiting a Kyoto restaurant for a thick steak, or even an excellent “shabu-shabu” or sukiyaki dinner with local beef, is not yet on the tourist list of must-do things while in the ancient capital.
Kyoto Prefecture, however, is now trying to make “Kyoto Beef” into a brand name worldwide. Earlier this month, for the first time ever, about 500 kg of top quality beef from Kyoto was sent to Singapore as part of a trade promotion fair.
“We chose Singapore because Kyoto Beef is expensive and Singapore has a lot of wealthy diners, as well as a large Japanese ex-pat community. A local Japanese restaurant offered a number of traditional Kyoto and Japanese-style lunch and dinner sets featuring not only local beef but also kujo negi, a traditional Japanese green onion or scallion associated with Kyoto, as well as Kyoto pickles and Kyoto ‘macha’ (green tea) ice cream,” said Koichi Kamimura, a prefectural agricultural official involved in promoting Kyoto Beef.
How did the beef go over with Singapore’s diners? “People said they liked it because it was slightly sweet,” he said.
The recent decision to market Kyoto prefectural beef as Kyoto Beef overseas is mostly to avoid confusion. There are, in fact, several names for beef from cows born and raised in Kyoto. The highest and most expensive grade of beef is simply “Kyoto Niku,” which rivals Matsuzaka and Kobe beef in terms of quality and cost. Then there is “Kyo no Niku,” using the old kanji for “capital.” It’s not certified as the highest grade but is still considered premium.
Then there is “Tanba-gyu,” or beef from the Tanba region of the prefecture, and “Kameoka-gyu,” from the Kameoka region. Both types of beef can be bought for about half of what the other two cost. Finally, there is “Kyotankuro wagyu.”
“It’s difficult for people overseas to get a fixed image of what Kyoto Beef is with all of the different names for Kyoto-area beef, In order to build an easily understandable brand abroad, we decided to call it all Kyoto Beef,” Kamimura said.
For meat to be certified as Kyoto Beef, it must come from cows that were bred in Kyoto and raised there for most of their lives. It must also be certified as one of four top grades by the Japan Meat Grading Association. Like Kobe, Omi and Matsuzaka beef, Kyoto Beef is closely monitored and production history records are kept, allowing one to trace the lineage of a particular head of cattle.
The next overseas promotion event will be in March, at the Mitsuwa Marketplace in Torrance, California. But domestically, the push is just getting started, although the plan is to target luxury hotels, especially international hotels, and the city’s top restaurants.
“The idea is to present Kyoto Beef as part of traditional Japanese dishes, though we have to keep in mind how beef is eaten overseas,” Kamimura said.
While Kyoto’s brand name image and recognition give it a competitive advantage over other prefectures also trying to expand beef sales, a limited supply means the marketing strategy will focus not only on quality of taste but also exclusivity.
The latter effort is not only a marketing choice but also a practical necessity.
The Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries Ministry’s most recent data show there are about 2.5 million head of beef cattle nationwide. Hokkaido, with just over half a million cattle, ranks at the top. Hyogo Prefecture, the home of Kobe beef, only has about 52,000 head of cattle, while Mie Prefecture, where Matsuzaka beef comes from, has only 26,700 head. Shiga Prefecture, known for its “Omi beef,” has 17,200 head.
Kyoto Prefecture, however, has just under 6,700, making beef from Kyoto rare domestically, let alone overseas.
The other aspect of international promotion, one likely to resonate in countries where meat safety inspection standards are not as tough as Japan’s, focuses on assuring customers Kyoto Beef is extremely safe from disease. On the other hand, health-conscious consumers, especially in the United States or Europe, may have concerns about Kyoto Beef, especially those cuts with a much higher fat content than beef from their own countries to which they are accustomed.
But unlike the somewhat exaggerated and sometimes patently untrue lore surrounding Kobe beef about beer dinners and tummy massages, Kyoto cattle don’t have a particularly unique, Kyoto-type diet.
“We don’t feed the cattle things like kujo negi or tofu, although the feed mixture is probably not something the ranchers want to publicize too loudly,” said Kamimura.
Kansai Perspective appears on the fourth Monday of each month, focusing on Kansai-area developments and events of national importance with a Kansai connection.