Picturesque Fukano Valley, located 30 minutes from the city of Matsusaka in Mie Prefecture, is home to one of the country’s most treasured cattle but it’s not something that is immediately obvious to outsiders.

“A lot of people never get to see the cows, as it’s not like they are out in pastures,” says John Hayashi, an international relations coordinator for the Matsusaka region.

Farms are generally off-limits to the general public, owing to regulations concerning the spread of disease.

As a result, the closest most people get to the prized cattle is at an auction that is held in the city at the end of each year.

In early November, 25 cows are selected to take part in the auction, with the best animal typically fetching up to ¥30 million or more. The record bid, from 2003, stands at ¥50 million.

“People always look forward to how ridiculous the prices (at the auction) can get,” Hayashi says.

The black-haired cattle in Fukano spend most of their lives indoors, grazing on feed in barns that are barely recognizable as such. The roof tiles on cowsheds in the area are almost indistinguishable from the tiles found on homes throughout the valley. Indeed, many of the barns look like natural extensions of the farmhouses. And, in a way, this makes sense — Matsusaka cattle are part of the family.

Eighty-seven-year-old Mikichi Kubo’s farm is located about halfway up the valley. The quickest way to Kubo’s front door is through a barn and out the back to where his house stands.

Kubo received his first cow when he was 12 years old. “I asked my father for it,” he says, laughing.

Back then, cattle were put to work in the same way as horses, ploughing rice fields and ferrying supplies until their daily chores were taken over by tractors.

In the years following World War II, farmers in Fukano changed the way that cattle were raised in the area, no longer employing them as laborers and instead rearing them for beef.

Kubo’s animals have attracted the highest bids at the annual auction five times, something he is immensely proud of. Yellowing framed certificates of the purchases — all that remain of his prize possessions — hang from the rafters of the barn.

Kubo has poured the windfall from the auctions back into his livestock and extended his barn, which serves as his second home.

“I have often spent the night in here with a sick cow until a vet can visit in the morning,” he says.

Kubo’s last remaining cows — Natsuhime and Daifukuno 1-3 — are perhaps best described as pets. They constantly demand attention and affection, sticking their heads through the wooden slats in order to nuzzle visitors.

Kubo plans to retire once the pair have been sent to the slaughterhouse.

Further up the valley, Kubo’s neighbor, 83-year-old Jiro Tochigi is also down to his last two cows.

The average age of farmers rearing special-grade Matsusaka cows is around 65 and, although a handful of young farmers raise cattle in the area, fewer are willing to raise a dozen or so animals in the traditional way.

Younger farmers typically operate bigger farms because the profit margins are tight. According to prefectural officials in Matsusaka, 108 farmers are registered in the region, looking after approximately 10,000 animals in feedlots.

Of this number, just 250 or so cows are selected to be special-grade Matsusaka cattle each year.

Cash cows

Cattle must meet strict criteria in order to receive Matsusaka beef certification, says Emi Okamoto, a veterinarian and engineer who works for the Mie prefectural government.

The cattle must be a Japanese black-haired breed (kuroge washu), female and a virgin, and spend the majority of its life, from 30 to 38 months, on a farm in or around Matsusaka.

Each heifer has its nose print taken, which is entered into a publicly accessible database.

Interestingly, the animals are generally not bred in Matsusaka. Many of them come from Tajima Valley in Hyogo Prefecture, where prices for a 7- or 8-month-old calf usually start at around ¥500,000.

The animals are fed a rich diet of soy pulp, ground wheat, barley and rice straw that is specifically designed to propel an animal’s weight to more than 600 kilograms over a period of 900 days.

It’s a diet as rich as it is expensive. Feed typically costs up to ¥500,000 over an animal’s lifetime — and that’s before veterinarian costs are factored in.

For this reason, farmers obviously want to make a return on their investment.

While the top animals at the auction in November attract bids of ¥20 million to ¥50 million, most sell for much less. Typically, cows that are overlooked for the top prize sell for up to ¥2 million.

As far as Tochigi is concerned, the secret to Matsusaka beef is affection.

“Cows, like horses, are calm animals and should be raised in a peaceful environment,” he says. “You must give them love and affection. And a little enka — jazz is too complicated.”

Music is not the only luxury these heifers enjoy. The animals are also fed beer to stimulate their eating and receive regular massages. Okamoto says beer is typically fed to Matsusaka cattle when they are older or in the heat of the summer.

In a sense, these animals are not unlike geese that are fattened to produce foie gras. Although they are not force fed with a tube, the animals are placed on a diet that is designed to ensure they put on as much weight as possible.

The end result of all this affection, attention and gluttony is beef riddled with a high fat-to-meat ratio known as marbling.

The taste, well, I’ll get to that …

Beef barons

Yoshinaga Koda is a beef baron. While he doesn’t oversee a ranch, his empire is the last port of call for many Matsusaka cattle.

Every year, more than 1,000 cows from the region end up in Asahiya, one the biggest and busiest butchers in Mie.

On the runup to the New Year’s holidays, lines stretch down the street outside Asahiya’s bustling flagship store in Tsu, the prefectural capital.

As with everyone I met in Mie, I asked Koda what made Matsusaka beef so special?

Koda didn’t miss a beat.

“The price,” he says.

He should know.

Last year, Koda and his right-hand man, Takashi Motojima, paid more than ¥30 million for an animal called Momomiya, dubbed the “Ise-Shima summit cow,” at the auction in November.

Koda is following the playbook of Asahiya’s founder and former boss, Shizuo Kashiwagi. Between them, Koda and Kashiwagi have outbid their rivals 34 times, racking up a total auction bill of around ¥500 million. Asahiya’s long-time rival is Wadakin, a restaurant based in Matsusaka, and one of the most famous purveyors of the beef.

Koda views the spending as a way of paying back the farmers and rewarding them for their hard work.

In 2002, Asahiya paid ¥50 million for an animal called Yoshitoyo, the highest price ever paid at an auction for a Matsusaka cow. The record sum was intended as a reprieve to the mad-cow disease crisis that had sent the industry into a tailspin.

Sitting in his office atop his bustling butcher shop, Koda is clearly a man who likes to sample his expensive product. A kilogram of special-grade Matsusaka beef can sell for up to ¥30,000.

“It’s the concentration of fatty acids in Matsusaka beef that gives it a sweet flavor,” Koda says while scrolling through numerous photos of meat he has taken over the years.

Chef Shingo Murabayashi, a Matsusaka native and a former teacher at the renowned Tsuji Culinary Institute in Osaka, says cows in Matsusaka are fed coarse feed while they are young, giving them strong internal organs and physical strength.

“At a certain time (in their development), the cows are moved onto concentrated feed,” he says. “This is where the marbling comes from.”

This is one of the oddities about Matsusaka beef and wagyū (Japanese beef) in general — it’s riddled with fat, which runs counter to the orthodoxy that meat, especially beef, should be lean.

However, as researchers at Texas A&M University’s Department of Animal Science note, to fear fat overlooks its benefits, including taste.

“While it is known that much of beef’s flavor and juiciness comes from fat, considerable effort has gone into reducing fat in American beef,” they wrote in a research paper. “Quantity of fat is of much more concern in the U.S. than is the notion of quality of fat.”

The Texas researchers found a higher ratio of monosaturated to saturated fats — 2 to 1 — in Japanese wagyu than they observed in beef from cattle reared in America, leading the scientists to ponder if eating high-grade beef with “a more desirable unsaturated-to-saturated fat composition … (meant that) we may really have our cake and eat it, too.”‘

What’s in a name?

With the Group of Seven summit looming, officials in Mie have been using the talks to put the prefecture on the world map.

Hayashi says that while Mie sometimes slips under the radar, people nationwide know Matsusaka and associate it with its beef. “People here are very proud of our reputation,” Hayashi says.

It’s a reputation that officials from Matsusaka and Mie are keen to promote overseas. Hayashi notes that Matsusaka beef is already well-established in Hong Kong.

In February, a team of officials, including Okamoto, went on a trade delegation to the U.S. to promote the beef.

While Japanese beef is known globally to gourmands, Matsusaka has to be careful it doesn’t follow the route of its famous rival, Kobe beef, which is now more famous for the legion of copycat steaks.

“Japan was late to the game with creating and enforcing a protected designation of origin system and so the term ‘Kobe beef’ is essentially meaningless outside Japan,” says Marc Matsumoto, a chef and culinary consultant based in Tokyo. “Most American’s believe that it is a breed of cattle.”

And although Matsusaka beef has its fans overseas — in an episode of the Netflix series “House of Cards,” Vice President Frank Underwood (played by Kevin Spacey) is offered “soy-fed Matsusaka” — being less well-known than Kobe beef could well be its strongest card.

“Unlike Kobe, Matsusaka isn’t very well-known in the U.S., so they (promoters) have a clean slate to work with,” Matsumoto says. “If they trademark the name ‘Matsusaka beef’ in the U.S., they could build a new brand and not have to worry about falling into the same trap as Kobe and wagyū.”

Matsusaka beef is only available in the U.S. at promotional events due to export restrictions, Okamoto says.

Ahead of a promotional tour to Florida and Seattle, employees from The Four Seasons Orlando visited Matsusaka in 2015 to meet farmers and their animals.

Matsumoto says this is a vital step in crafting a story about Matsusaka beef. He notes how the California Milk Advisory Board did this with a campaign that pushed the notion that “great cheese comes from happy cows, happy cows come from California.”

“Rather than trying to convince people that California cheese tastes better than Wisconsin or Vermont cheese, they told a great story tying quality to location without even talking about the taste,” Matsumoto says. “By making the quality of Matsusaka beef inseparable from its location in Japan, they not only tell a compelling story to consumers, they also protect the brand.”

That taste — a buttery sweetness — and the “story” — a highly pampered breed of cows — is central to Matsusaka’s claim to be the best beef in Japan, if not the world.

Samuel Faggetti, executive sous chef at the Four Seasons Orlando, says the cow’s diet results in a sweeter flavor than American beef.

“The passion of each farmer I met (during my visit in 2015) is reflected in the product,” Faggetti says.

Melting moments

A sukiyaki course is not cheap, especially if it includes Matsusaka beef.

A course at Maruyoshi starts at more than ¥7,000, while Wadakin’s cheapest course starts at ¥12,000 — a 150-gram premium steak costs ¥24,000.

Sukiyaki has its origins in leaner times and, according to Murabayashi, the beef was historically cut wafer thin because it was once viewed as an extravagance.

“Even soy sauce and sugar were expensive to most back then (in the Meiji Era, 1867-1912),” he says, “so eating even a small morsel was a great pleasure.”

Hikaru Hirohara, owner and president of Maruyoshi, joins me as I prepare to sample a serving of Matsusaka beef sukiyaki.

Hirohara believes the region’s beef is better than its rivals because Matsusaka cattle are female and the animals are fattened for longer.

Meanwhile, waiting staff smear a dollop of lard on a pan in front of me and cover the beef in brown sugar before coating it with a mixture of soy sauce and sake. A woman then places the meat on the hot plate, expertly searing both sides before placing it on my plate.

I bring the meat to my mouth and bite gently. The beef contains none of the greasy coating that typically remains in your mouth when eating fatty meat.

Instead, it disappears as it dissolves, melting in my mouth and leaving me in a state of disbelief.

Chef Murabayashi is right: Even eating a tiny morsel is a real pleasure.

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