Food & Drink

Annual festival sees cows under the hammer for a cool ¥25 million

by Lance Henderstein

Contributing Writer

In the cramped kitchen of his hillside home, 83-year-old Jiro Tochigi unrolls a handwritten scroll. On its surface are words transcribed by Tochigi from a radio broadcast in the 1950s — how to raise cows for Matsusaka beef.

“This is a manual for raising healthy cows, but it’s really up to each one how she will grow. You can’t predict anything,” says Tochigi.

What can be predicted is how the cow is treated, and cows in the town of Matsusaka are treated famously well. Before he built a stable, Tochigi kept his cows like pets in the adjoining room. In the kitchen, he would steam their coarse feed to soften it, humming along to enka tunes to relax them as they ate.

It’s a stark contrast to the factory farms that produce most of the world’s beef.

Tochigi has raised two cows this year, Harumi and Yurie. Both were selected to participate in this year’s Matsusaka Ushi Matsuri, where the finest kuroge breed cows from Mie Prefecture gather to be judged and then auctioned off to the highest bidder. Of the two, Tochigi thinks Harumi has the best shot at first prize, thanks to her ideal proportions.

“There’s an ideal ratio — 530 (5.30:1). For example, if a cow is 700 kilograms and 132 centimeters tall, that’s pretty close to 530 and she has a good chance of winning,” says Tochigi.​

He should know, for his cows have taken top prize twice before.

Only virgin female cows can be sold as Matsusaka beef and all calves are registered with the Matsusaka Beef Management System. Any restaurant serving Matsusaka beef is required to have an Association Member’s Certificate and the brand and its quality are tightly controlled.

The Matsusaka Ushi Matsuri begins early the next morning under the haze of a gray, autumnal sky. It seems equal parts county fair, beauty pageant and auction. The crowd is local and mostly made up of families from Mie Prefecture, who are there to celebrate Matsusaka’s history of husbandry and see the animals up close.

Inside the gates, a wooden stall serves as the greenroom for the bovine contestants. Large, flat heads topped with blue bows poke through the wooden slats. Moos escape from the foaming, chewing mouths, mixing with bullhorn announcements and the din of the crowd outside the gates. Tochigi and his fellow competitors are in the stall, too, brushing the black hides and calming the animals as they wait.

The auction is held inside a large plastic tent. Before entering, each cow is led to a numbered spot where official inspectors in pale blue caps assess the beauty and fitness of the animal. Some of the cows walk calmly to their mark, others reveal a feistier temperament and must be reined into position.

The more resistance a cow shows, the larger the reaction of the crowd. Fans always like a champ with a little fight in her and casual observers love a spectacle. Humans tamed these behemoths thousands of years ago, but still want to see the wild beast underneath, a reminder of a more primitive side we ourselves still possess, but mask well.

Inside the tent, auctioneers in white lab coats make last minute preparations as the bidders fill the bleachers across from them. In the back, spectators are held in a cordoned area until a gate is flung open, allowing them to dash into position behind the auctioneers. Some fall in the stampede and others leap over them, elbowing their way to a better view of the auction.

Once the crowd is settled, the first cow enters and the bidding begins. The chant of the auctioneer crescendos as the value of the animal rises, the bids displayed on red, digital signs above. Smartphones record the climbing numbers like a rocket launch. Everyone is hoping for a record — but this year the bids are tame, with the most cows selling for around the (relatively low) ¥20 million mark. The highest cow, Yuko, goes for ¥25 million.

With each cow, the pattern repeats. The crowd cheers, only to be silenced by the reality of an average bid.

Outside the tent, Tochigi grips Harumi’s rein wearing a broad smile. Neither of his cows won first prize, but both fetched a healthy price. Despite the loss, Tochigi looks satisfied to have raised another generation of world-class cows.

I ask him if he’s disappointed.

“Of course! I wanted to win!” he laughs. “But, no matter who wins, it’s always a good day for us.”

That night I have dinner at Wadakin, a Meiji Era (1868-1912) sukiyaki restaurant in Matsusaka that serves Matsusaka beef. The cloister of the hallways gives it a sanctified atmosphere.

After being seated in the private dining room, the door slides open and a server in a kimono brings in a plate of marbled beef. She bows and begins the preparation, buttering the hotplate and adding small amounts of sugar and soy sauce in the local style.

While the meat is being grilled and served, I consider the work and cooperation that went into this simple meal; the centuries of breeding and improving the stock; the care and attention given to each animal; the families whose fortunes still depend on the quality of what they produce.

It’s become a luxury to know where one’s food comes from, to be able to trust those who produce it. But in Matsusaka, it’s still cherished tradition.

Matsusaka is a one-hour, 10-minute train ride from Nagoya Station. Matsusaka beef is served at Wadakin (1878 Nakamachi, Matsusaka, Mie Prefecture 515-0083; 0598-21-1188; http://e-wadakin.co.jp/en) and Shotoan (1360 Tonomachi, Matsusaka-shi, Mie Prefecture 515-0073; 0598-23-0657). The Matsusaka Ushi Matsuri takes place each November.