In the list of the strange stories lived by Poulpy in Japan, this one leaves us with a strange taste in the mouth. For our fourth meeting with the artisans in the heart of the archipelago, we meet in Matsusaka where the Japanese produce the famous beef of the same name. If the Kobe beef is famous in the world, it is well known that the inhabitants of the Archipelago often prefer that of Matsusaka, all the more fat and tender. Once seated, it is not the traditional dish that we discover, but first of all a kind of identity card of the slaughtered beast …
Although we find such farms in other countries of the world due to the notoriety of the process, Wagyu beef farms are primarily Japanese. The name speaks for itself: “Wa” (和) refers to the term Japan and “Gyu” (牛) to that of beef. The Wagyu are extremely preserved, pure breeds of cattle, whose different customs, in different regions, decide on the final name the Japanese give them. These farms are also known for special attention to the life of the herds, in opposition to conventional or, worse, industrial breeding. AT Matsusaka, we thus breed eponymous cows. But once at the restaurant, before helping yourself, it is welcome to read a certain document …
A nominative identity card for each cow
This identity record that we discover at first glance? It is that of Yoshi Fumi, the cow that a cook is about to grill in front of us according to local tradition. Yes, a detailed identity card of a cow. All the key information about Yoshi-san can be found there: his age, his weight, his place of life, his food and a small photo of his breeder. The local butcher systematically gives you back, in the event of a Matsusaka, this certificate attesting to its origin, its quality and its sacrifice …
Looking the animal in the face: a tradition as honest as it is confusing …
Yoshi was 790 days old. Date of death: November 10, 2020. She is classified A5. A meat of extreme quality according to the criteria of the profession. In a combination of circumstances worthy of a cinema film, we meet Yoshi’s breeder. The man over 80 seems eager to share his story. What a very strange reunion. As Yoshi cooks in front of his eyes, the cook can’t help but ask him if he wants some. He politely refuses.
” My cows are like my own daughters ” he explains. Far from the criteria of conventional industry, Matsusaka’s cows are truly pampered during their life of 900 days on average. Only females who have never had calves can benefit from this title, unlike Kobe who breeds bull beef only. ” The cows have their eyes facing forward. They are like pets. I am very attached to it »He defends. They are fed on quality wheat, soy and straw. And especially, ” they are shy! »He confides.
It is forbidden to speak loudly in front of them. Their ears prefer the silence of nature or, sometimes it is said, music. Legend or reality? You will have to go and check for yourself. These very special cows nevertheless regularly receive massages to stimulate blood circulation and even occasionally drink beer. Some beer ? In the Japanese tradition, nothing is wasted: there was a time when leftover beer was given to cows and the tradition has remained with these breeders because alcohol stimulates their appetite. As for the massages, it is said that they are delicately carried out with lukewarm shoshu (焼 酎 , “Distilled liquor”).
Does the fact that these cows have been carefully reared justify their killing and our putting in the mouth? It would be inappropriate to blame these traditional breeders, honest and transparent on how they view the life and death of the animal. But the experience has the merit of questioning us more deeply on this subject, on our relationship to food in general. While waiting to find very personal answers, if facing the reality of Yoshi’s destiny is obviously not jovial, not even for his own breeder, we already understand this approach better than that dehumanized machines of the meat industry which kill in the assembly line… Two weights, two measures.
Fully aware and dedicated breeders
We understand the sincere attachment of the breeder to his few animals, especially at the end of his career, he only raisedonly one cow at a time. The practice is so special that it requires a large financial investment. More than 5000 euros per cow! This is why Matsusaka meat is also one of the most expensive in Japan and in the world. From 300 to 500 € per kg. Suffice to say that we eat very little. The whole thing is tasted most often in Sukiyaki.
What a strange feeling, again. Here we are now facing the lifeless body of what this man recently considered to be his own daughter. Perhaps the little “prayer” that the Japanese make ritually before each meal makes it more bearable. Itadakimasu (い た だ き ま す) ! Textually: thank you for this meal. In Japan, it is not a question of wishing bon appétit. In what opulence do you have to live to wish you have an appetite? No, the Japanese thank nature and animals for their sacrifice as well as the people who prepared the meal. It is a sign of gratitude. Everything finding its place in an endless cycle that goes beyond human beings, feeding on a living animal must therefore be done with respect and moderation.
But does this spirit still exist today elsewhere than in the Japanese countryside? Consumption of meat, red and avian, is constantly increasing in Japan, in the form of increasingly processed industrially and rapidly, or even imported, one can ask the question. It’s a curve that actually follows that of the evolution of living comfort : the richer a society, the more it abuses a meat diet. The problem ? The demand is getting too strong and at the moment, even if the model to which the Yoshi cow was subjected suited you better, it would not be enough to cover the consumption of the country. It would therefore be necessary to go through a drastic reduction in red meat in the daily menus. For animals, but also for the entire ecosystem: meat is painfully polluting. Even one meatless day per week would be equivalent, in terms of carbon footprint, to eating 100% locally. To meditate.
This horizon to which it seems so difficult to educate consumers, here or elsewhere, has nevertheless been part of Japan’s past. A historical parenthesis, of a thousand years all the same, during which the Japanese were forbidden to eat meat and were therefore vegetarian. This political ideal having mainly been established during the Edo era, was mainly rooted in buddhist thought for which all life is sacred. Whether we mean sacred in the sense of inviolable and protected, or read it as a call to the recognition and respect of a sacrifice, one thing is certain: in the middle of the fabulous landscapes of the prefecture of Mie, we are relatively preserved from monstrous farms which consider animals as harmless, desecrated consumer goods.
So, will discovering the identity card of the animal you are going to eat cut your appetite? One thing is certain, if one observes the forgotten traditional values inherited from Buddhism and Shintoism, it is difficult to consider food as an inert thing in the service of humans. According to this conception, the elements around us are alive and endowed with their own spirit. Taking one life, even to feed another, should never be done lightly.
A historic heart of Japan
But Matsusaka, it’s not just meat. This region is a historic heart of ancient Japanese commerce. Here, big names of companies still current were born, like the group Mitsui today listed on the stock exchange. There is a plethora of magical places to visit : The ruins of castles, old preserved quarters, museums and a large number of fabulous restaurants. And all this not far from Kyoto.
Matsusaka is indeed well connected to the rest of the region via its JR and Kintetsu rail lines. It is possible to reach Matsusaka from Nagoya in just over an hour. Namba Station in Osaka is just under two hours away, and the trip from Kyoto station takes about two hours with, as a bonus, magnificent landscapes to discover.
– Mr Japanization