travel guide: wagyu beef in japan;

Guys, eating wagyu beef at Otsuka in Japan was one of the highlights of our trip. There are so many amazing experiences to pick from in the whole trip, but especially since I needed to do some research on the nuances of what we were eating, I thought I’d share this with you early! I fully intend to write up full travel guides from my study abroad and this latest vacation trip, but wanted to do this one while it was still fresh! So let’s get to it:

What is wagyu beef? Is it different than Kobe beef? What’s the difference?

Wagyu beef comes from four strains of cows: Japanese black, Japanese brown, Japanese shorthorn, and Japanese polled. These four breeds of cows each have a distinct flavor and texture, but the majority of Wagyu beef comes from the Japanese Black variety. Wagyu beef in general is prized for its unparalleled marbling and taste, and as such, much effort goes into feeding, raising, selection, and care by breeders.

Kobe beef, on the other hand is a specific variety of Wagyu beef of the Tajima-Gyu strain that is held to strict standards of being raised and processed in the Hyogo prefecture; capital: Kobe, hence Kobe beef. Because of such strict standards, there are only an average of 30,000 heads of cattle that qualify to be labeled as authentic Kobe beef. So, in short Kobe beef is a particular Wagyu beef that is prized and often has the highest price per pound at market, which is why you hear about it. Creme de la creme if you will.

For more in-depth information check out this link here.

Roast beef set A from Otsuka, one of the cheaper cuts but still barely seared and delicious!

Roast beef set A from Otsuka, one of the cheaper cuts but still barely seared and delicious!

So what did you eat in Japan? And how much did it cost?

On a recommendation from a friend (shout out to Peggy!) we went to Otsuka, a small restaurant in Arashiyama, Kyoto that is known for amazing Wagyu beef at reasonable prices.

We did the fat tourist thing and ordered three things even though there were only two of us:

  • Roast beef set A – this was about $17USD and was thinly sliced roast beef atop a mound of rice. This was delicious, especially paired with the sauce, and probably better than anything we could get in the states, but was by no means the star of the show in this trifecta.
  • Chuck flap steak – this cost about $27 for 100g and was actually my favorite. A beautifully marbled cut from the chuck, it was barely seared but literally gave a whole new meaning to ‘melt in your mouth’. I literally had to use no teeth, just my tongue to tear bite sized pieces from the slices and the fat made it delicious.
  • Hirai sirloin steak – grade A5 and the highest priced menu item available to us (as the Murasawa beef was unavailable) and cost about $57 for 150g. This is a local Kyoto beef according to their menu, and has a balance of rich flavor, and sweetness from the rich fat. It was also amazing, and in Tyler’s words “has ruined filet mignon for me forever,” but I think the chuck flap steak stood out to me as a different experience whereas this seemed “just” like an AMAZING STEAK. So it was still worth the price in my book.

Total cost clocked in around $120 for all of the above beef, 3 bowls of rice, two salads, and a small bottle of sake.

Chuck flap steak from Otsuka, redefining ‘melt in your mouth’

Chuck flap steak from Otsuka, redefining ‘melt in your mouth’

How do I eat at the restaurant you went to in Japan?

Otsuka is located in Arashiyama, Kyoto. If you are unfamiliar, this is a district on the western outskirts of Kyoto and is accessible via bus and various rail.

Full address:

20 – 10 Sagatenryūji Setogawachō, Ukyo Ward, Kyoto, 616-8376, Japan

To make a reservation, you can check out their website (English available) however they only accept 3 reservation slots per day and are often booked up at least a 1-2 months in advance. If, like us, you did not plan that far ahead, your next best bet is to show up early and write your name on the waiting list. They put the waiting list out by 9:00am, according to their website, but we got there around 8:30am and it was already out with two parties signed up before us. The restaurant does not open until 11:00am, so I recommend wandering around the area to fill your time with any of the available attractions: the bamboo grove, various temples and shrines and gardens, Iwatayama monkey park, jinrikishaw rides, shopping at all the shops in this area. Make sure to arrive back at Otsuka by 11:00 so that you don’t miss your name being called, otherwise you go to the end of the list! There are stools available for sitting/waiting, but we arrived 5-10 minutes prior to 11:00 and they were mostly full.

Otsuka menu with items and prices, April 2019

Otsuka menu with items and prices, April 2019

Since I’m not in Japan and it’s expensive to get there, how do I find this experience in the US?

Up until 2012 the answer was “you don’t”. Lucky for you, the USDA ban that prevented you from finding Kobe and other Wagyu beef in America is no longer in effect. Still, you should be careful when approaching the experience from the US. The term “Kobe” is trademarked only in Japan, so pretty much anyone can use the term internationally without infringement, and a lot of people do so inaccurately. If you want more information on the nuances of buying and confirming Kobe and Wagyu beef, check out this article which I found helpful and seems reputable given what else I know and have experienced here in Japan.

If you’re still keen on the experience, Kobe beef is only served by about 25 restaurants in the US (as of my search in April 2019). If you’re interested in finding one, check out this site which is the official organization that certifies Kobe beef. And be willing to spend a pretty penny, because on top of the expensive, quality beef, you’ll also be paying for shipping and transport to get it here. If someone does go to one of these restaurants or has more information on beef prices in the US, let me know the cost and I’d be happy to add it here as a reference!

Was it worth it?

110% yes. Given the prices at Otsuka, the easy accessibility especially given we were already planning a day trip to Arashiyama, and getting to experience real Wagyu beef in Japan, I highly recommend this! It does involve some commitment by way of getting up early, and a hefty penny, but you can still experience a delicious and tasty meal even if you don’t want to go for the most expensive thing on the menu as we did.

But really I just recommend a trip to Japan. Go! You won’t regret it. And keep an eye out for other tipsychocochip travel posts to help plan your trip!

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