Wagyu: Japan’s More-Than-Worth-It Premium Beef

和牛 Wagyū is rich and tender high-quality beef emblematic of Japanese beef cattle breeds. It has become beloved globally by meat lovers and is often regarded with the status of the very top cut of beef in the world. While it’s quite popular in many different countries, there’s nothing like trying the real deal and otherwise unavailable brands in Japan.

What is wagyu?

Wagyu is a type of beef that is highly prized for its tenderness, rich flavor, and marbled texture. The term “wagyu” actually means “Japanese beef” and refers to several breeds of cattle that are native to Japan. It differs from many other meats, such as American steak, in that it is often served in thinner slices and celebrated for its fatty, but buttery and soft texture.

One of the distinct characterizes of wagyu is a high level of marbling.

The quality flavor, marbling, and melt-in-your-mouth texture of wagyu is owed to the luxurious and careful nature with which Japanese cattle are tended to, which may include being massaged and even treated to beer. Because of this, it’s often found at high-end restaurants and served at a premium price, although more affordable servings are available.

The specialized care given to Japanese cattle is often cited as one reason behind wagyu’s superb quality.

Where to get wagyu

Wagyu beef is available all around Japan, especially in major cities, but it’s important to note that as a beef delicacy it is often quite expensive even for smaller portions. Whether it be at a steakhouse or 鉄板焼き teppanyaki restaurant (often called “hibachi” in North America), servings can range from 5,000 to 10,000 JPY at mid-range restaurants, and can easily pass 20,000 JPY at high-end restaurants.

Ordering plates of wagyu at yakiniku restaurants is an affordable way to sample the quality beef without breaking your budget. [Photo for illustrative purposes only]

However, for those looking to sample wagyu at a more affordable price, it’s recommended to try a 焼肉 yakiniku (Japanese grilled meat cuisine) restaurant where you can enjoy plates smaller cuts of wagyu from 1,000 to 2,000 JPY. It’s also a good idea to keep an eye on local Japanese burger restaurants, which sometimes offer burgers made using wagyu in the range of 2,000 JPY.

Types of wagyu

The four most celebrated types of wagyu in Japan can be classified by the region the cattle used originate from: 松阪牛 Matsusaka-gyū Matsusaka Beef from Mie Prefecture, 米沢牛 Yonezawa-gyū Yonezawa Beef from Yamagata Prefecture, 近江牛 Ōmi-gyū Ōmi Beef from Shiga Prefecture, and the world-famous 神戸ビーフ Kōbe bīfu Kobe Beef from Hyogo Prefecture. While they all have different characteristics, their high level of marbling, tenderness, and rich, buttery flavor make them the peak of meat cuisine in the country.

These four types of wagyu belong to the category of 黒毛和牛 kurogewagyū. The “kuroge” in kurogewagyu translates to “black-hair,” which refers to the black coats of the cattle. Usually holding the highest possible A5 beef ranking, kurogewagyu is some of the most highly sought out wagyu in Japan. If you see kurogewagyu on the menu, you’re likely in for some succulent meat with exceptional mouthwatering flavor.

Here are a few different ways and serving styles you can try to enjoy wagyu during your stay in Japan:

ステーキ Steak.

Wagyu is often enjoyed as a mouthwatering steak, sometimes prepared on a teppanyaki grill.

肉寿司 Nikuzushi: Sushi that uses beef as a topping.

Wagyu is sometimes enjoyed in the form of nikuzushi, or beef sushi.

Yakiniku: Japanese grilled meat cuisine.

Yakiniku, or Japanese grilled barbecue, is a great way to try wagyu cooked and seasoned to your liking.

すき焼き Sukiyaki: Traditional Japanese hot pot.

Wagyu is also enjoyed in hot pot cooking dishes, which is great for eating in a group.

Tips for enjoying wagyu

When eating wagyu grilled on its own or as a steak, simple seasonings such as salt, garlic, and wasabi are recommended. The reason for keeping it simple is to not overpower the natural flavor.

Wasabi is sometimes used as a recommended seasoning for high quality beef in Japan. [Photo for illustrative purposes only]

Ultimately, while it usually comes priced at a premium, wagyu is a must on the culinary itinerary of meat lovers traveling in Japan. Its delicate but incredibly flavorful nature makes it perfect to enjoy as is, but the melt-in-your-mouth texture and rich flavor can be enjoyed in many other different types of Japanese dishes.