The Yomiuri ShimbunAn aroma both savory and sweet wafts from an iron pan as soon as the thinly sliced Omi wagyu Japanese beef, with marbling so fine it looks like a snow flurry, is put in it. Well-established sukiyaki restaurant Imahan Bekkan serves Omi beef from Shiga Prefecture despite there being nearly 300 brands of beef in Japan.
Among the sukiyaki courses it offers — such as “Asakusa,” named after the Tokyo district that is home to the restaurant — its most expensive course is called “Nagahama,” named after a city in the prefecture.
In a quiet, exquisite Japanese-style room, Katsuhisa Nagami, 56, the owner of the restaurant, talked about the reason why the restaurant has been sticking to the beef brand. “The beef has a delicate flavor, texture that melts in the mouth and rich aroma. If a customer says a dish using the best beef is not delicious, we can do nothing about it,” he said.
Historically, Omi beef was offered to the Tokugawa shogunate from the Hikone domain in 1687. The domain marinated the beef in miso and gave it to the shogunate as a health treatment called “henpongan.”
In about 1880, early in the Meiji era (1868-1912), Kyuji Takenaka, a domestic livestock dealer hailing from the Omi region, opened a restaurant serving gyunabe beef hot pot in Asakusa. This was the first encounter between Omi beef and Asakusa.
Asakusa later became a “sukiyaki town” with many sukiyaki restaurants, attracting writers, artists, sumo wrestlers and movie stars, including poet and sculptor Kotaro Takamura.
The local specialties of the Shiga region, otherwise known as “Lake Country” for Lake Biwa located in the center of Shiga Prefecture, have also been loved by the Imperial family. Evidence of this remains in a museum in Higashiomi in the prefecture, where there is a letter written in 1931 by a person serving the Kuninomiya Imperial family.
It was sent to a person close to the founding family of Tsukamoto Corporation Co., a textile trading company with ties to the prefecture, and refers to honmoroko, a small cyprinid fish that is native to Lake Biwa. The letter mentions that this fish was delivered to the wife of Prince Kuni Kuniyoshi, and then passed on to the then Emperor and Empress.
It was also delivered to Empress Dowager Teimei, the mother of Emperor Showa. She offered the fish at the altar of Emperor Taisho and then ate some herself, according to the letter.
“Since the fish was passed around from person to person in the Imperial family, I would guess it was tsukudani [fish simmered in soy sauce and other seasonings], which can be kept for a long time,” said Hironobu Todo, 80, the director of Tsukamoto Corporation’s Jushinan museum. It was Todo who found the letter.
“When Kyoto was the capital of the country, lake fish would have been served to emperors. Honmoroko is the ‘taste of miyako [the capital or the home of the Emperor],’ loved by Imperial family members of successive generations. Their descendants would have enjoyed it with this knowledge in mind,” Todo said.
Shiga Prefecture is working to strengthen its brand recognition. The well-known products of Omi beef and lake fish could be items with broad appeal. With an eye on the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, the prefecture regards them as the main features of its branding strategy.
With regard to Omi beef, more than 450 out of 6,000 heads of Omi cattle are exported every year to six countries and regions such as Singapore and Thailand. This year marks a decade since Omi beef was registered as a trademark.
Amid a growing trend for health consciousness, the prefecture aims to take a further leap forward by emphasizing the fact that the beef is rich in oleic acid, said to reduce bad cholesterol.
“As there are many rivals for ‘wagyu’ beef not only in Japan but also overseas, we want to emphasize Omi beef’s long history, in which it was eaten by samurai warriors and shoguns,” a prefectural government official said.
Brazil is one of the countries targeted for exports, and it would be the first South American nation to import beef from Japan. It won’t be long before people are enjoying Omi beef sukiyaki on special occasions even on the opposite side of the Earth.
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