It’s worth every single penny spent to fly to Japan.
We’ve all heard stories about why Kobe beef is a delicacy: the cattle are gently massaged by maids, they are fed beer, and at the end of the day, they sleep with piped-in music. Guess what? It isn’t true. Shocking, isn’t it. I suppose there is either just too much duplicity and deception in this world, or perhaps, we want to believe in magic – that there is pay-off after the effort; harvest after the reaping; life after death. The reality, surprising as it may be, is much simpler than you think. Isolating the herd, making sure it’s a bull or virgin cow, and not just any cattle – it has to be the Tajima-gyu born, bred and slaughtered in Hyogo Prefecture in Japan (where Kobe is located in), which takes longer to breed – as well as singular feeding techniques did the trick – creating the marbling. Kobe beef isn’t sold outside Japan, but that hasn’t stopped anybody from trying to replicate it. Overseas, cows born, bred and slaughtered in a similar Kobe style (but aren’t pure Tajima-gyu breeds) are given another name – one that is being increasingly misused globally, not just within Singapore’s F&B scene: wagyu.
Coming to Japan – to Kansai and Keihanshin, and today in Kobe, it’d have been absolutely unspeakable not to sample this prized delicacy. Yet, our plans to have this nearly derailed when my travel partner suddenly declared he was running low on cash. At this stage, I was delirious – for me, there was nearly no need to embark on today’s day trip to the port city. But knowing this nation, if you can’t have it in all its glitz and glamor, there’s always the poor man’s version – it wouldn’t be as refined, but hey, you get to tick off your bucket list. By hook or by crook, I had to have my Kobe beef in Kobe.
The excellent rail infrastructure makes Kobe easily accessible from literally, any part of Japan. Unless you’re traveling on the Shinkansen, Sannomiya is the station not only for Kobe, but the city’s downtown as well. With the Kansai Thru Pass rail pass in hand, which grants us free access to all private (read: non-JR) railway networks with a really small exception, we boarded the Hankyu Kobe Line Limited Express service at Osaka-Umeda station. We cover the 32.3 kilometre journey in just 20 minutes.
We take the Osaka Subway from minami-Morimachi to higashi-Umeda on the Tanimachi Line.
Note the interesting platform configuration.
Once at higashi-Umeda, we navigate the complex Osaka-Umeda station network for the Hankyu Umeda station.
We board the Hankyu Kobe Line Limited Express service bound for Shinkaichi, the last station serving Hyogo Prefecture and its capital, Kobe.
And in 20 minutes, we reach Kobe-Sannomiya.
On our arrival, we head straight for the Tourist Information Centre. I’m more of a wanderer, but my travel partner appreciates knowledge and confirmation, so on arrival, we head straight for the Tourist Information Centre. We took a while to locate it, and we were soon walking around in circles. Only after he determined we couldn’t find it did he listen to my advice: if you’re ever lost in Japan, head straight for your nearest JR station. Ironically, these “semi-private but mostly government-owned” railway operators (formerly JNR, the rail divisions have been split by geographic region, so JR East serves Eastern Japan, JR West serves Western Japan, JR Kyushu serves Kyushu, and so on…) are the most tourist friendly with clearly marked signs and manned tourist information centres (understandable, since the JR network will more likely than not be your first contact with any city or region itself). On our wishes for an affordable Kobe beef meal, the delightful service staff directed us to Steakland, a chain located directly north of Sannomiya station. The sign is red, and the words “Steak Land” are clear in English – it’s pretty hard to miss it. If you manage to miss it, surely you won’t miss the snaking queue leading you to its doorstep?
“Steak Land”. I think we’re at the right place.
It was unusually chilly in Kobe, so when we were finally ushered in, I embraced the warmth inside, completely. Steakland adopts a decor typical of American steakhouses like Lawry’s and Ruth’s Chris – bricked walls and strong wood furniture – a generally warm and homely vibe you might say, but it’s given a Japanese “teppanyaki” twist, presenting every diner with a front row seat of the chef in action. Now, there’s a fine line between cheap and affordable, and Steakland certainly isn’t the former. The lunch set retails a mere 150 gram steak at JPY 2980, which when I went, cost the equivalent of SGD 45. Their dinner sets however, skyrockets to as much as JPY 8940, and even at that price, it’s considered very low still. In Japan, food truly subscribes to the mantra of “you get what you pay for”, and let’s be real about it: SGD 45 worth of steak isn’t going to score you the most expensive, most marbled, most superior of meats. If you were expecting THE most tantalizing, melt-in-your-mouth experience in your life, you might want to fork out a lot more money, and at a different place.
The setting is warm and welcoming.
After we place our orders, our salad swiftly arrives.
First, the chef greets everybody, and asks for preference of doneness. Owing to the lower melting point of the Tajima-gyu’s unsaturated fats (the good ones, and the ones responsible for the marbling), do not, under any circumstances, ask for anything more than a medium rare. At “medium”, the Tajima-gyu’s tenderness is equivalent to the level of what is generally considered “too well done”. Don’t worry about the bloodied red meat oozing out – there’s none to be worried about, even when served rare. Accompanied with bean sprouts, garlic chips and two steak sauces, and served with a simple salad, miso soup and rice, this simple set-up was my initiation into genuine Kobe Tajima-gyu, teppanyaki style. The chef instructs us in the manner of eating – dab the bite-sized chunk ever so slightly into either of the sauce, and with a single garlic chip, place it in the mouth; rice after that, and repeat.
Our chefs starts the show by frying some garlic chips.
Our share of Tajima-gyu.
He stir-fries some vegetables on the side.
Like hot knife through butter. The anticipation is killing me.
Cut into bite-sized pieces.
There, mine. It’s all mine. My precious…
Finally plated as it was intended.
It wasn’t fantastic, expectedly. Despite requesting for medium rare, it was a lot more “done” than I desired – it was tender and juicy, no doubt, but not amazingly so.