Golden Week! It’s the last of the Golden Week holidays today, when Japan shuts down and everyone goes traveling. This year, it was time to venture west once more, this time to Kobe and Osaka. Kobe and Osaka are in a region of Japan called Kansai, famous for its brilliant food, more relaxed pace of life, comedy, and regional dialect, Kansai-ben. Both are great places for a holiday, but perhaps the best place to start is the food. After all, Osaka is the home of kuidaore (literally, “eat until you drop”), a motto I tried hard to live up to.
At the top of my list of things to do in Kobe: eat Kobe beef. Kobe beef, you might remember, is that notoriously expensive cut of meat famous for the cows being massaged and fed beer. Despite the expense, I knew that I had to try it – and I guess Kobe is relying on tourists like me, because if all the locals ate like this every night, they’d be well-fed and living in refrigerator boxes. The prices are something like this (rough rule of thumb to convert to Australian dollars – move the decimal point two places to the left, add on another 15 percent, and you’re about there):
Following a recommendation of a local, your humble scribe went to a lovely establishment called Steak Land. The name conjured up visions of sirloins dangling from trees, kids playfully splashing each other with meat sauce and mascots dressed as porterhouses annoying everyone. While it didn’t have the mascots, it was definitely in the top 10 meals I’ve ever had.
Firstly: to settle the debate on how to BBQ a steak. When you’re dealing with a $60 slab of meat in a city famous for its beef, I’m going to assume these guys are going to know a thing or two. Watch how they do it for yourself:
He’s cooking on a teppan, which is a hotplate positioned right in front of the diner.
Now, maybe you’ve been to teppanyaki before, where a Japanese chef cooks food right in front of you before throwing it all over your clothes. Japanese people agree with me that this is a stupid idea. Most express utter bewilderment when I explain this popular perversion of their culture. In Japan, a teppan is just an indoor barbecue, nothing more, no floor show.
This particular establishment seemed to know that consuming a lovely steak in lovely surrounds helps too. Warm, dark hardwood furniture, shiny stainless steel hotplates running the length of the room, numerous skilled chefs who bow very politely before beginning their work: no wonder the queue was out the door.
Of course, this being Japan, steaks are often eaten with chopsticks rather than a knife and fork. So, there’s no big slabs of beef set before customers here: not by the time the chef is done with them, anyway. Everything is bite-sized and cooked to perfection.
The golden flakes adorning the steak in the picture below are fried garlic – a lot of fried garlic. Now, I’m a fan of garlic, but the couple of cloves I was served proved to be far above my threshold.
So, where is Steak Land? In Kobe, near Sannomiya Station. Just look for the dodgy alleyway packed with dodgy hostess clubs, dodgy girly bars and dodgy guys promoting both, and you’ll know you’re there.
Although I say that, it’s important to understand that the dodgiest parts of many Japanese cities are probably safer than the safest parts of many others. The combination of police and local organised crime keep the peace very effectively.
So, to sum up: Kobe beef is everything it’s cracked up to be, and you should definitely try it sometime. You’re looking at around $63 AUD a head for dinner, but lunchtime dining is up to half price. Maybe it’s just my post-extravagant-meal-justification gland kicking in, but I don’t think I’ve had a better steak. Each piece just melts in your mouth, and is worthy of a meditative contemplation as you eat. Since everyone is sitting counter-style next to people you don’t know, this is probably one of the few meals where a lack of conversation is welcome as you worship at the Temple of Beef.