KOGA — At the crack of dawn on a cold February morning, Katsuo Nagashima woke up in his farmhouse in Koga, Ibaraki Prefecture, just northeast of Tokyo.
He put on his black turtleneck sweater, his old, dark blue sweatpants and white rubber boots. After breakfast, he left home to see his friend Katsu Yasu who lived nearby.
When the two met, Nagashima carefully inquired about Katsu’s health, how he’d slept the night before and if he needed anything: Was he hungry? Thirsty?
He got Katsu fresh water, but first checked the water temperature to make sure it was 15-16 degrees Celsius. “Just the way he likes,” he says.
As Katsu quietly began to drink his water, Nagashima leaned over and gently patted his friend’s head.
Every day for the past 20 months, this has been Nagashima’s morning routine.
A friend helping another whose days are numbered would not be out of place — except that Katsu is an 800-kilogram bovine whose beef Nagashima hopes will win the top prize at the Hitachi Wagyu Beef Carcass Championships in exactly one week from now.
At a recent Hitachi wagyu beef tasting event held at Chef Hiroki Abe’s EN Japanese Brasserie in New York City’s West Village, Ibaraki governor Kazuhiko Oigawa spoke of the beef’s nearly 200-year-long history dating back to the shoguns’ herds, its versatility and full range of flavor and texture.
“Hitachi is very soft and thin-tissued. Because it’s not oily, it’s also very healthy,” he added.
Also present at the event was Michael Ferraro of Delicatessen, the international comfort food restaurant in SoHo, who praised the “intricate but simple execution” of the shabu shabu rolled around sushi rice – one of the six dishes Abe had created for the evening using Hitachi wagyu beef.
Gennaro Pecchia, a co-producer of the radio show “Roland’s Food Court” on Sirius FM, liked the fact that the beef needed nothing additional. “It’s super clean and has the perfect fat-meat ratio. Heaven on a plate!” he said.
“It just melts in your mouth,” commented Julian Medina, a former Iron Chef and owner of the Upper East Side Mexican taqueria chain Toloache. “Why not make Hitachi beef tacos?”
With such praise and adoration from New York chefs and food experts, it begs to question: What is it about Japanese beef farming that makes it so unique?
The big difference between Japanese and Western beef consumption is that, unlike in foreign countries where meat is consumed as the main dish, it is often served as a side dish in Japan. As such, the country aims to develop the quality of beef rather than its quantity.
“You don’t eat wagyu every day; it’s reserved for celebrations,” Nagashima remarks.
Sixty percent of the beef he produces is sold through the wagyu dealers whose high-end customers seek that rare meat with the most “umami” flavor.
In the bubble economy of the ’90s, it was not unheard of for a single steak to sell for 110,000 yen (approximately $1,100) at restaurants in Tokyo’s posh Ginza district, Nagashima remembers.
The bloodline on the animal’s maternal side is an important component to a champion’s DNA when it comes to producing the tastiest wagyu beef.
“The best animal has a short neck, thick horns, a wide forehead, thin skin and a short and curly tail,” according to Nagashima. “Its back should be curved as if to hold water when it rains.”
Katsu is a “steer” (a castrated male) of the Kuroge Washu (Japanese Black) breed, which is the most famous of the four breeds in Japan with its brown-tinted black coat and a fat concentration reaching as high as 60 percent.
Katsu was born on Aug. 22, 2016, to a cow named Hideko in Aomori Prefecture at the northernmost tip of Japan’s main island some 800 kilometers from Tokyo.
Once Katsu had been weaned off, Nagashima selected him at a breeder’s auction when the calf was 10 months old and weighed around 250 kilograms.
Nagashima feeds Katsu and the 34 other steers living in his barn’s 10 wide pens using his own blend of Ibaraki barley and kelp seaweed — “not the imported stuff” — and makes seasonal changes to the feed. He knows each animal by heart and adjusts their daily portion according to their own needs.
It took him two years to perfect the recipe. The only other thing he gives to his calves when they first arrive at the farm is vitamin A; he doesn’t use any antibiotics or hormones.
Nagashima dismisses Western rumors and speculation about wagyu cattle being made to drink beer to make their meat tender.
“Beer’s too expensive to give to the animals!” he jokes.
So what’s the secret ingredient to raising prized beef? Apart from love and a healthy diet, good quality water goes a long way, confirms Yaguchi from the Hitachi Beef Association, as it makes up 70% of the animal’s body. Fortunately, the water in Ibaraki is so esteemed that it’s used for producing sake, as well.
New advances in cattle farming have found their way to Nagashima’s barn, too.
In Japan, all cattle are now assigned an ID number so customers can look up their breeder and finisher information online, should they wish to track the source of their meat. Sure enough, Katsu has yellow tabs stamped with the number 1494677372 dangling from both his ears.
Innovation hasn’t stopped there: A paper published last year by Japanese agricultural scientists in the Asian-Australian Journal of Animal Sciences even raised the prospect of developing a metabolic program and an IoT (Internet of Things) management system for wagyu beef production.
But Japanese livestock technology and developments in animal science aren’t at the heart of Nagashima’s success with Hitachi wagyu beef. When it comes to raising a wagyu champion, it all comes down to something deeper, even spiritual: “To become one with the beast’s feeling,” as Nagashima puts it.
He breathes and even dreams wagyu.
In Ibaraki’s colder winter nights, he often wakes up in the middle of the night to check on his animals.
“Are they cold? Because cattle are like humans. If I’m feeling cold, then they must be, too.”
His barn, which he cleans twice daily, is spotless and smells of fresh hinoki wood shavings that he mixes with soft silica sand from the Japan Sea shores of Akita Prefecture neighboring Katsu’s home of Aomori.
The animals are pampered, too. Every day, Nagashima brushes and massages Katsu and others with a special brush made of wild boar hair. Someone also comes to cut their hooves regularly. There’s even an old radio attached to a wall in the barn, playing Japanese music to keep them company all day.
“Without my cattle, I would be just an ordinary old man. They are like gods to me,” he says as he sweeps under Katsu with a twig broom.
All 35 steers in Nagashima’s barn appear in a state of relaxation and unafraid of human touch, as if they trust Nagashima with their lives. In fact, they barely make any sounds at all, possibly even on the way to the abattoir.
Nagashima hometown in Koga is also home to the best quality Hitachi wagyu beef in the prefecture. Sadly, the number of finishers like Nagashima has been nearly halved across Japan in the last decade, from some 80,000 in 2008 to around 50,000 by February 2017, and Koga is no exception.
Nagashima has no heir, except his daughter who works in the city. To ensure that the production of Hitachi wagyu beef continues, he has been passing his secret animal husbandry techniques to younger generations — like his 47-year-old apprentice, Takahiro Utsugi.
A former company employee and the son of a finisher, Utsugi traded his business suit for his father’s overalls. But it wasn’t easy.
“Cleaning the cows and feeding them early every morning without a single day’s rest was rather hard to get used to,” he says.
Winning a prize of any kind at a national competition can mean an immense financial boost to a finisher’s business.
A list on the table in Nagashima’s makeshift office shows the animals he has raised, including one BMS 12, A5-grade carcass fetching as high as 1.870 million yen in a past auction.
Yet, Nagashima looks and acts unfazed by fame and fortune, having lived modestly for the past 50 years he’s been a finisher. Some decades ago, at around the age of 45, he even worked without any real source of income.
“Someone had said to me at the time: The fattest cattle would get the most money and win the prize.”
He followed that advice, but came away empty-handed. His cattle failed to attract buyers and he would go on to lose every single competition for nearly 6 years.
Out of desperation, he says, he once even made the 70-kilometer journey from Koga to an auction in Toranomon in central Tokyo entirely on foot, with his cattle in tow.
“Small or big, champion or not … Cattle are living creatures. They grow up with emotions as humans do,” he says.
Following this interview, Katsuo Nagashima took home the “Outstanding Performance Award” at the Hitachi Wagyu Beef Carcass Championships held on March 6 in Tokyo.