Rich in flavor and history, the locally-farmed wagyu beef at JA Ashin of Niimi, Japan will change your life!
Farmer-owned cooperative restaurant and market!
My life changed forever the first time I had wagyu beef. I first ate Kobe beef at Ishida Kitanozaka (highly recommended!!!), and everything – from the ambiance to the staff to the presentation – was top notch, but none of that was really important because as soon as I put a piece of wagyu past my lips, it literally melted in my mouth like butter. It was the most heavenly thing I have ever eaten.
We stumbled upon JA Ashin while searching for a wagyu restaurant, and it caught our attention. Local farmers own the restaurant and an adjoining market, where they are able to sell their own products directly to consumers. Having grown up on a farm, I loved the thought of supporting them here.
What I didn’t know, though, is that coming to Niimi would be give us much more than a nice meal; we would be experiencing the very origin of Japanese wagyu!
Before Japan opened up to the west in 1868 with the Meiji Restoration, cattle were used strictly as labor animals. After western nations began introducing foreign strains of cattle, beef began to be raised for consumption, and eventually four strains were identified: Japanese Black, Japanese Brown, Japanese Polled, and Japanese Shorthorn.
What most people don’t know is that, in 1850, a wealthy man in present-day Chiya, Okayama Pref., bought a cow that became the foundation for almost all Japanese wagyu today. And guess where he bought that cow!
The cow that Ota Tatsugoro bought bred really well, and it’s line became the backbone of the kuroge ushi, or black-haired beef cattle, throughout all of Japan.
The restaurant was refreshingly simple and approachable. The staff made us feel welcome, and immediately showed us to a table (with a Westerner-friendly leg space underneath). There are a number of set meals available, including children sets, and you can make a selection based on which cuts of meat you prefer…or you can ask for all of it, like we did.
Bliss. Zen in your mouth.
Generously salt any of the cuts, on all sides. Place it on the yakiniku grill, and cook it to medium-rare perfection. Remove it to your plate, pick it up with your chopsticks, and…
Melt. The meat melts, you melt, buttery oleic acid spreads throughout your mouth, and you close your eyes because you have to focus your entire brain on the ecstasy that is overloading your senses.
The flavor is delicate, yet perfectly balanced – really just a mild savoriness from the beef accompanying an intensely satisfying richness from the fats, with salt to wake up your tongue. And yet, this simple food will blow your mind.
The accompanying produce – sweet onions, cabbage, squash and peppers – tasted like they came straight from a garden. The kids’ food was cooked before it came to the table, so all we had to think about was making sure the food went in their mouths and not on their clothes.
That also gave us more time to continue enjoying our meal – a rich pleasure to the last bite.
I feel bad for even mentioning the price, because this meal was a stunning value.
At Ishida in Kobe, I bought the same meal set twice, once for lunch and once for dinner. It came with 120g of meat and an assortment of sides for ¥8500 for lunch and ¥13500 for dinner. The massive plate of meat at Ashin? ¥4700. The tray of local vegetables was included, with some soy-based sauces and salts on the side, and the kid’s meal that we split between them was ¥1150.
I haven’t had Matsusaka or Omi beef yet, but I can absolutely say that this blew all three of my Kobe beef experiences out of the water.
Are you ready for the icing on the cake?
Meet the cows
After asking very nicely (a few times, to two people), eating our meal, making a purchase at the market, and having a phone call made on our behalf, we were given special permission to visit the farm where the cows are raised.
A friendly staff member was expecting us when we arrived, and after verifying that we were not Korean, Chinese or Taiwanese (no explanation given for that), she assured us that Americans were ok, and she led us onto the farm.
As much as I would have hoped for verdant pastures, the farm is definitely more industrial in its design. What deeply impressed me, though, was the curiosity and friendly interactions we saw amongst the cows. I grew up with a dairy farm just down the street; I’ve never seen cows so curious and engaged. They were more like dogs playing together than cows I’ve seen.
Ultimately, as we wiped off our shoes on the waterlogged manure-remover mat, I was pleased. The animals were healthy in body and mind, and I feel great about continuing to eat them a couple times per year.
Classic Japanese Park!
After driving back through the narrow mountain pass, we decided to stop at a park that caught our eye. This park was better than average but had all the classic character we have come to love about random Japanese parks, with a net walkway to climb to the top and a roller slide whose rollers had seized up toward the end (hint: don’t try to ride down on your feet), but the coolest part was the semi-natural waterslides!
What a cool idea! We didn’t have bathing suits, so I didn’t get to personally test them out, but Royce did while holding my hand, and it was slick! If you started from the top, you’d get moving pretty good by the end – and the water is plenty deep to stop you.
Besides the ends of the slides, the water was no more than a foot deep, and it was slow moving. Still,not a place to let children swim unattended with the slide and slippery rocks.
Make a day trip of it or stay overnight – but be sure to visit Niimi!
Where have you had an amazing meal in Japan? Share with us your favorites!