(Image credit: Ivan/Getty Images)
Held every five years, the Zenkyo beef competition is only partially about winning. It’s also about the Japanese concept of “ikigai” and the search for the Shangri-La of steak.
There’s a unique competition in Japan that’s reminiscent of the Westminster Dog Show, where animals are celebrated for their beauty, breeding and other attributes. But unlike their canine comrades, this contest is about food, these animals are cows, and the winning breeders get the opportunity to sell their cattle and carcasses to the best restaurants and butchers in the world at the highest price.
This is the Japanese Wagyu Olympics, and these are high “steaks”. But that’s only half of the story.
The Wagyu Olympics (formally known as Zenkyo) was launched in 1966 to help encourage a high level of cattle breeding, tourism and promote Wagyu beef in and out of the country. The competition takes place every five years and awards cattle farmers with the designation of the best beef in the world.
There are two main competitive categories: Breed Improvement, which judges a cow on its size, proportions and other outwardly visible standards; and Meat Quality, where the carcasses are judged on fat quality and content. At the end of the competition, the best breeding cows and carcasses are sold at auction to the highest bidders in Japan. Beef sales from the auction can run upwards of ¥72,000 (about £442). And if you’ve seen Wagyu beef on a menu and were shocked by the price, this is why.
Both a competition and a trade show, the Wagyu Olympics always starts with a theme. For the 2022 event, the theme roughly translates to “shining a spotlight on the power of regional Wagyu beef”, which aims to highlight the diversity of Wagyu beef throughout the country. This year’s competition takes place 6-10 October and will see 41 prefectures competing for the best Wagyu, with the show attracting nearly half a million people during the five-day event.
At the Wagyu Olympics, cows are judged on their beauty, breeding and other attributes (Credit: National Competitive Exhibition of Wagyu)
Over the course of the week, pairs of breeding cows and fattening cows will be paraded and prodded and (sadly) slaughtered for Wagyu beef supremacy. But winning is only partially about competing. It’s also about the Japanese concept of ikigai and the search for the Shangri-La of steak.
“[Ikigai] is a deep sense of purpose; the reason for getting up every morning; that which gives one’s life much of its meaning,” said Andrea Fazzari, James Beard award-winning photographer and author of Sushi Shokunin. “Iki means “life” and gai conveys a sense of value. What a shokunin (master) does daily should not only bring him or herself meaning, but it should also bring meaning or pleasure to others.”
In Japan, craftspeople and practitioners of all stripes are known for their relentless pursuit of perfection in whichever field they trade in. You can see this in everything from rice cultivation to the elaborate artistry of Raku tea bowls to sushi masters like the protagonist of the acclaimed film Jiro Dreams of Sushi.
It’s this pursuit of excellence that also drives Wagyu beef farmers to breed the ultimate cow and the Olympics is their opportunity to share their life’s work.
The soft fat in Wagyu beef has a lower rendering point than other beef fat (Credit: vichie81/Getty Images)
But let’s back up. Technically speaking, “Wagyu” simply means Japanese cow. They are cows that are selectively bred for their ability to produce intramuscular fat, which gives the beef its signature marbling. If you see a steak with white lines streaming throughout (as opposed to fatty blobs around the edges), you’re seeing the marbling first-hand.
“Intramuscular means the fat is within the muscles. It’s the last fat that gets deposited. It’s the most metabolically expensive, and it’s the hardest to achieve,” said Mark Schatzker, author of Steak: One Man’s Search for the World’s Tastiest Piece of Beef. He explained that the Japanese farmers achieve this high level of marbling because they feed their cattle a “cooler ration, like barley, that’s diluted with higher fibre feeds such as hay, that are far less calorically intense over a much longer period of time.” As a result, the Wagyu cattle put on weight slowly, which helps give the beef its marbling. Schatzker goes on to say that in contrast, a hot ration, often corn, is what cows are fed in a feedlot that is much more energy dense and pushes the cattle to put on fat much faster – hence the blobs.
Marbling is only one factor in giving Wagyu beef its distinctive taste. Schatzker says the cattle “retain more flavour because they’re eating more green stuff, so that they have time to actually develop some flavour and deposit that flavour in their flesh.” But the selective breeding also plays a major factor because Wagyu cows have a prominent gene called delta-9 desaturase.
“This is interesting because Wagyu is a breed which really does have distinctive traits that you can taste… And one of the traits is the soft fat. All cattle have the delta-9 desaturase gene, but Wagyu express it more,” Schatzker explained. “And this [gene] converts stearic acid – which is a saturated fat – into oleic acid, which is a monounsaturated fat that’s the fat that’s predominant in olive oil.”
Wagyu cows have a prominent gene called delta-9 desaturase (Credit: gyro/Getty Images)
“The result is that the fat has a lower rendering point. And it has a softness you can feel in your mouth, and I think it also has a slightly sweeter taste. It produces a different flavour profile.”
When it comes to competing within the Wagyu world, there are scales that determine the beef’s quality (and ultimately its price). Perhaps you’ve heard of A5 Wagyu. The “A” means that a particular cow had a high yield (how much meat you can get from it) – a “B” or “C” is a lower yield but doesn’t mean less quality. And that cow’s fat content – the “5” – was very high as well. On top of the A1-A5 scale, there’s also a Beef Marbling Standard (BMS) with a scale that goes from 1-12. So, if a steak is rated A5-12, it’s considered the very best of the best.
“I think the thing that makes it so interesting, as with everything the Japanese do, they take it to such an extent that seems almost unimaginable,” said Schatzker. “The American beef industry is driven by marbling, and everybody thinks Prime [the highest grade] is the apotheosis. And then you see, like an A2 ribeye in Japan, and the scale goes up to A5 and it just destroys Prime. It makes it look like a joke. And the Japanese do this with everything. They take things other people have done in other cultures, and they perfect them. Everything they touch, they perfect. And they’ve done that with beef.”
Achieving steak perfection in Japan is more about the journey than the goal, however. Fazzari explained that one aspect of ikigai is kaizen, or the notion of constant improvement.
Chef Kentaro Ikuta at AMA Sushi leans into the notion of kaizen when serving fish and Wagyu (Credit: Jakob Layman/AMA Sushi)
Chef Kentaro Ikuta at the newly opened AMA Sushi inside the Rosewood Miramar Beach hotel in Montecito, California, leans into this notion of kaizen when considering the fish and Wagyu he’s serving to customers. “I am a family man, passionate about my craft and the constant [search for] perfection [while] being aware that perfection never comes. Every day, when I shine my knife… or use my hands to measure the salt and the vinegar in the rice, I know that one millimetre or one-gram counts and I am aware how much a little detail can make the difference in my life and in the world around me.”
Eating Wagyu in Japan
Looking for the Shangri-la of steak while visiting Japan? Head to Kitashinchi Fukutatei in Osaka, a one-Michelin-starred restaurant that’s known for its furnace-grilled chateaubriand steak sandwiches. If you’re in Kyoto, check out Miyoshi, another Michelin-starred spot with a bevy of steak dishes. For the Wagyu Olympic champion Miyazaki Prefecture, you can find a list on their website of restaurants in Japan (and around the world) that carry their award-winning beef. If you want to see a Wagyu farm first-hand, you can find tours that will get you up close and personal with the cows.
Like other trade masters around Japan, Wagyu farmers also embody this idea of kaizen. According to Mika White, a tourism marketing specialist at Tourism Exchange Japan, “Wagyu cattle farmers pride themselves to raise the best Wagyu a consumer could have. It’s their life’s work to keep on perfecting the highest quality and be recognised with the quality by the consumer. Honorary awards mean a lot here in Japan.”
Although there’s no cash prize for the winning prefecture at the Wagyu Olympics, there is an immense sense of pride and honour for the winning farmers. And winning is important in several other ways.
“It’s a great way to showcase a beef brand [that’s] lesser known nationally,” said White. “By winning the competition, the beef price will go up, so this is the most important competition for the farmer and the prefecture as well.” She added that when specific regions get recognition for their Wagyu, tourists will come to seek out the best of the best, wherever it may be.
The 41 prefectures competing in the 2022 Olympics will all bring their cattle to Kagoshima Prefecture on Japan’s southern island of Kyushu. The island is also home to the dominant force in the Wagyu competition world: Miyazaki Prefecture. Miyazaki is readily considered the best producer of the highest-rated Wagyu steaks and has won in at least one category at the previous three Olympics (something that’s never been done before). And this year, they’re competing on their home turf.
The Wagyu Olympics (formally known as Zenkyo) was launched in 1966 to help encourage a high level of cattle breeding (Credit: National Competitive Exhibition of Wagyu)
You can find Miyazaki beef at the best restaurants in the world, and chefs will contend that it’s due to the consistency of the product. (Consistency in exported Wagyu can vary and is often due to restrictions on beef imports by local governments.)
Hilary Henderson, a private chef and the former chef de cuisine at world-famous Wolfgang Puck steakhouse CUT Lounge in Beverly Hills, added, “It’s good to give people different options of things to try, but you want to be able to produce the same results over and over again. And having Miyazaki be consistently rated so high makes that easier for a chef to know that they can continue to be consistent with the product.”
Chef Ikuta uses Miyazaki Wagyu at his restaurant because, “[It’s] the combination of care of raising the cattle, the extreme regulations they must go through to ensure quality, and the feeding and the genetic makeup of their marbled meat.” He continued, “The feeding of [Miyazaki’s Wagyu cattle] the kuroge washu (one of the Japanese wagyu breeds) comprises 15 kinds of feed, such as grass from the meadow, moist barley mash (a by-product of beer brewing), maize and so forth, with no preservatives or antibiotics whatsoever. The feed for the cattle is mixed every morning and evening during an extremely labour-intensive process lasting two hours.”
When you ask the Japanese farmers themselves about this labour of “steak” love, it’s easy to get a sense that these cows are more than just a commodity. “The most important thing is to create the best environment for the cattle and to give them as much love as possible… We do not see them only as animals; we treat them with respect and love,” said Karatsu Maeda, a fattening farmer from the Saga Prefecture, a main rival of Miyazaki that is also located on Kyushu.
Wagyu farmers aim to create the best environment for their cattle (Credit: Karatsu Maeda Livestock Co)
For Maeda and other farmers, however, raising the best beef always comes back to ikigai, which for him means “ultimately [being] able to deliver delicious beef to consumers”. He continued, “We need to work cautiously with our cattle (and give them as much love as possible throughout their life). If we win, our family and employees, as well as our ancestors, will be most pleased with the news for sure.”
While it’s impossible to achieve true perfection in any one thing, much less beef (especially since food quality can be subjective), the Wagyu Olympics helps drive farmers to get really close as they pursue their life’s work. And thanks to the Japanese concept of ikigai, we might be eating better because of it.
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