Kumamoto Horse Meat: Horses for Courses 馬刺し
Traveling slowly to places with exceptional dishes can be as exciting as finally tasting them in all their delicacy.
Seeing and smelling the landscape, where the animals you are about to eat are raised, brings you into a totally different relationship with your food than just walking into an eatery and ordering a dish off the menu.
Kumamoto Prefecture in western Kyushu is famous for its horse meat, known as sakura nikku (cherry blossom meat) - and an ideal place to travel to slowly.
Take the ferry from Osaka or Kobe to Beppu (Oita Prefecture), then board the Trans-Kyushu-Express. The little red train consists of only 2 cars, travels only 4 times per day and takes you right through the Kumamoto horse breeding grounds at Mount Aso.
The landscapefrom the train is superb Aso tops it all. Some ten thousand years ago, Aso was Japan's largest vulcano - much, much bigger then today's Mount Fuji. Then, it blew up in what must have been an incredibly gigantic explosion. The results are still clearly visible today: the world's largest volcanic crater with an active volcano at its center next to ragged mountains left over from the debris of the big bang. Up on those mountains are plenty of rich grasslands, ideal for the breeding of free-ranging cattle and horses. This is Japan's wild horse land.
Kato Kiyomasa (1562-1611), Kumamoto's most famous daimyo (feudal lord), quickly grasped the possibilities of the great pastures. He was an austere warlord who became one of the toughest warriors in shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi's attempt to take over Korea in the late 16th century. It was Kato who built Kumamoto Castle in the early 1600s, one of the largest and strongest castles in Japan. Kato established 5 big horse farms in the Aso area to provide sturdy battle steeds for his war efforts.
Legend also has it was Kato himself who started the tradition of eating horse meat in Kumamoto. Perhaps tasting them and liking their meat during a domestic campaign or possibly learning to eat horse from the locals while in Korea. However, the legend rings false.
From the Nara Period in the 6th century, when Buddhism became powerful in Japan right up to the Meiji Restoration in the 1860s, the consumption of all four-legged animals was strictly prohibited in Japan. Some yokels in the countryside certainly put their stomachs before the law but no self-respecting samurai would ever do so. According to all accounts, Kato was a samurai warrior with the highest standards.
The tradition of eating horse in Kumamoto only started after the last samurai had long since faded away. Kumamoto prefecture had an over-abundance of horses and lots of farms breeding them in the 1960s. But by that time, horses were no longer needed for transport or agricultural work.
Japan had become motorized. Thus, horse farms began to promote their animals as food. Any old legend that would fit the new program was welcome. Horse meat became marketed as basashi. Soon, plenty of restaurants offerering the new delicacies began to sprout up in Kumamoto City. The once marginal meat has been highly popular ever since.
Horse Farms in Kumamoto
Once your train arrives at Kumamoto Station, take the creaking old tramway and head over to the Karashimachi / Kumamoto-jomae entertainment district, right below the castle. Here, you will find horse meat restaurants on almost every corner.
The most famous horse restaurant in the city is the Suganoya. You would need a week to work your way through their extensive menu. Every imaginable part of a horse that is edible is served here. That goes from a variety of horse steaks to sukiyaki to horse sushi to sashimi - sliced raw cuts, including shimofuri marbled meat resembling high-end Kobe-beef. But it doesn't stop there.
You can taste tongue, intestines, heart, and for the adventurous, even drained blood vessels. They look like short-cut thin noodles but have their very own taste. Remember, we are talking things being eaten raw here. It's all delicious, a paradise for dedicated carnivores, and the nice waitresses will patiently explain every single dish to you. The restaurant operates its own farms to make sure that you get fresh and local product. Wash it all down with the tasty local Hinokuni ale. The original beer of Kumamoto.
The eatery that invented one of the most interesting variations of horse meat in the city however is Ramu, located just around the corner from Suganoya. The Ramu chefs came up with sakura natto: horse tartar mixed with an egg and fermented natto beans. Even if you usually don't care much for natto, this combination will send you straight to heaven.
For a hearty lunch head over to the Osama Shokudo ("King's Kitchen"). A working-class lunch joint straight out of the 1960s. Cheap, quick, efficient and truly old-style. They serve uma horumon teishoku, horse intestines in a miso broth with rice. Try it. It's much better than it sounds.
Kumamoto Castle has a large statue of Kato Kiyomasa, the warrior who put the city on the map. Most likely he prefered his horses alive and under his saddle, charging the enemy lines.
Osama Shokudo: 096-322-1515
Access To Kumamoto
Ferry & Train: Take the ovenight Kansai Kisen Ferry from Osaka or Kobe to Beppu, then the JR Trans-Kyushu-Express from Beppu Station to Kumamoto. The train takes a little over 3 hours to cross Kyushu, only 4 trains per day.