Japan’s Saga Prefecture…My Xanadu
A prefecture is an administrative region in Japan, under a directly elected governor, much like a province here in the Philippines, although the former has more governing functions than the latter. It was in 1868 when Japan’s central government created prefectures, of which there are 47, to replace the provinces.
Saga Prefecture is the smallest prefecture on Kyushu island, at the southwestern tip of Japan. Its location, which is near the rest of Asia, has made it a convenient conduit for the continent’s culture and trade to seep into the area.
It is largely rural, as 68 percent of its total area is occupied by agricultural and forested land, which contributes a big chunk to the prefecture’s economic standing. Saga Prefecture is Japan’s largest producer of mochigome (sticky rice) and mandarin oranges. Its abundant produce also includes onions and strawberries.
There are, however, other significant contributors to its economy. Tourism draws in curious visitors to the Yoshinogari Historical Park which has preserved an original village of an Iron Age-era Japanese tribe, their houses, tools, jewelry, pottery and many other items related to that period of Japan’s history. The prefecture is also known for its attractive ceramics, which have found loyal importers from all over the world.
But, of late, our local wine and food connoisseurs have been abuzz with two important products of Saga Prefecture---Saga Sake and Saga Beef. Since the area is one of the biggest rice-producing districts in Japan, thanks to its vast plains, it is not surprising that Sake, which is made from fermented rice, would be one of its prime products. It also helps that the area has abundant high-quality underground water from mountain ranges to the north and south of it, making its rice fields yield superior quality grains.
Unlike the Sake from other parts of Japan which tastes crispy and dry, Saga Sake is known to have a rich and strong flavor, the reason for its being a consistent winner in the International Wine Challenge in the United Kingdom and the National Sake Appraisal held yearly in Hawaii.
But what actually got me curious about Saga Prefecture is its brand of Wagyu Beef, the Saga-gyu. Wagyu Beef is my favorite when I decide to splurge on dinner for my family or close friends. What makes the beef expensive is its being a result of superior breeding technique that starts with a nine-month-old calf, raised in a stress-free fertile farm, and fed only with rice straw blended with grain-based feed. The prefecture’s mild, 16-degree-Centigrade climate and its clean water make it ideal for breeding cattle that yield such high-quality meat.
Saga-gyu, is from cattle that have been fattened under these conditions, provided with a suitable grazing area at all times, and processed for distribution and export when they are about two-and-a-half years old. By then, they would already have “marbled” meat, which means, meat with intramuscular fat. This “marbling” creates a naturally enhanced flavor, tenderness and juiciness, guaranteeing its exquisite taste and elevating its quality to nothing less than superb.
This is why I am very excited to learn that starting May this year, New World Manila Bay will offer this glorious dinner centerpiece at its restaurants. The Market Café will banner Saga-gyu in the Japanese buffet section, with an enticing array of appetizers, and a build-your-own teppanyaki with stir fry vegetables.
For those who prefer privacy, sophistication and a deeper appreciation of the meat, there is the hotel’s fine dining restaurant, The Fireplace, where one can book a Saga Sake and Saga Beef dinner, whipped up by guest Master Chef Akio Shimoyama.
During the hotel’s Saga Beef Launch, I had the opportunity to chat with an officer from Saga Prefecture, Fujita Yuki, who spoke very good English. I asked him if the Saga cattle are also made to drink beer and listen to classical music, which is what I heard about some farmers breeding cattle for Wagyu Beef. He told me that Saga farmers do not do that at all, as such practice has never really proven any direct link to the quality of the meat. He says that if there are farmers doing that, they just do it “to attract and excite tourists.”
Now you know why I’m on a self-imposed diet these days. I want to lose weight and prepare myself for Saga Beef dinners this May. After all, I learned from my young students that, when faced with something exciting and appealing, sometimes it’s best to remind ourselves of “YOLO” (You Only Live Once). So, if Hollywood’s Michael Beck and Olivia Newton-John had their Xanadu, I’m going to have my Saga-gyu!
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