Learning my ABCs

When I used to sit in the backseat on road trips through the Midwest, I remember seeing small town after small town. My brother and I, regaled to the very corners of the bench seat by mom because we’d spent the last three hours slapping each other surreptitiously, used to say about these towns, “Blink, and you’ll miss it.”

That’s how I felt the entire 13-hour day yesterday. From auction to boardroom to chef (and beyond), the breakneck pace full of fascinating information took concentration, an active mind, and had me counting my blessings throughout the day.

“You have to take risks. We will only understand the miracle of life fully when we allow the unexpected to happen.” ~Paulo Coelho

Every Monday through Friday, buyers of Waygu and other extremely high-quality domestic beef for outlets in Japan visually appraise hanging carcasses at Tokyo Market, where they sell them one at a time. This is a private auction and being granted entry is difficult for outsiders (thank you again, Eisenhower network). I had an unexpected invitation that arose on the evening we arrived in Tokyo, made possible through Takeichi-san (EF Fellow 1995). Ogawa-san, president of Ogawa Chikusan Kougyou Co., the harvest facility attached to the auction, narrated a tour through the auction and the plant. The 800 or so carcasses a day move slowly down the line as a small group of buyers appraise them with flashlights illuminating the ribeye the same way meat inspectors do in the U.S. The electronic board above each carcass flashes key information (including the name of the farmer/breeder) and the bids skyrocket. This is where the most expensive, highly marbled beef in Japan sells. For occasions like weddings and other important social gatherings, this is the type of beef Japanese people want to serve their guests. And it goes out the door here daily, one single, perfectly prepared carcass at a time. For occasions or clientele with slightly lower budgets, quality U.S. beef makes an excellent substitute.

Immediately upon sale, the carcasses are pushed (by hand) to the harvest facility, where each individual buyer provides custom specs for processing. About 30 minutes later, the custom boxed beef sails out the door on its way to the customer. Freshness, says Ogawa-san, means everything to the buyer, who pays a high premium for the honor of choosing his carcass individually, on the rail, and then dictates specs for each.

From there, the beef might be delivered to Zensho Holdings Co., Ltd, the largest foodservice company in Japan and a significant player in quick-serve restaurants around the world. Zensho operates 31 restaurant concepts, including a couple familiar, like Big Boy and CoCo’s. They are the largest beef buyer in Japan, rising above McDonald’s here. With 7,000 employees, they buy an enormous amount of U.S. beef, along with high-quality Japanese beef and many other food products. A visit with Mr. Kentaro Ogawa, chairman of the board, revealed that they love U.S. beef–enough to fight for it. For it was Ogawa-san, along with a team of employees, who traveled to the U.S. post-BSE to tour our harvest facilities and take the information gained back to the Japanese government, in a bid to convince them to open trade. Yesterday, he expressed gratification at the UTM rule, and seemed carefully optimistic about the future. His key message: Japanese consumers love high-quality beef. U.S. beef closely resembles the taste profile of domestic beef, when compared to our main competitor, Australia. U.S. marketers should stress the quality aspects of the product.

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Many thanks to Kentaro Ogawa, Chairman of the Board & CEO of Zensho Holdings Co., Inc., the largest buyer of meat in Japan, for sharing a bit of his valuable time.

This sentiment was echoed by both the managing officer and the executive chef at the Imperial Hotel. Opened in 1890 on request of Japanese aristocracy, the Imperial Hotel Tokyo caters to a more elite consumer than Zensho’s concepts. But the high-quality message came through loud and clear from both Managing Officer Inumaru-san, and  executive butcher chef Ogasawara-san. The power of respect in the Japanese family was evident as Chef Ogasawara described the discernment with which a family will choose each menu item on important occasions–beginning, preferably with highly marbled beef. Food provides the link between the Japanese values of respect for family, honor, and the celebration of important life milestones. Just after BSE, this chef had to switch his booked occasions on the fly to menu duck center of the plate–it wasn’t fun, he says, trying to work out those logistics, even though he’s a master at it. The Imperial hosts at least one wedding every weekend of the year. He’s a huge fan of U.S. beef, particularly ribeyes; a staple on his menu.

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At the Imperial Hotel, Randy and I visit with Chef Ogasawara and EF Fellow and host extraordinaire Sumio Takeichi, an independent businessman currently serving as an adviser to the governor of the Kanagawa Prefectural Government and the Japan Management Association.

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Our lunch. On the left, an example of extremely high-quality Japanese beef. Center of the plate, a beautiful, cherry-red U.S. ribeye.

Due to space, I’ll have to do a quick fly-over of a fascinating visit to the floor of the Tokyo Stock Exchange, recently consolidated with Osaka Securities, Tokyo Stock Exchange Regulations and Japan Securities Clearing Corporation, under the Japan Exchange Group (JPX). Much could be said here, but, for a quick trip off the beef path, I remember my promise to readers: an explanation of why some stocks traded here fall under a section called “Mothers.” The immensely important role of the mother in Japanese society is evident here–stocks in the “Mothers” section are higher risk, small companies needing extra nurturing and care to become successful. Tomoyoshi Uranishi-san, managing director of the Tokyo Stock Exchange, explained that innovation is a key value to Japan. Nurturing these stocks (hopefully to success, many household-name companies were first nurtured in the Mothers section), means Japan, through JPX,  constantly nurtures innovation in business.

Last evening, we were hosted for kaiseki at a ryokan by Nakamura-san, president of the Japan Management Association, where we visited about the important role of the U.S. in FoodEx, the role of women in Japanese society and much else. I’ll visit JMA formally today, to discuss FoodEx in greater detail.

kaiseki supper

While this photo looks jumbled and chaotic, our servers presented the meal in many courses, each singly as a work of art in beautiful dishes. We were seated in the midst of a beautiful traditional Japanese garden on a mild night–this made for an incredibly calming and enjoyable dinner on our first full day in Tokyo.

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Lessons for the day:

  • Japanese consumers love high-quality beef. Second only to the small amount of very high-quality beef produced domestically, U.S. beef is poised to conquer competitors that took market share after BSE, mainly because of our feeding system that results in a product with similar mouth feel and taste (even in leaner cuts) to what many Japanese consumers are used to.
  • Food decision makers here are ready to purchase more U.S. beef than ever before.
  • The public transit system makes a car completely unnecessary. If you read Japanese signage, that is. Otherwise, you’d better move right along as your host navigates huge crowds and leaps onto packed trains from crowded platforms.
  • Ladies: if you’re going to wear heels, they’d better be comfortable. Japanese people walk very fast. And, you will be need to remove your shoes and put on slippers on multiple occasions–even at the offices of a harvest facility! Wear socks or hose so you don’t squish around in bare feet (ask me how I know).
  • If you plan (or don’t plan!) a 13-hour marathon on your first day (I wouldn’t have missed a single experience for anything, thank you again EF network and my host Takeichi-san), consider a cup of Zensho’s extremely smooth Mexican fair trade coffee at about 5 pm. The cup I had courtesy of chairman Ogawa carried me through the rest of the day.

 

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10 thoughts on “Learning my ABCs

    • Yes, yes it was…I actually feel really tall here. A refreshing and new experience for me. At supper night before last, the size of Randy’s feet was remarked upon several times, he only wears a size 11!

  1. Pingback: The Blogging Beef Board CEO | AgWired

  2. Polly, how nice to have a slow introduction to all you will be doing…. Hahaha. Thanks for the detailed update.

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