You may be familiar with Japan’s legendary Kobe beef. The lofty bovine must be of the Tajima breed, have spent its entire life in Hyogo prefecture, and be treated to massages and a round of Sapporo beers to increase its appetite. That last part may only be a half-truth, but if you’re into eating meat… I might recommend Sendai beef instead. Slightly less marbling, but it still leaves you with a melt-in-your-mouth 食感 (shokkan), or mouth feel.
But if you want to dig deeper into the history of prized wagyu (和牛), or Japanese beef, you may want to start with Omi (Oumi/近江) beef. Omi is the historical name for present-day Shiga prefecture, which also hosted the Japanese capital, in the city of Otsu, for five years.
For centuries, the consumption of meat in Japan had been taboo (especially after Buddhism had spread there in the 6th century), or consumed only by aristocrats and imperial leaders. Moreover, given that much of Japan is mountainous and/or characterized by long winters, and that seafood was much more readily available (and took up no land, to boot), meat-eating wasn’t a particularly common sight.
To return to the topic, it is said that at the end of the Warring States period (~1467-1590), Takayama Ukon, an ally of Japan’s first unifier Toyotomi Hideyoshi, presented his victorious war chiefs in Hikone city, Omi province with cattle, thus originating the term Omi beef.
Since Japan was effectively shut off to most of the world between 1603 and the 1850s, It would be almost 300 years until meat consumption flourished. Once the Meiji period began in 1868, as Western countries started cultural exchanges with Japan, so, too were the Japanese introduced to Western clothing, scientific advancements, and food.
Coincidentally, when Omi beef was first exported, it shipped under the name “Kobe beef,” due to Kobe being the closest port at the time. Only when Shiga’s Omi Hachiman train station opened in 1890 did exports that now shipped through Tokyo adopt the name “Omi beef.”
On May 11th, 2007, Omi beef was officially recognized with a seal of “Japan Geographical Indication.” by the Japan Patent Office. Consequently, something can only be called Omi beef if it is raised in Shiga prefecture, by the shores of Lake Biwa.