July 14, 2013

Wagyu on the Hoof—and Tons of Tongue!

Wagyu beef cattle partake of rice straw at the feeding facility in Ishinomaki City.
SENDAI REGION (Saturday, July 13, 2013)— Packed our bags and left the Westin Hotel, headed to Ishinomaki City, about 40 minutes away.

On the way, we passed an area hard hit by the tsunami.  In this case, a major highway actually served to protect one area, while the area on the other side closest to the coast was virtually wiped out.   All of us have been astonished at the rapid rate of rebuilding—homes, businesses and infrastructure. 

We arrive at Ushichan Farm, a Wagyu beef feeding facility with 600 head of high-end, black-hided Wagyu cattle.   This facility purchases 600 lb. feeder calves at auctions for about $5,000 per head and feeds them out over a two year period.

The cattle are fed about 20 pounds per day on imported grains and rice straw, purchased from local farmers—typically on a barter basis in return for the manure.   In fact, the feeding facility is virtually surrounded by rice fields. This company owns three feeding facilities with a total of 2500 head.

These animals can command up to $15,000 per head at finish, with an average of $9,000 to $10,000.  Feeding costs are about $2,500—and death loss is about one percent.
Buck Wehrbein (left) and Patrick Knobbe (right) pose with
one of the managers of the Wagyu feeding facility.

We were not allowed to walk through the sheltered barns since our presence would disturb the animals.

The feeding system is a blend of automation and hand-feeding.  Feed is delivered to the feed alley through automation, but is hand-fed to the animals by employees.   When cattle are fat and ready for market, they are led by rope to the truck.  

The majority of the cattle at this facility are sold to Starzen International, a representative of which accompanied us on the tour.

Tons of Tongue
We return to Sendai City for our last meal in Japan—lunch at Kisuke, a restaurant which features 30 different menu items—all using beef tongue (much of it from the U.S.)  We had tongue gravy on tofu, tongue sausage, ground tongue, grilled tongue, tongue salad—it was reminiscent of the scene in "Forrest Gump" in which Bubba lists the various ways to prepare shrimp!
Ohgawara-san, chairman
of the Sendai Beef Tongue
Association and owner
of the Kisuke beef tongue
restaurant chain.

The chain has 25 restaurants, serving 1,000 tongues per day in total.  Ohgawara-san, chairman of the Sendai Beef Association and owner of the Kisuke chain, joined us for lunch.

We are also joined by Kioshi Nagao and Miss Naomi Edo from Soma Relief 311, another non-profit organization formed to help disaster victims.  This organization has focused on the area of Japan affected by the disaster trifecta—earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown—with a special emphasis on assisting youth who lost one or both parents, family members and/or friends. Leiko Shimane from USMEF has worked closely with this group.

In the two-plus years since the disaster, Soma Relief 311 has provided summer camps for these young people including a wide variety of outdoor activities such as camping and hiking.  USMEF has provided U.S. beef and pork to feed the campers—and continues to do so. 

This will be the last year of the summer camps, 
as the organization is now looking to establish
Leiko Shimane of USMEF and Kioshi Nagao of Soma
Relief 311 share a toast at lunch.
international exchange programs for the youth.

The first such program is taking place through Portugal—and there was discussion at lunch about working together to establish a program with Nebraska to bring young Japanese to Nebraska farms and ranches for an exchange experience.

After lunch, we have about 30 minutes to shop at a Sendai department store before heading to the Sendai airport for a short flight to Tokyo—and a looong flight home to the U.S.

Sayonara, Nippon!

Making People Well: Hip-Hop Heroes on Katsura Island

Masahido "Masa" Oodo, the head of Bond and Justice, mugs for the camera as he grills
U.S. beef for our team and the residents of Katsura Island.

KASTURA ISLAND, JAPAN (Friday, July 12, 2013)—In the Japanese language, the phrase "to eat" is written using Chinese characters that literally mean "making people well"—and we saw the power of that phrase at work during a Friday afternoon visit that will become one of most memorable moments of this mission.

On March 11, 2013, the residents of Katsura Island had about one hour's notice that the tsunami was headed their way.   None of them chose to leave. The younger folks on the island gathered the elderly and got everyone to the highest-most point on the island—an elementary school.  From this vantage point, the villagers watched as the tsunami destroyed much of the island and wreaked havoc on the small boats, oyster beds and seaweed beds on which they relied for their livelihood.

Inside this bay, which is dotted with islands, the tsunami wave was not the 90-foot wave that hit the coast directly, but was no less devastating as water came in from every direction and brought waves 15 to 20 feet high that wiped out much of the housing on the island and damaged the piers and boats.
Residents of Katsura Island enjoy the meal
served during our visit.

Since the disaster, the younger people who used to live on the island have left—leaving only about 100 people, with the youngest being around 50 years of age.   Many of this elderly population are living in temporary housing and just recently have been able to resume their seaweed and oyster operations.

Why did our mission visit this island?  Because the Nebraska Corn Board and Nebraska Beef Council were the first U.S. organizations to be in Japan with support for the islanders and to other Japanese victims of the tsunami. Working with USMEF, these two Nebraska-based organizations helped provide beef and pork and other foodstuffs to the remaining islanders.  USMEF partnered with a number of Japanese organizations to make that happen, including Hannan, the food processing company we visited earlier on Friday.

On Katsura Island
We traveled north from Sendai to Shiogama, from which we took a boat out to Katsura Island where were were greeted at the pier by a ragtag bunch of young men with small pickups who took us to the top of the island.  It turns out that this group of fun-loving guys is making a huge difference to the people of Katsura Island.

When the disaster hit the island, Masahiro "Masa" Oodo, a well-known Japanese hip-hop record label executive, decided something needed to be done.  So he reached out to his music industry pals across Japan to join him in a relief effort for this island—and they came from near and far.  (Even American rapper Snoop Dogg provided financial support.)
Residents of Katsura Island enjoyed the meal and having visitors
from Bond & Justice and Nebraska.

Masa wears a tattoo on each arm.  On his right arm is artwork with the word "bond", denoting that his handshake is his word and bond.  His left arm bears a tattoo with the word "justice"—placed there since that is the arm closest to his heart.  When the quickly-organized group of musicians was formed, they were looking for a name—and "Bond and Justice" was a logical and meaningful choice. 

USMEF partnered with Bond and Justice to bring in meals to the island residents.  Leiko Shimane from USMEF was integrally involved in this effort, helping coordinate support from a number of partners.

The Bond and Justice posse visits the island about twice per month, coming from all across Japan to help continue the clean up, prepare meals and provide the social interaction and connection with the world that the remaining residents crave and need.  And it is clear that this bunch of mostly 30-somethings enjoys being around each other—and the islanders enjoy having them around.

A member of Bond & Justice proudly displays his Nebraska
Cattlemen lapel pin—in a unique way!

Setting up shop on the steps of the elementary school during our visit, this crew grilled U.S. beef, prepared salads and vegetables and poured libations.  It was a festive and fraternal atmosphere—and even though the residents and most of the Bond and Justice team did not speak English, there was plenty of "conversation" and camaraderie among all.

It amazed all of us how quickly we connected with the selfless young musicians and the courageous people who live on the island–and there were teary eyes and lumps in throats as we boarded our boat back to the mainland.   Clearly, we had all had a very powerful and personal experience—and were touched at the dedication and selflessness of a group of young hip-hop musicians.

The Nebraska beef and corn team on Katsura Island with members of Bond and Justice
and several residents of the island.

We only spent about three hours on the island with the Bond and Justice team and the villagers they are serving—but the memory and the connection with this place and the people will last a lifetime.

Making people well—in both their stomachs and their souls.  That's what Bond and Justice is doing, thanks in part to USMEF and the generosity of Nebraska corn and beef producers.