In 2013, the European news media went mad over the horse meat scandal, which saw the incorrectly labeled meat of ponies and stallions used as imitation beef in hundreds of supermarket products. Many of the continent’s carnivores were outraged, despite the fact that things had likely gone on undiscovered this way for decades prior. If such a thing happened in Japan, it probably wouldn’t even make the news at all.
That’s because eating horse isn’t taboo at all in Japan — in fact, it’s very common. Much like in France and Italy, people in Japan tend not to draw a line between horses and their other farmyard friends when writing up their menus. It wasn’t always this way however, as at one time eating horse could land you in some serious trouble with the government and religious authorities.
Let’s take a look at why the Japanese are now so happy to chow down on horses, and how to go about trying Japanese horse dishes for yourself.
A Brief History of Horse Munching
Journey to Japan
Horses aren’t a native animal of Japan, and it’s thought that they were brought over from Mongolia in the Jomon Period, around 2000 years ago. Just as the Mongolians famously treasured their horses as tools of war, so the Japanese samurai adopted equine mounts as a key part of their battle strategies.
The Japanese diet in these early years consisted mostly of rice, seafood, and wild game. For centuries things continued this way, with horse meat basically never consumed across Japan — why waste a good war horse when fish is so abundant and livestock so scarce? Cows enjoyed much the same treatment, on account of their utility as working animals on farms.
The Buddhist Ban
It became even more unthinkable to eat all kinds of four-legged friends with the advent of Buddhism. Suddenly, the horses wandering around the fields weren’t just animals: they might also turn out to be the reincarnated soul of an ancestor.
In 675 AD, these Buddhist anxieties over meat-eating were enshrined in law, with an edict from Emperor Tenmu which took beef, chicken, dog, monkey, and horse off the menu during the spring and summer months. It wasn’t long before the ban was extended to the entire year. If someone was caught roasting up the flesh of a horse or cow, they could face up to 100 days of fasting as punishment.
The ban was unevenly enforced throughout the centuries, with periods of religious fervor and others of relaxed regulations. It was a case of sheer necessity, however, which broke the taboo around eating horses in the end.
Wartime in Korea
It’s said that around 400 years ago, daimyō Kiyomasa Kato of Kumamoto and his soldiers were forced to slaughter and eat the horses in their besieged camp during a military campaign in Korea. Although this drastic step was only taken to avoid starvation after their supply lines were severed, the lord and his troops found that it was actually quite a pleasant meal. Upon returning to Japan, Kiyomasa popularized the practice in his domain, which is why horse sashimi is nowadays associated with Kumamoto.
The dish spread throughout Japan, and in the Edo Period was celebrated for its nutritional properties, often served to the sick or infirm to encourage their recovery (such people were exempt from the ban on meat-eating). Horse meat became known as sakuraniku on account of its deep red-pink color — compared in the name to sakura cherry blossoms — and was quite an exclusive dish.
The restrictions around meat-eating largely came to an end with the Meiji Era, when the emperor decided to modernize Japanese diets, and caused a stir among the religious devout when he ate beef to celebrate the new year in 1872. Now the floodgates were open, with horse, beef, chicken, and all other kinds of meat restaurants proliferating around the country.
Nowadays, Japan is one of the biggest consumers of horse meat in the world, with 60% of its stock imported from Canada, and most of the rest reared in Hokkaido. You’ll find the same kinds of dishes once enjoyed by Kiyomasa Kato and his men served in izakaya gastropubs and specialty restaurants around Japan, as well as some more modern inventions.
Horse Meat Dishes in Japan
The most popular style of horse meat in Japan basashi is the name for the thin strips of raw horse meat which is usually listed as ‘horse sashimi’ on English menus. It’s typically taken from lean cuts of the horse, sometimes marbled with fat like premium wagyu beef, and served with soy sauce and grated ginger on the side. Because of the relative scarcity of livestock throughout Japanese history, and the medicinal associations of the dish, it’s still seen as something of a delicacy.
Another Korean influence on Japanese horse dining, yakiniku is a kind of BBQ cooking that is popular all across Japan. Although beef is the standard meat used in it, horse is also a common addition in some parts of Japan. It’s typically listed on the menu as bagushi (‘horse skewers’) or baniku (‘horse meat’).
Nabe in Japanese refers to hotpot dishes, and this one contains — you guessed it — horse. It’s very similar in style to sukiyaki, in that the meat is cooked at your table in a simmering pot of dashi, shoyu, and mirin which compliment the natural sweetness of the horse meat. Other additions include noodles, tofu, and a range of vegetables.
If you don’t fancy the sound of raw meat and aren’t a fan of dishes you need to cook by yourself at the table, then you’ll be happy to hear that many izakaya offer more Westernized dishes with horse as the main ingredient. Think horse steak, or horse paté. The more restaurant menus you Google Translate around Japan, the more of these inventive equine dishes you’re likely to find.
Where Can I Try It?
If all of the above has you feeling hungry rather than horrified, then you might be wondering where you can get your teeth into some good, nutritious, Japanese horse meat. When visiting any of the big cities, you’ll be spoiled for choice.
Rocky Barikiya (Tokyo)
Conveniently located in Shibuya, this is one of Tokyo’s best places to try horse dishes. You can enjoy everything from the standard horse sashimi, to yakiniku with various cuts of meat, and horse meat delicately arranged on top of rice to make equine sushi. The space is modern and relaxed, making this is a popular spot among locals and the after-work dining crowd.
This shop has been doing business in Morishita since 1897, with its current premises dating back to the 1950s. If it’s sakuranabe you want, then this is the place to go. They serve theirs in a broth lightly flavored with miso, simmering in big cast iron pots. Inside, you’ll get a real sense of the history behind the place, with tatami flooring and lots of traditional fixtures and fittings.
1 Pound Steak Hamburg Takeru (Osaka/Tokyo)
This is a popular Osaka steak restaurant with branches in Tokyo’s Akihabara and Ueno districts, and a further five in its home city. Their main menu items feature beef, but you’ll also find horse on offer too, making this a great place to go if some people in your group aren’t as adventurous with their food as yourself. Pick your cut of meat, your size of steak, and enjoy it with a range of house toppings, sauces, and seasonings.
Uma Yaro (Kyoto)
This horse-specialty yakiniku shop is located in central Kyoto, near Gion-Shijo Station. It’s a great place to kick back after a long day with some drinks and food, with a good range of horse meat cuts to sample. You’ll also find some non-horse dishes available for those who are still a little squeamish about the idea.
If you’re serious about your horse meat, then Kumamoto is the place to be. Here is where the practice of eating horse was first popularized in Japan, so you can expect some of the best horse restaurants in the country to be found here. One is Iroha, located near Suizenji Park. It’s a small, unpretentious, local eatery where you can try a range of authentic horse meat dishes.
Bon Appetit (or Perhaps Not)
If you’ve discussed the matter of eating horses with your friends, then you’ll already be aware that there are two types of people: those who aren’t phased by it, and those who are absolutely horrified. Although I fall into the former category, I really can’t blame you if you find yourself in the latter!
The controversy around these divisive dishes is unlikely to go away any time soon, while in places like Japan it seems like horse will remain on the menu for many years to come. If you don’t mind a little culinary culture shock, trying some for yourself is a great way to get to grips with the unique dining culture of Japan.