Matsuzaka, a mid-sized town located in Mie Prefecture. Located only one hour and 45 minutes by train from Osaka, Matsuzaka is known around Japan for its, well, you guessed it, beef. The process of getting Matsuzaka beef to taste how it does is no easy task, either. Calves around seven to eight months old are carefully chosen and fattened for three years. Although the perks to being a cow are few, Matsuzaka cattle can at least enjoy a few full body massages and even beer to drink if their appetite decreases.
It is said that the way to determine a cut of good beef in Japan is if you can cut it with your chopsticks. Matsuzaka beef, because of its marbled, fatty content, is very easy to cut with chopsticks, hence, why it has such a high reputation.
There are several ways to enjoy Matsuzaka beef—sukiyaki (beef is cooked in a pot with vegetables and seasoned with sweet soy sauce), shabu-shabu (thinly sliced beef and vegetables are simmered in a pot and then served with various dips), steak, and yakiniku (grilled). Which way is the best way to eat Matsuzaka beef is hard to say; you’ll just have to find out for yourself.
A good accompaniment to your meal is a cup of steaming Matsuzaka sencha (a type of green tea). The area has a mild climate and good soil, two requirements for producing fine tea leaves.
After enjoying a nice meal, head to Matsuzaka castle. It is one of the 100 historical sites in Japan and is surrounded by cherry blossoms, wisteria, and ginkgo trees. During cherry blossom season, you might see local girls wearing yukata or kimonos with an indigo-stripe pattern, a style that was born in Matsuzaka.
After strolling around the castle grounds, take a walk to “kumiyashiki,” a row of houses where the “kyu kishu hanshi” warriors (who were in charge of guarding Matsuzaka castle) lived during the later part of the Edo period.
If you have time to see other sights in Mie Prefecture, don’t forget about Ise shrine, located in the forest near Takakura Mountain, among towering cedar trees. There are two shrines, an inner shrine (“naiku”) and an outer shrine (“geku”). “Geku” is dedicated to Toyouke-Omikami, the god of food, clothing, shelter, and industry. The inner shrine is dedicated to Amaterasu-Omikami, the goddess of the imperial family. This inner shrine is the most honored of all shrines in Japan. The shrine is rebuilt every 20 years in accordance to Shinto tradition, which has been practiced for almost 1,300 years. The next ceremony will be held in 2013, not far away.
It is also worth it to stop off at Toba, a small beachside town, for some seafood; Ise ebi (spiny lobster), anori fugu (blowfish), awabi (abalone), and Matoya kaki (oysters) grace the menus there. Other sights to see are Mikimoto Pearl Island, where you can see “ama-san” (women divers) do a diving demonstration in their traditional white diving gear. The pearl has long been admired all over the world and is said to symbolize happiness, purity, health, and longevity. As well as seafood and pearls, there are an abundance of onsens in Toba. Most of the hotels offer a day pass if you just want to take a dip in the hot spring. You can also enjoy a sea cruise, go to the aquarium, or visit Shima Spain Village, a Spanish-themed amusement park.
I personally recommend the aquarium. There you can see the only manatees (each weighs 900 kg) in any aquarium in Japan. There are also finless porpoises, Bikal seals, Leafy Seadragons, and other mysterious creatures that are sure to catch your interest. At least for a couple of hours, anyways.
So, if you’re looking for a short getaway, look no further than Mie Prefecture. There are tons of things to do and you will come back to wherever you came from feeling refreshed and invigorated.