The special meal with 100-percent Japanese beef might be the last thing you eat while on a trip to Japan.

Yoshinoya’s beef bowl is the archetypal fast, filling, and financially friendly meal in Japan. So it might surprise you to learn that Japan’s most popular beef usually isn’t Japanese.

The high cost of raising cattle in Japan means that the meat that goes into your beefy Yoshinoya meal is generally imported, but recently we found a very special exception.

Inside the pre-security checkpoint area of the international terminal at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport is a large-scale replica of Nihonbashi, the wooden bridge that served as an important Tokyo thoroughfare during the samurai era. At the end of the bridge is a row of casual restaurants, including the terminal’s Yoshinoya branch.

Something unique about this branch is that it has plastic food models at the entrance. While this kind of display isn’t all that unusual at restaurants in Japan, it’s not something you usually see at Yoshinoya, so we leaned in for a closer look, and that’s when we saw it.

Right in the middle of the display was the Wagyu Gyuju, or “Japanese beef rice box.” Along with its extra classy lacquer-like vessel and luxuriously long green onions, this domestic-beef temptation had a price unlike anything we were used to at Yoshinoya: 1,500 yen (US$13.50). Looking at the model was like spotting a Ferrari among the grocery-getters in a supermarket parking lot, and we immediately knew we had to try it for ourselves.

Yoshinoya keeps a pot of its standard stewed beef bowl meat on a constant low boil, so that customers can be served just seconds after they sit down. The Wagyu Gyuju, though, is cooked to order, and it was only after we requested ours that a cook started preparing it. Still, we only had to wait about five minutes before it was placed in front of us, along with a side of pickles and a bowl of miso soup.

Compared to the humble, open-topped bowls of beef we usually get at Yoshinoya, the Wagyu Gyuju had a commanding presence, and since it’s served with the lid in place, feels a bit like a present, one which we were eager to open.

Gazing down at our beautiful bovine bounty, we found ourselves thinking it looked a little bit closer to sukiyaki than a simple beef bowl. Our suspicions were joyously confirmed when we took a bite and found that the Wagyu Gyuju is seasoned differently than Yoshinoya’s standard beef, with a dash of extra sweetness evocative of sukiyaki broth. The meat is also far more flavorful and higher-quality than the basic beef bowl, and while this was the highest-priced Yoshinoya entree we’d ever had, at 1,500 yen it’s still an affordable exuberance.

There’s only one other Yoshinoya branch in all of Japan that serves the Wagyu Gyuju: the one attached to the national parliamentary Diet building, which can only be used by government officials and civilians on a tour of the building. So unless you’ve got access to the halls of governmental power, Haneda is the only place to try Yoshinoya’s Wagyu Gyuju, and though you don’t have to be flying anywhere in order to use the restaurant, an all-Japanese-beef Yoshinoya meal seems like an excellent way to get one final taste of Japan before you fly out.

Restaurant information
Yoshinoya (Haneda International Terminal branch) / 吉野家(羽田空港国際線旅客ターミナル店)
Address: Tokyo-to, Ota-ku, Haneda Kuko 2-6-5, International Terminal General-use Area 4th floor
東京都大田区羽田空港2-6-5(羽田空港国際線ターミナル 一般エリア4階)
Open 24 hours

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