On Kyushu, Japan’s most southwesterly island, chefs specialize in preparing a delicacy nicknamed “cherry blossom meat” (sakura-niku) for its intensely red hue. This is basashi, or raw horse meat, and its tender texture has lured many fans to the city of Kumamoto, where it’s served as sashimi or nigiri. Diners eat the thin slices much like other kinds of sashimi: dipped in soy sauce, and served with grated ginger and Japanese horseradish.
Consuming meat, equine or otherwise, is a fairly recent acceptable practice in Japan. For more than 1,000 years, eating meat was punishable by law. On January 24, 1872, however, Emperor Meiji led by carnivorous example and publicly announced that he ate meat. He saw animal protein as a means of modernizing and enhancing the population’s health and strength, particularly with regards to the army. The Meiji Period (1868-1912) undid many long-standing taboos surrounding the consumption of meat, and by the 1960s, basashi had started popping up on menus around Japan.
While Nagano and Ōita are also known for their basashi, Kumamoto remains a favorite place to try the delicacy. Many recommend pairing it with another Kyushu specialty: shōchū.
Need to Know
Take the Kansai Kisen Ferry from Osaka or Kobe to Beppu, then board the JR Trans-Kyushu-Express to Kumamoto (Only a handful of trains leave each day, so plan accordingly). Kumamoto is lined with restaurants specializing in horse meat, both on its own and incorporated into other dishes (including blended with the fermented soybeans known as nattō).