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That time I was an unintentional guts in Japan


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I was dreaming in Japanese. And more or less able to describe to a dry cleaner what I thought the stain on my suede jacket might be (soy sauce).

I’d been living in Tokyo for 3 years and was working for a trading company consultancy. My job was to liaise with English speaking clients and sell their products to giant trading houses. Who would have thought there actually was a market for solid gold golf putters with an opal inlay? Turns out there’s a corporate gift giving day and company presidents were in need of gifts like this to give to each other.

It was unusual back then for western women to be living among the locals and doing business. Despite being proficient in Japanese and a good negotiator, the thing I was valued for was being an English speaker.

I didn’t mind; I was a visitor and a novelty. I also didn’t mind because most of the Japanese people I met were kind, generous and very loving. I was often invited places, shouted meals and drinks by strangers, given gifts and taken on holidays. By families! Good, kind, loving and generous people who wanted to show me their homeland and practice their English.

On one such occasion I was invited to a friend from work’s house for dinner on the weekend. This is a BIG deal in Tokyo. Visitors are rarely invited over – mainly because homes are small. But my friend from work was married to a Sachou (President) and insisted I come to her house and bring my boyfriend. She had a 12-year-old girl who was studying English so it would be good for her.

They had gone all out; the 5 of us sat down to a table groaning with food. Not a single part of the table could be seen. There were 5 types of seaweed salad including my favourite wakame salad; vinegary, sweet and nutty all at once. Udon in delicate broth, sashimi arranged in a giant fan shape and in the middle on a plinth…some meat.

I wasn’t sure what it was, but it looked almost fake. It glistened in the light and every piece was cut into a perfect cube.

“What is it?” I asked breathlessly.

“Beef” said my boyfriend.

I actually think we whispered. As though the meat was a stern principal admonishing us for speaking in class. Sorry sir.

I asked my friend if it was OK to have some. My boyfriend raised an eyebrow. I knew I was breaking all the etiquette rules.

You’re supposed to wait to be offered food or drink in Japan; it’s considered pushy to dive in and you may be implying your hosts are lacking.  If you’re ever in this situation, you’re supposed to wait to be offered food or drink and you have to refuse the offered item twice. When the host offers for the third time then, and only then, can you accept.

Bugger that. The beef was hot, and I was drooling.

My friend rose up like a spider had bitten her on the bum to serve me the Beef Of All Beefs. She put five perfect cubes on a plate for me. Everything went quiet. Everyone held their breath to watch me taste it.

You know on TV commercials when a girl has a piece of chocolate and looks satisfied in a rather personal way? It was like that. But better.

I closed my eyes to chew, to taste it … and it was gone. The meat had melted like butter. I had another piece. It was rich, buttery, perfectly caramelised and soft. There was a thin teriyaki-like sauce on it. Or was there? There was a deep umami flavour at the end of the bite but a sweetness at the beginning.

I needed more.

I don’t think my friend’s daughter learned much English that night other than “Ooooohh. Wow.”

On the train home my boyfriend suddenly burst out laughing. I asked him what was funny. Basically, through tears of mirth he told me that I had eaten about $2,000 worth of beef. I’d somehow entered into a beef trance and my friend, being a good hostess, just kept filling my plate. As I sat there with my eyes closed, concentrating on flavour, he said my friend kept happily filling my plate with beef while her husband looked panicked. My boyfriend was laughing at how happy my friend looked and how wildly anxious her husband was. He reckoned she looked triumphant; as though feeding me the most expensive beef in the world was a good way to annoy her husband.

I will never eat A5 olive wagyu again. I don’t even know if they make it anymore. I probably won’t eat beef again. Turns out this was the highest-grade marbled wagyu from a tiny Japanese island where they press olive skins into the feed. While I was in my beef trance, my friend told my boyfriend that she ordered it 6 months beforehand in the hope that I might come over for dinner one night.

I felt awful about it, so I gave her husband a golden golf club with an opal inlay as a thank you/sorry/notsorry/shame gift. I still think I got the better end of the deal.

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