It was another rainy night in suburban central Japan, so I decided to take my night elsewhere, namely to the city of Gifu to see what a rainy Friday night was like in that city which I hesitate, but only slightly, to call romantic.
With the rain came some humidity, but still I wore my wind breaker.
Everybody says that there is nothing in Gifu. But, I am there, or, at least, I was there, or, at the very least, I will be there again, so isn’t that something?
The train ride from the suburbs to the city was so dark that I could see only my reflection in the train windows. My belly was grumbling and I wanted to find a place where I could sit, eat, and write. In Japan, as in America, and, just about everywhere else in the civilized world, there is a common place to go to fill such desires; McDonalds, or as the natives call it, “Makudonaludo“, or simply “Maku“.
After a long walk and some back tracking, I finally found a non smoking McDonalds that wasn’t too far from the station. It was a clean place with white leather chairs and there was an open seat facing the window where I watched the rain drops fall on passing umbrellas and stagnant cement. The music in the upstairs dining room was nice and simple – bell voice keyboards. It was as soothing and as comforting as the solid poison I would consume in the form of two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame bun.
It was only 9pm and I wanted to take my time. I wasn’t tired and I just didn’t want to leave the bright lighting that contrasted the dark and dreary rain outside. I wasn’t ready to join the white skirts and neckties running desperately through the rain to the station and I just couldn’t get over the music. It was atmospheric.
As I bit in to my Bigu Maku, I got to thinking about my past experiences in McDonalds. My favorite McDonalds in the world was in Madison, Wisconsin, with the fire place, stain glass windows. I used to go there to read the USA Today, watch Fox News, feel real American, and stay warm from the cold during my lunch breaks. My second favorite McDonalds was the 24 hour McDonald’s at Koenji station in Tokyo. I didn’t have a third favorite, and, before that night, I had never even thought to think about whether or not I had a favorite at all.
I stayed there for an hour or two before catching the train home. That night, as I dreamt about my first time in Japan, I slept with a rock in my stomach.
Before I had ever eaten at a Japanese McDonalds, I studied Japanese in high school. It was kind of a mistake. I signed up for German, my school canceled German, and I ended up taking Japanese. But it worked out, because the teacher made a difficult subject fun. He was an American man who would often spend more time talking about Japan than speaking Japanese.
I was in the midst of my second year of study when our teacher told the class about an opportunity for a free summer as an exchange student in Japan. That day, after class, I told him I was interested.
“O.k.”, he said, “But a lot of people apply, and you probably won’t get it.”
Still I applied, and I ended up getting the scholarship and spending a summer with a host family in Tokyo.
I had to leave school a week early that year, which meant I had to take my finals a week early. I clearly remember my last day of Japanese class that year. After the class was over, the students were leaving for their next period. I walked up to my teacher and asked about my test. He reached for his back pocket and took out his wallet.“Here,” he said as he presented me with a 1,000 yen bill (about ten dollars), “Buy a Big Mac on me. It will teach you more than any test ever will.” Then he told me, “This trip will change your life.”
As it would turn out, I didn’t have to spend the thousand yen on a Big Mac because the first meal my host family treated me to was from McDonalds. It was a nice gesture for two reasons. First of all, at that time, a Big Mac cost about $10 in Japan. The second reason was because my host family thought that it would be comforting to treat me to American food, being that I was so far away from home. The thought was touching, even if the meal was mass produced, genetically altered bullshit, but, that was eleven years ago.
Times have changed. Economies have risen and fallen, and the price of the Big Mac has evened out. Today, it costs about $6.50 for a Big Mac Combo in Japan: a price that I will gladly pay, from time to time, for a taste of America.
There is something comforting and at the same time exotic about going to McDonald’s in Japan. While it reminds me of home, there are subtle differences in the menu and service that remind me that I am still in a foreign country. The teriyaki burger, and fried shrimp burger are the two most exotic standard menu items and the service in McDonalds is impeccable. If an employee is on the floor and see’s you walking with your tray, they will smile, take the tray and sort your garbage for you and thank you very politely for visiting their restaurant. Plus it’s clean, and, unlike in America, the employees don’t seem to be ex-convicts, drug addicts, or disgruntled pimply sorry sons of bitches who hate their jobs. But, still, they serve poison.
For example, another difference between Japanese McDonalds and American McDonalds is that in Japan there is a rotating monthly burger. The burgers that I can remember are the Mega Mac, the Teriyaki Mega Mac, The Egg Bacon Burger, and the Fried Pork Burger. I tried the Egg Bacon Burger, and the sauce was a too sweet half honey mustard, half thousand island and the bacon sucked (Japanese bacon is limp and not fried). The Mega Mac is a Big Mac with four patties instead of two but nothing as grotesque, or as awesome, as Jack ‘n’ the Box’s Bacon Ultimate Cheese Burger. And, I never tried the Fried Pork Burger because of the bad experience I had with the Teriyaki Mega Mac.
American English can be charming or offensive because our language is creative and one of my favorite terms that we have is, “Mystery Meat.” The Teriyaki Mega Mac wreaked of mystery meat. First of all, the Teriyaki Mega Mac is about the size of a Big Mac, but the patties are bigger and made of something that tastes like a beef/pork combo which is drenched in a teriyaki sauce that’s sweeter and less seductive than peach Schnapps. Plus, there’s some kind of pepper in the meat. I ate it during a lunch break and the bathrooms at my work are in the often used storage room where there is no window and no ventilation. Let’s just say that I’m lucky I wasn’t deported for bioterrorism that day.
Yes, the world has changed in the past eleven years. In 1996, when I was first in Japan, the cost of a Big Mac was about twice as much in Japan as it was in America. That same year, Starbucks’ first Japanese shop was opening in Tokyo’s Ginza, which, at the time, boasted some of the world’s highest retail prices. Today, while Ginza is still expensive and McDonalds is still poison, Starbucks has spread to every major city and many of smaller cities of Japan. The price of McDonalds in Japan however, is comparable to that of one in the U.S. and, even while America’s economy and global approval slides steadily, our cultural influence continues to dominate.