Shortly after finding out I’d be teaching in Japan post-college, a friend and I got to talking about a subject near and dear to both of us…McDonald’s. The conversation went a little like this.

FRIEND: They’ve got some pretty neat items on the Japanese menu.

ME: Yeah?

FRIEND: Yeah, like the McTeriyaki burger. I’ve always wanted to try that. They’ve also got shrimp burgers.

ME: Ugh, that sounds gross.

FRIEND: Sorta. But you’d love the Mega Mac. It’s like a Big Mac…but bigger!

ME: Intriguing. I’ll add it to my “must do” list!

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Thing is, the Mega Mac isn’t even that alien a concept to me. I distinctly remember McDonald’s America featuring an item very similar to it at some time during my childhood, possibly during or after the Monopoly game. My local franchise might have just been a testing ground for slightly unhealthier options…at one point, you could buy a “bucket of fries” which is as terrifying/delicious as it sounds…but being a portly elementary school student riveted by new fast food menu options, I know I tried it. Though, since I also was an immensely picky eater, it probably only had meat and cheese on it.

Still, when I saw the big poster at my local grocery store screaming “MEGA MAC” I knew destiny had come knocking. The Mega Mac…a, uhhhhh, beefed-up Big Mac wherein the number of patties gets doubled to a slightly disturbing four…stands as a classic “crazy Japan” fast-food staple. A quick Google search reveals headlines like “The Mega Mac Is Back!!!”…from 2007. NPR reported about the burger that was “all the rage in Japan” in early 2008. It’s not exclusively the domain of Japan…Malaysia and Australia seem to have had the item available at various times…but most of the Western press on it focuses on the Japanese-ness of it, code for “loogit how weird this is!”

Honestly, the Mega Mac doesn’t seem all that bizarre following the chain’s “Big America” items which struck me as way more twisted. Compared to Burger King’s Meat Monster, the Mega Mac might as well be endorsed by Jenny Craig. Yet it still serves as a meaty metaphor for modern Japanese culture, or at least the chunks of it people in the Western world hear about. I’ve always thought Japan embraces trends from America or Europe, but then takes them to bizarre extremes (see: five-hour lines to buy Krispy Kreme donuts as gifts, a Forever 21 store in Tokyo apparently modeled to be like a nightclub). The Mega Mac serves as an easy symbol of this.

Plus, I was pretty hungry at the time.

Save for the beef increase, everything else about the Mega Mac mirrors a regular Big Mac. Insert the famous jingle here if you fancy viral marketing. Evan upon opening the box, it looks just like a Big Mac, the relatively thin patties failing to intimidate. Once you try to bite into it, though, its size surprise you as one must extend their jaw just a little more than what is comfortable to properly eat this.

Food blog Serious Eats recently wrote that the key to the Big Mac’s trademark taste was the perfect balance of ingredients present in the burger. It’s true – since the majority of McDonald’s food comes off less like quality cooking and more like a science project, the Big Mac is basically the perfect the combination of semi-gross fast-food staples, engineering perfecting what is for better or worse one of the definitive tastes of America. No seriously…live in a foreign country for an extended period of time and, when culinary homesickness kicks in, you can find the Big Mac almost everywhere. A brief escape home even if it’s a bit of a fantasy.

The Mega Mac screws up this balance. While the same amount of lettuce, pickles, semi-melted cheese and sauce remains, the increase in meat results in a burger dominated by beefy taste. Which might be OK with some places but this is McDonald’s and if you’ve ever eaten a plain hamburger you know how bland they are, bland to the point everyone in elementary school speculated they were made out of sawdust/oatmeal/kangaroo. That’s the Mega Mac. Though it promises so much more…it’s like a Big Mac BUT BIGGGGGER…it actually ends up tasting like less.

At least I can cross it off my list.

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Expo ’70

May 8, 2011

These are the days that make me want to stay in Japan.

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Golden Week, a virtual seven-day stretch of holidays, just finished up, and for the most part I didn’t do anything special. Just a combination of sitting on my couch trying to write and trying to get people to play Risk. Call it age or call it boredom but I’m just not as keen on traveling as I was one year ago. The only exception came on Tuesday…Japan’s Constitution Day…when I went to the Expo ’70 Commemorative Park.

In 1970, Osaka held the World’s Fair and constructed the grounds for the event just outside of the central part of the city. The people running the event enlisted the artist Taro Okamoto to create a “symbol” for the event, and he came up with the Tower Of The Sun (above). The fair came and went, and after several years the city decided to turn the fairgrounds into a park celebrating the event. They created a sprawling garden and retouched the Tower Of The Sun, opening up the Commemorative Park in the early 1990s. That’s what I visited last week.

Closer, from the back

Closer, from the back

Getting to the park takes a while, requiring a long train ride and a one-stop ride on the Osaka Monorail. But when you exit the station the scene becomes serene. Poking out from a clump of trees is the Tower Of The Sun, bigger than you expect and a bit perplexing to look at. My girlfriend gasped when she saw it from the walkway, shocked at just how huge it really was. She had been inspired by Okamoto’s work in university and, despite going to school in the city, never saw the statue before. It only becomes more impressive the closer you get, able to see the details of the face and the black sun painted on the thing’s backside. We weren’t the only ones sort of in awe of the Tower, as dozens of other gathered near the front of the statue posing for photos, hands outstretched like the Tower itself.

Though the Tower sits as the obvious draw of the park, the city of Osaka made sure to add plenty of other features to justify the 250 yen ticket price. The park features several gardens, including a flower area where we spent a significant amount of time. Fauna of various shapes and colors…though, to be fair, mostly just shades of pink in the Spring…gather near grassy hills and ponds full of disturbingly large koi. Despite the large mixture of toddlers and senior citizens, the area housing all these flowers comes off as deeply tranquil…to the point where photos probably do a better job at capturing the prettiness than my tired words.

Big fish

Big fish

During Golden Week, the park also hosted a giant flea market sponsored by a local radio station. Lines and lines of cars parked on a large field, and people set up ad-hock store fronts selling everything from handmade clothes to old McDonald’s Happy Meal toys. Someone had an old Los Angeles Clippers jersey but I displayed a shocking amount of self-restraint in not purchasing it. This event also featured a slew of food stands and at least two bounce houses full of giggling children. We bypassed the baby-level activities in favor of the Expo ’70 museum.

More flowers

More flowers

The museum did what any museum would do – collected all sorts of artifacts (uniforms, programs, knick-knacks, uhhhhh robots) from Expo ’70 and put them out for the world to stare at. The Tower Of The Sun made up a large portion of the exhibits, including the original “gold face” in its entirety being on display.

Various souvenirs

Various souvenirs

A Model

A Model

"City Of The Future" (?)

"City Of The Future" (?)

Big Face

Big Face

I’m planning on writing a little bit about my Golden Week sometime soon, complete with a handful of photos that are probably more interesting than whatever I can summon up about it. Before then, a little bit of “look at me” promotion!

– Old hat by now, but I ate Burger King Japan’s gross Meat Monster burger and wrote about the experience at Esquire’s website. Not mentioned in story nearly enough – how messy that terrible thing was. Thank goodness for napkins.

– I also wrote a live preview about Osaka musician Oorutaichi for The Japan Times.

Check back soon for lots of photos of flowers!