Black (Burger) Thursday

The Burger King “black burger” received quite a bit of press in America, probably more so than here in Japan. If my friends didn’t mention it to me on Facebook, I might have easily missed the fact that Burger King Japan launched its second foray into the “black burger” market. Anyway, I got multiple requests from people to try and report on it. I haven’t eaten at an American style fast food restaurant since we got here (if you disallow the McD’s melon shake we tried one hot summer day), so this was a special just for you.

If you don’t know what the Burger King “Kuro” burger is, it’s basically a hamburger with a jet black bun, black cheese and a black sauce replacing the catsup. The bun and cheese are mixed with bamboo charcoal to give it the black coloring. The sauce is reportedly colored with squid ink. The meat itself is marketed as “black” but doesn’t look anymore black than a slightly overcooked regular patty. Apparently it is seasoned with black pepper, but enough black pepper to turn the patty black would be pretty horrific to actually eat. So let’s just call it a darker shade of brown.


The nearest Burger King is at a station a couple stops away from ours, so my friend Mark and I boarded the train and set out on our quest. Sure enough, outside the restaurant there is prominent advertising for the Kuro Diamond and Kuro Pearl. Just so you know the difference, the Diamond has lettuce, onions, tomato and mayo and costs a lot more than the Pearl. Other than that, not much difference.

We both ordered the Kuro Diamond set, which came with a Coke or a Coke Zero, which are both black. Kuro shei-ku o motte imasu ka? Do you have a black shake? My lame attempt at a joke elicited a slight giggle from the staff. No kuro fries either, gaijin.


The first thing you notice is that the size of the burger is pretty small, about the size of a regular hamburger in a Burger King in America. The difference is that hamburger costs you 99 cents, this one 690 yen with a drink. And, did I mention, it’s black?

The second thing you notice is that it is wrapped in a black wrapper. Many years ago when I first came to Japan, one of my friends insisted I visit Burger King and order a hamburger because, in his words, “they make it look exactly like it does in the advertising!” And indeed, it was handed to you in a little box, perfectly made like the one in all the pictures. Well some things have changed in Japan, at least at Burger King. Because of the tight paper wrapping, the hamburger comes out looking a bit squished, just like one made in America. And because it is black, perhaps it comes out looking just a little more morose than a regular burger. You be the judge.


But how does it taste? That’s what everyone really wants to know, right? Well, with apologies for being anti-climactic, just so-so. In fact, it tastes pretty much like any other Burger King hamburger, with a little more pepper and a salty flavor from the black sauce rather than the sweet, vinegar flavor of catsup. Of course, it looks far more disgusting than a regular hamburger and costs a little more too.

Stealing a few glances around at the rest of the patrons in the restaurant, not one other person was eating the Kuro burger. The guy at the table next to us was drinking an iced coffee and reading a newspaper, in fact. What do you think this is sir, a Starbucks? Apparently, we were the only suckers falling for this gastronomic trickery today.

After this, I’m seriously going to have to think twice before accepting any food challenges from the folks back home. Hey Todd, did you try the fugu yet? How about the natto ice cream? I mean, why can’t someone challenge me to eat the Lemon Cream Cheese donut at Krispy Kreme Japan? Or the Pineapple Whip Cream Pancakes at Eggs n Things in Odaiba?

Anyway, now I have eaten this creature so you don’t have to. You’re welcome. Until next time, eat well and eat safe!

Our First Cat Cafe – Eko Neko

We first read about the Japanese cat cafes months before we came to Tokyo and our daughter, the animal lover in the family, was immediately on top of it. Our plan was to go to a cat cafe in Ikebukuro, but less than stellar reviews from our neighbor (most cats were sleeping and the ones that were awake weren’t playful) changed our plans. Fortunately, while standing on the train platform at the station we use to go to church, I noticed an advertisement for a cat cafe near the station. My 10+ years of casual Japanese language study suddenly paid off big time for my daughter! The name of the cafe was “Eko Neko” with “Eko” short for Ekoda, the train station, and “Neko” meaning cat in Japanese. Well played.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with cat cafes, which I assume would be 99% of you, let me explain the concept to you. It differs somewhat from what you might think of when you hear “cat cafe”, which personally gave me visions of sipping a latte with a cat on my lap and a beret on my head with French music playing in the background. The stress of the cat cafe is more on the CAT and less on the cafe. In fact, the particular cat cafe we went to dispensed with the baristas in favor of a coffee machine selling pretty generic coffee.

We arrived in the middle of the afternoon and were greeted at the door by one of the two ladies working there. With my rudimentary language skills, I was able to understand that many of the cats were sleeping at this time of the day and we could not wake them up to play with them. Would this be okay? I relayed the message to my daughter, and she agreed it would be fine. The woman then welcomed us inside and asked us to remove our shoes in the genkan (entry).

Once inside, she went over the rules of the house, also all written in Japanese. The cost was 1,100 per person for the first hour and 500 yen for every additional 30 minutes. The initial cost included one drink, coffee or a soft drink from a little fridge by the front door. We opted for the soft drink on this hot humid summer day. As previously mentioned, we could not bother or wake up sleeping cats. There were little cats (maybe kittens, or just small cats, I wasn’t clear on that) that could not be picked up, but bigger cats could be picked up carefully if they didn’t resist. We could take photos, but no flash. Once the rules were properly explained, we were given a squirt of the ubiquitous Japanese hand sanitizing liquid, we picked out our drinks and found a seat on inside.

About 30 cats live at Eko Neko but as we were warned, 25 of them were sleeping when we came in. I always suspected cats were lazy creatures, but this proved my suspicions. Fortunately, the 5 or so cats that were awake were very friendly and playful. I sat down on the bench and went to open my soft drink when a little calico walked right up to me and jumped into my lap and lay down, purring like a lawn mower. He was so adorable, I put my drink down and spent the next 5 minutes or so stroking him and scratching behind his ears. My daughter went to work on the large collection of cat toys and started a “chase the toy” game with another adorable little cat while the cat on my lap watched comfortably.


The 30 cats who call Eko Neko their home.

Over the next 40 minutes or so, we had the whole place to ourselves. Granted, it was a room about the size of a large living room in a Japanese home, but it was all ours. Around us, in comfy little beds or platforms on rafters built near the ceiling, a couple dozen other cats dozed the afternoon away while we played with their friends. Over time, a few more cats stirred from their sleep and woke up. Some decided to join in the play, including an adorable little kitten named Lulu (or “Ruru”, based on the hiragana) who loved chasing the little “mouse” on a string. Some simply moved from one bed to another, watched the action nonchalantly for a few minutes, and went back to sleep. Another cat decided my lap looked comfortable and jumped up into it, demanding a back rub and head scratch.



After 40 minutes, a couple joined us in the cafe. By now, about 8 or 9 cats were awake so there were plenty for the 4 of us to play with. Soon our hour was over and we went to the counter to pay for our fun. At the counter, the woman gave us rolling lint brushes to remove the cat hair from our clothing and another squirt of the anti-bacterial hand cleaner. I assumed the lint brush is mainly for those salarymen who secretly want to play with cats on their lunch break but don’t want cat hair on their suits giving away their secrets.

You may think $11 an hour is pretty steep for a soft drink and an hour of playing with cats, and in fact, you may be right. But I have to admit these were some of the most adorable, friendly cats I had ever played with. I’m not much of a cat person, but there’s something about cats at a cat cafe that changed my mind about cats.

In all seriousness, I can understand the attractiveness of such a place in a city like Tokyo. After dealing with millions of strangers every day on the trains, streets, and public spaces of the city, interaction with cute, loving animals is something people can look forward to. There is nothing you have to do to earn the attention of these animals; they literally throw themselves into your laps when you arrive. For some people, that is the kind of love they are craving. This is likely the reason for the sudden explosion of dog ownership in Tokyo over the past decade or so.

Our prayer is that rather than using animals as sources of love and affection, the citizens of Tokyo would find out that there is a God who loves them unconditionally. Unlike a pet’s love, His love for us redeems us, gives us a life that has true meaning and purpose. God’s love for them (and all of us) is as a father has for his children; He would give anything for them. If the love of a pet seems to be fulfilling, the love of God is infinitely more, transforming us into what we were born to be.



Japan Photo: Hana Nobe No Sato

Today Jayne’s uncle took us to Hana Nobe No Sato near Katsuura, Chiba. While we used it as a beautiful place to view Japan’s summer flowers, it apparently is also a camp site with an outdoor onsen that people can camp at year round. They have many gorgeous flowers in the area, but the most abundant is the ajisai, or hydrangea, the symbol of Japanese summers.

Right now is past the prime season and the hydrangea are starting to die off, but the place is still extremely beautiful. The breeze off the nearby ocean helped sooth the 90 degree, 90% humidity weather we are having today.

Hana Nobe No Sato can be visited in all 4 seasons for different experiences. There are winter and spring blossoming cherry trees, ajisai for the summer months and maples for the autumn.


Life in Japan: Kaiten Sushi

Sushi in America in expensive, but in Japan, sushi can be one of the cheapest meals you can eat out. Especially if you go to Kaiten Sushi, or conveyor belt sushi. Many items are low priced and some, like the one we ate at, are 108 yen per plate! And you would be amazed at the variety and quality of sushi you can get for a little over $1 a plate. You can either grab your sushi off the conveyor belt as it goes around the restaurant or you can order from a tablet and the order is delivered, at this restaurant, in a race car on a separate track! There is even a roulette game you can play if you order certain items that might earn you a discount!

We made this little video to give you an idea of what a fun and inexpensive meal kaiten sushi can be.

Which Team Do You Root For?


Note: Taking a break from the serious topics to talk about something fun, baseball. If you know nothing about Japanese baseball, maybe you’ll learn a little bit from this fun article. Keep in mind this article is supposed to be in good fun, so don’t take offense (especially if you are a Yakult Swallows diehard fan)!

Believe it or not, one of the greatest early challenges for me as I relocate to Japan is choosing what baseball team to root for. In America, it was never much of a decision. I was born in Oakland and grew up in the East Bay, so the Oakland A’s are my team for life. But when you move to a new country, you have no sentimental ties to any particular team. Therefore, you must choose.

Now I take baseball very seriously, so choosing the right team isn’t a matter of Eenie-meenie-miney-mo or, in Japanese terms, Jan-Ken-Po. As serious as the Oakland A’s are about applying sabremetrics to selecting players, I am just as serious about applying similar metrics to choosing a baseball team. So are you ready to dive in? Let’s go…uh, baseball.

The Candidates

There are, at the time of this writing, 12 teams in Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB). To keep from going totally crazy, I needed to narrow the field of potential teams down to a manageable number, say 4 teams. Based on my criteria, the number one most important criteria for me to root for a team would be proximity. Proximity plays an important role in a couple of ways. First, I think it’s a good idea to root for a team that plays near you because it potentially gives you something in common with the people you interact with on a daily basis. Second, I like to go to a baseball game once in a while, and if the home stadium of your favorite team is 5 hours away by bullet train, that’s probably not conducive to attending games.

So simply picking the 4 closest teams based on taking the train to their home stadium gives me:

  • Saitama Seibu Lions (38 min)
  • Tokyo Yomiuri Giants (40 min)
  • Tokyo Yakult Swallows (53 min)
  • Yokohama DeNA Bay Stars (1 hr. 38 min)

Since we spend a lot of time in Chiba because of the summer ministries we have been involved in for the past few years, I’ll throw in:

Chiba Lotte Marines (1 hr. 55 min)

We want to keep this at 4 teams, so I’m going to toss Yokohama in favor of Chiba.

Now that we have our candidates based on the primary criteria of proximity, we can begin the in-depth analysis of the teams. I will be assigning a point value for each criteria based on importance and scoring each team based on where they fall in the criteria rating like this:

  • Best: Criteria  x 100%
  • Second: Criteria x 80%
  • Third: Criteria x 60%
  • Worst: Criteria x 40%

Criteria: Team Ownership (10 points)

Best: Chiba Marines. Lotte is one of the top 3 confectionery companies in Japan and number 1 in Korea. And who doesn’t love candy? (10 points)

Second: Saitama Lions. Seibu in this case refers to Seibu Railway company, not Seibu department store, Seibu electronics, or any of the half dozen other Seibu named companies. Since the Seibu-Ikebukuro line is our train line, where would we be without Seibu? Walking. Very far. (8 points)

Third: Tokyo Giants. My wife’s uncle used to work for Yomiuri, the New York Times of Japan. This is mainly a case of family loyalty. (6 points)

Worst: Tokyo Swallows. Okay I get it. Yakult is that yogurt drink that’s good for your health. You SWALLOW it. That doesn’t make it taste good. (4 points)

Criteria: Performance (10 points)

This is calculated simply as average winning percentage from 2008-2013. Unlike American baseball games, Japanese baseball games can end in a tie, so simply counting wins isn’t accurate enough.

Best: Tokyo Giants, .604 Unsurprising, considering the Giants payroll is nearly double of any other team. (10 points)

Second: Seibu Lions, .526 (8 points) Not bad at all, for the lowest payroll team of the bunch.

Third: Tokyo Swallows, .491 This was surprising. (6 points)

Worst: Chiba Marines, .482 One should keep in mind that the year the Marines won the Climax Series (2010), they finished third in their league.

Criteria: Underdoggedness (10 points)

Underdoggedness is a measurement of how well a team does in the face of adverse conditions: low payroll, smaller fan base, management turnover, etc. The Oakland A’s are the gold standard of Underdoggedness. Yes, it’s a real thing.

Best: Chiba Marines. The Marines struggled mightily for over 30 years until they finally reached the playoffs in 2005 for the first time since 1974. Since then, they have been a relevant team again, winning the Climax Series in 2010. (10 points)

Second: Saitama Lions. The Lions experienced a “Golden Age” from 1982-1994, when they won 11 league pennants. Since 2008, when they won the Climax Series, they have not won a pennant, though they have been strong contenders in recent years. (8 points)

Third: Tokyo Swallows. The Swallows have not won a pennant since 2001, when they last won the Climax Series. To call them underdogs would be a misnomer; they are simply a bad team. (6 points)

Worst: Tokyo Giants. The Giants are certainly contenders almost every year, but they are far from underdogs. Sporting the highest payroll and largest fan base of all Japanese teams, they are the NY Yankees of Japan. (4 points)

Criteria: Efficiency (10 points)

I’m basing efficiency off the formula: Payroll / Wins.

Best: Saitama Lions, Y30,305,400 per win. (10 points)

Second: Chiba Marines, Y33,668,200 per win. (8 points)

Third: Tokyo Swallows, Y41,863,200 per win (6 points)

Worst: Tokyo Giants, Y55,465,000 per win (4 points)

Criteria: Uniform Coolness (5 points)

Best: Chiba Marines. The Marines sport a nice blue pinstripe home uniform, which other than it’s similarities to the Yankees, is a pretty classy outfit. (5 points)

Second: Saitama Lions. Love the classic quality of the uniform, from the logo font to the style. (4 points)

Third: Tokyo Swallows. The YS logo is sort of weird and I’m not into the red pinstripes at all. (3 points)

Worst: Tokyo Giants. In colors and logo font, looks nearly identical to another Bay Area team with the same name, and I just can’t bear that. (2 points)

Criteria: Mascot Cuteness (5 points)

Best: Saitama Lions. The mascot is based on Simba The White Lion, an anime created by Osamu Tezuka. Lions are cute. White lions? Adorable! (5 points)

Second: Tokyo Giants. The Giants mascots are called Giabbits and there are 6 of them, because you all know what Giabbits are known for. (4 points)

Third: Chiba Marines. Cool is the Marines six foot tall seagull mascot. You don’t want a six foot seagull flying over your head, that’s for sure. They also have one Japanese pear looking thing called Funassyi, which is apparently the Funabashi city mascot, where the Marines play. Points go to Funassyi. (3 points)

Worst: Tokyo Swallows. When Google translates the name of the Swallows mascot, it comes up “Saliva Crow”. What else needs to be said? (2 points)

Conclusion: The Final Rankings

Last place: Tokyo Swallows (25 points). Let’s face it; this team didn’t have a lot going for it in the first place. They don’t win a lot and they play a stones throw from the Goliath in their league, Yomiuri. But Saliva Crow is their mascot? As Jimmy Fallon would say, Ewww.

Third place: Tokyo Giants (26 points). This team might make number one for anyone other than an Oakland A’s fan, but they have too much going against them, from the Halloween uniform to the huge payroll, that makes them an uncomfortable fit for someone who roots for the Oaktown crew.

Second place: Chiba Marines (37 points). There are a lot of good reasons to love the Marines, frankly. The problem is they play in the same league as the Lions, so you can’t really root for both. But with a 1 point difference between the Marines and the Lions (38 points), it may still be too close to call. Perhaps I need to do some in-depth investigation before I can make my final choice. Who has the most fanatic fans? The best ballpark food? The most creative cheers? The truth is still out there. A sequel is coming.