True to its name, Burger King’s new Kuro Burger has a jet-black bun. The secret ingredient is a dash of bamboo charcoal that BK claims brings out the flame-grilled flavor of the beef. The ketchup is blackened with squid ink. But why? The company says its celebrating its fifth year in Japan with a burger that “defies common sense.” No comment. Aside from the inky ketchup, the burger is the same size and has the same toppings as a regular Whopper, and at ¥450, it costs only ¥30 more. The burgers will be on sale for a limited time starting Friday, Sept. 28.
Could bamboo ash become a trend in cuisine? Chikutan Hime (Bamboo Charcoal Princess) webstore sells a range of black snacks, including peanuts, senbei rice crackers, and sweet fried karintou. If the hue fits, but you’re not keen on eating burnt wood, then you could get in line in Shibuya for a squid-ink baguette at upmarket French bakery Gontran Cherrier.
The launch of Mos Burger’s new limited edition Salt Kōji Burger on May 24 officially confirms that salty mold is now the flavor du jour in Japanese kitchens. Kōji, or to give it its long-winded name, Aspergillus oryzae, is a domesticized fungus that has been used in the production of miso, sake and soy sauce for centuries. Salt kōji, made by mixing salt and kōji with water, then leaving it to ferment, is also a traditional seasoning, but one that had rather fallen out of use until it enjoyed a revival in the latter half of 2011.
Who says mold can’t be cute?
According to Yomiuri Online, the craze for salt kōji started off when Komego, a miso store in Fukui Prefecture, started selling it for use as a simple seasoning back in January 2011. Word spread with restaurants around the area using the ingredient, causing it to eventually catch on with the mass media.
It was traditionally used as a seasoning for vegetable and fish dishes, but now cooks are enthusiastically using the ingredient more creatively with meat as well as in soups and sauces. Marinating meat or fish in salt kōji converts the starches and proteins into sugars and amino acids increasing the umami, or savory flavors, of the meat. Though salt kōji can be bought, it’s quite simple to make at home, and plenty of cooking websites have featured instructions (see video) on how to whip up a homemade batch.
Fukui Prefecture, which has been a driving force behind the boom, has now introduced a kōji mascot to highlight the benefits of this versatile ingredient. Kōji-kun is drawn in the image of a grain of rice with some weird stuff growing out of its head, to illustrate the fact that kōji starts out life growing on grains of rice. Kōji is also depicted in cute cartoon form in the manga and subsequent anime of “Moyasimon: Tales of Agriculture” a story about an agricultural student who can see and communicate with bacteria.
If you’d like to try out this taste sensation for yourself at Mos Burger, then you’ll have to hurry as there will only be 1 million Salt Kōji Burgers available. Rather than being used as a marinade for the meat, the salt kōji is mixed into a special mayo sauce for a salad topping of crispy nagaimoand edamame.
Western fast food chains are opening, re-opening and getting fancy in Japan. With over-the-top takes on familiar menu items, the country might want to start counting those imported calories. Sink your teeth into these Japanese twists on American fast food, and tell us if you still think food in Japan is healthy.
But that’s nothing compared to Burger King’s “Bacon Bomb Burger.” During a special campaign, you can add 15 slices of bacon to your sandwich for ¥100. They list the basic Whopper at 660 calories. Fifteen slices of bacon, at 40 calories a slice, doubles that. The Double Whopper with cheese is 985 calories before the bacon bombing even begins. The low price seems as much like a dare as a PR stunt, and people have been taking them up on it and posting the results online — see the video below if you’ve ever wondered what a thousand slices of bacon on a burger looks like. But don’t watch if you’re hungry — or if you’ve just eaten.
Speaking of double, the KFC Double Down made a big push in Japan, too, as the “Chicken Filet Double.” The original has become renowned even in the United States for its heart-stopping excess: two slabs of fried chicken sandwiching cheese, bacon and sauce. Not to be outdone, Japan created a campaign around modifying this monster. The basic sandwich is almost 600 calories. And KFC in Japan will see America’s buttery biscuits and raise them a layer of melted chocolate on top.
Now, you may be reading this while chomping on a stuffed-crust Pizza Hut pie somewhere in another time zone, smug in the satisfaction that Japan will never out-pizza the U.S. Yawn. Pizza Hut in Japan has had the sausage crust since at least 2006 and the pizza chains have been innovating ever since. At Japan’s Pizza Huts, you can get a ring of crispy sausage baked in around the edge of most pies. The “melty camembert” comes with bacon, camembert sauce and evenly spaced wedges of camembert cheese. It’s about 300 calories a slice. But while the toppings are big, the slices are small. Guaranteed you’re not going to stop at one.
Dominos’ Giga Meat pizza sounds like the ultimate in home-delivered indulgence. And four kinds of meat is only the beginning. Dominos’ Japan pizzas can be ordered with the “Triple Camembert Millefeuille” crust. It has two layers of camembert cheese spread between three layers of crust under whatever else is on your pizza. If that happens to be potatoes and mayo, the highest calorie option, a 1/12th slice tops 400 calories.
With national attention to a rising rate of obesity and metabolic syndrome, or “metabo” as it’s known here, perhaps it’s no wonder that the death at the Heart Attack Grill in Las Vegas got a lot of buzz in Japan. Could it be that the story feels like a glimpse into a fat, frightening future?
Will shops like Glicoya Kitchen in First Avenue, in Tokyo Station, become destinations in their own right?
Running for the train? Not so fast. According to a trend report released by @Press, Japanese people are spending more time browsing in train stations instead of bolting through them. PR flacks are calling this shopping experience “ekitame,” combining the words eki (station) and entame (entertainment), to refer to the station shopping mall as an entertaining destination in its own right. Focusing on the continuing success of Tokyo Station’s First Avenue mall, the report hints that this shopping complex may be the shape of things to come.
Instead of just being a convenient place for commuters to kill time, this station mall exploits the fact that tourists from all around the country pass through Tokyo Station. Two areas of First Avenue are particularly adept at attracting tourists: One is Tokyo Ramen Street, which has eight outlets operated by famous Tokyo ramen shops; and the other is Tokyo Character Street, which houses over 20 big-name character goods stores.
Over the years, speciality food theme parks have proved popular in other shopping malls in Japan, such as Gyoza Stadium, Ice Cream City and Dessert Republic in Sunshine City Ikebukuro. Therefore, it’s unsurprising that Ramen Street has proved a hit since it opened in April last year. It is attractive to Tokyo day-trippers who might not have the time to trek out to these famous ramen stalls, and long queues regularly form outside the shops. But it’s Tokyo Character Street that’s proved the biggest hit. Since it opened in 2008, around 5 million visitors have checked out the array of character stores, which include Hello Kitty Land and the NHK Character Shop, and this March three more stores opened here.
Looking to raise its profile as a tourist destination, First Avenue will launch a new area called Tokyo Okashi (Snack) Land on April 14. Comprised of three “antenna shops” (outlets used by companies to gauge public reaction to trial products) from major Japanese food brands Calbee, Glico and Morinaga, the area will entice visitors with limited edition souvenir sweets and the chance to see confectionery being made in the store.
We think the idea of ekitame might just catch on at other major transport hubs where tourists passing through have the spare time to enjoy browsing in specialty stores. And adding the station to the sightseeing itinerary is certainly an attractive option to the footsore tourist.
After an extended absence, Wendy's is scheduled to return to Japan in December.
It’s official, the square burger is back on the menu in Japan. Wendy’s Burgers, which withdrew from the Japanese market at the end of 2009, is now back, just two years later. Scheduled to open in December, the exact location of the first new store has not yet been announced, but Shibuya Keizai Shimbun has revealed that it will be somewhere in the fashionable Omotesando area.
The swanky location is probably a sign of things to come. When Wendy’s announced that they were planning to reopen earlier in the year, it was reported in the Independent newspaper that they “promised to add new products like premium sandwiches and hamburgers with gourmet toppings served in a ‘contemporary atmosphere.’ ”
Though Wendy’s control the external image of stores, the internal image is up to whoever is running the franchise in a particular country. From 1980 to 2009 that company was Zensho, but it appears that this company wasn’t forward-thinking enough to compete in the ever-evolving world of fast food in Japan. This time franchise will be managed by Higa Industries, the company who operate the hugely successful Domino’s Pizza chain in Japan.
Burger King, which also withdrew from the Japanese market (back in 2001), only to relaunch in 2007, seems now to have a firm grip on things and are staying up to speed with the changing market by luring customers with limited-edition burgers and promotional campaigns. In November, for instance, the company will be offering a 30-minute tabehodai (eat all you can) on Whoppers. From Nov. 1-15, if you order a L set whopper, it’s possible to get as many second helpings as you can eat within the allotted time by simply presenting your receipt and empty wrapper at the counter.
To relaunch Wendy’s, the company is now running a campaign to recruit a fresh face to represent the brand. Budding young stars can apply via Oricon Style. Applications will be accepted up until Oct 24. The winner will be named “Wendy-chan” and will travel the country for two months promoting the upgraded version of the fast-food chain.
While finger-food friendly places like McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Mister Donuts have all had drive-thru windows across Japan for years, Nikkei Trendy says drive-thrus are evolving. These days, more distinctly Japanese fare is getting the meals-on-wheels treatment . . . though drivers would do well to consider that the hazards of eating them while behind the wheel.
Ringer Hut's new drive-thru, featuring Nagasaki champon
Gindaco is a chain of takoyaki restaurants that has made drive-thrus a big part of its strategy for northern Kanto. Takoyaki is known as a street food, a favorite at festivals and in entertainment districts. Rows of cast-iron shells are filled with dough then usually handed out in paper or styrofoam trays. Right before eating, they’re doused with a brush of brown sauce, a shake of dried nori and maybe a glurt of mayo topped off with a handful of katsuo shavings. The takoyaki balls are usually wolfed down at a standing or seated counter. They’re deceptively steamy under all those toppings, and the first bite often leads to hands clapped over mouths and muffled cries of “atsui!” (hot!). So they’re not exactly an obvious choice for a drive-thru. At almost the exact same size as a doughnut hole, they may seem perfect for handing over to the driver one at a time — except for all those toppings and their searing temperature. And the window between blistering hot and cool and claggy is narrow.
Ringer Hut expanded on the success of its Kyushu branches and opened its first drive-thru in the Tokyo area at the end of August. The Nagasaki champon they serve is surely one of the least drive-thru friendly foods out there. It’s a big flat plate of crunchy noodles with a slightly gluey sauce filled with vegetables, squid pieces and pink slices of fish cake. Ringer Hut designed a special multi-part disposable serving system for the noodles, two separate lidded plates that nestle neatly into a cardboard carrying case. Ingenious? Possibly. Front-seat friendly? No way.
Matsuya has drive-thru windows for its inexpensive beef and rice dishes. They use a similar compartmentalized container to keep the beef and rice separate until ready to eat, presumably while the car isn’t moving. Even-cheaper beef-bowl chain Yoshinoya is just starting to creep into the drive-thru market.
Tsukemen is even more impossible to eat on the road. The noodles and thick soup stay in their separate bowls, and you dip the noodles into the soup. I’m not alone in thinking that this is not really a road-friendly dish. It was actually a topic of discussion on a Japanese Yahoo! message board. Easy to eat or not, noodle shop Rokurinsha saw the drive-thru as an option. Rokurinsha added a drive-thru window to a popular shop in Shinagawa to combat long lines of pedestrians that were annoying the neighbors. Instead, now, they’re facing the possibility of long lines of cars.
KFC is set to debut a new health-conscious menu featuring Oven Roasted chicken and an array of sandwiches at its Shibuya-dori location.
Earlier this year McDonalds rebranded 13 of its stores in Tokyo locations, such as Shibuya and Roppongi, giving the inside and outside appearance of the stores a facelift, perhaps to better match their swankier Japanese surroundings. More recently, Nikkei Trendy is reporting that Kentucky Fried Chicken is undergoing a more drastic rebranding of its own, pitting the Colonel and his Christmas chicken giant against Ronald McDonald’s fast food empire.
KFC in Japan has long been forced to innovate to survive the cut-throat fast-food industry. With this new marketing campaign, however, KFC clearly wants wants to tap into the health-conscious market of women and young people. The centerpiece of their experimental “next generation” menu, available only at the Shibuya location, is Oven Roasted Chicken. Advertising material eschews french fries, giving the option instead of salad and tea. Included is a marinade sauce heavy on bell peppers. In addition to a variety of salads, the menu also includes a Brazer (ブレイザー) chicken fillet sandwich, a broccoli chicken roll and an avocado shrimp sandwich. This move to healthier fare is ironic given that the U.S. KFC is currently hawking the Double Down, a sandwich that replaces bread with two cuts of fried chicken.
KFC might be best served imitating Subway rather than McDonalds: The sandwich maker has been successful with vegetable-centric advertising.
Nikkei Trendy seems impressed with the new items and equally so with the décor, which is sleek and chic, not unlike the McDonalds changes. While the main opponent of KFC may be McDonald’s, the company might be best advised to look closely at the marketing campaigns of Subway. The sandwich maker has firmly established the fact that in Japan, Subway is about vegetables. The company name is always given as “Subway (of vegetables)” (野菜のSubway), and their slogan is “Put vegetables into every day” (毎日に野菜をはさもう). It is unlikely, however, that KFC’s changes will be able to match Subway’s commitment to freshness: On July 6, the company opened a new location called the Yasai Lab Marunouchi Building in the Marunouchi district of Tokyo. The “Lab” will feature organic vegetables grown hyrdoponically on-site. Fresh veggies from the in-store gardens will be available starting in October.
The Shibuya-dori KFC location will debut the new menu on Friday, July 9.
Long before these pratfalls, many of Japan’s purist (and arguably nationalist) fans were already decrying the influx of non-Japanese grapplers – including the two present yokozuna, both Mongolians – and their lack of deference to the sport’s rigid and time-honored traditions. Asashoryu, last week’s victor and 24-time winner of the Imperial Cup, has been repeatedly criticized for his behavior, which may seem tame when compared to Western athletes but is considered barbaric by sumo’s strict standards.
Controversy generates attention, so one could argue that such scandals actually help sumo attract more eyeballs, but certainly not enough. Interest in sumo among younger generations has been waning for some time, overtaken by video games and J. League soccer, the youth’s pro sport of choice.
What to do? One proven method of garnering attention in Japan is by developing your own line of adorable character goods. Enter Sekitori-kun. The name for these chicken littles is a play on the word sekitori (関取, top-ranked wrestler) and the kanji for bird (鳥) which also has the sound “tori”. The characters are packaged as playing cards similar to the Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh! brands – with strength, endurance and other fighting characteristics mapped out – and then handed out to kids at tournaments.
Is the pre-teen demographic what they’re aiming for? That would explain the recent flirtation with fast food – I’m imagining Asashoryu-shaped Happy Meal toys at McDonald’s by 2010. If Japanese kids buy enough of them – and eat enough of those hamburgers – then sumo may form its next generation sooner than expected.