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Jacksonville days inspire Japanese student's recipe for success

Since becoming an adult, albeit that's a description some folks would quibble with, I rarely eat hamburgers.

Part of it has to do with maintaining a more healthful diet and trying to rid the world of my slothful ways. But my consumption also dropped off dramatically with the corresponding rise in unappetizing corporate burger joints across our nation.

While there may be a few excellent franchise places, most folks behind the counter fling burgers in your direction that — I'm only assuming here — taste like three-day-old August road kill, under a shroud of brown lettuce, slathered in greenish sludge and stuck in a stale bun.

Turkey vultures have been known to turn their beaks up at the assembly-line cuisine.

Still, as a lifelong aficionado of the burger perfected in the States, I periodically get a yen for one built with passion and pride.

So the Jacksonville Burger Restaurant, featuring gourmet burgers, sounded enticing.

But the 760 yen for the plain burger stumped me, as did the 890 yen for the cheese, avocado, bacon and "Mexican" deluxe burgers. Turns out it's $9.95 American for the plain burger and $10.30 for the deluxe edition.

The burger place is in Sapporo, Japan, but is named after our fair town in Jackson County.

In fact, the interior is decked out with photographs of our beloved J'ville, including a nice shot of the north side of California Street.

So how in the heck did a burger place in Japan come to be named after our picturesque hamlet?

Good question.

Like most things Jacksonville, it involves retired Jacksonville Elementary School teacher Larry Smith, a fellow whose good deeds seem to be going global.

His wife, Linda, is a fellow good deeder, incidentally.

In the mid-1990s, the well-traveled Smiths befriended some Japanese folks who told them about a 14-year-old boy from Osaka who wanted to come to the States to continue his education. As the hosts of seven foreign-exchange students over the years, in addition to raising their own children, the Smiths opened their home to Seiichi Kanada.

"Seiichi is so gregarious, so funny, he became part of our family immediately," Larry said. "He is just so exuberant, so happy."

The youngster stayed with Smith for a year, then with other local families while attending St. Marys High School for three years and then graduating from South Medford High School.

Throughout this period, Larry was there for him, serving as both his English teacher and mentor.

"It was his senior project that really got him going in the food business," the retired teacher recalled of the young man's efforts to gain some business experience. "He set up a hot-dog stand in Alba Park (in Medford). That's where he got his start."

He would later graduate with a business degree from Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Mont., before returning to Japan.

The Smiths, who have kept in touch with Seiichi over the years, were special guests at his wedding in Osaka five years ago.

The young man, after working in Japan's IT world for several years, decided to start a restaurant nearly two years ago. He contacted the Smiths.

To help serve up the proper ambience in the restaurant, Larry sent him several large photographs of Jacksonville.

"In their culture, they don't pronounce Jacksonville the same way we do," Larry said. "When they say it, it sounds like you are being hit in the solar plexus."

No matter how it is pronounced, the restaurant received a rave review in the November 2009 edition of the Sapporo Source, a monthly international magazine published in that city.

Noting the burger is a blend of Japanese Wagsu and Australian beef with no filler, the reviewer wrote that the hand-chopped meat made for a more enjoyable bite.

"Good, simple, tasty food, well prepared by a friendly, chatty owner in a comfortable little eatery is certainly, for me, one of life's most enduring pleasures," the reviewer concluded.

Kanada, who now has a young son, told the magazine that Larry had much to do with his success.

"He was a really nice, really patient guy, and he sat down and helped me with the language and culture, and things started to turn around from there," Kanada told the magazine.

But Larry shrugs off his influence, pointing instead to the community at large.

"Jacksonville had a huge influence on him," Larry said. "This is where he learned his English, where he came of age."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.