The Hamburger Worth Traveling to Japan

By Tokyo Broadcasting System
May 08,2015
Tokyo Broadcasting System

Tokyo Broadcasting System, also known as TBS, is one of Japan's popular televison networks. 

Unlike a regular hamburger, the meat is on top

The world is full of all sorts of statistics and data that are then used to create various rankings. But then there are the so-called “Weird Rankings” that at first glance don’t make a lot of sense.

What kind of place do you picture when you hear the words “Hida Takayama,” the popular name given to the city of Takayama in the Gifu Prefecture? Also known as the “Little Kyoto of Hida,” it is a place of picturesque cityscapes and attractions like old castle and merchant towns that will make you feel like you’ve travelled back in time to the Edo period.

Hida Takayama is one of Japan’s many popular tourist destinations, although, lately, it has been attracting foreign visitors for a rather unexpected reason.

The burger place packed with foreigners

When TripAdvisor, the world’s largest user-generated travel site, released a list of the best Japanese restaurants, as voted by the foreigners who’ve visited them, the top three choices were:

1. Hozenji Yokocho’s Matsusakagyu Yakiniku M

2. Center 4 Hamburgers

3. Tsukiji’s Sushi Dai

The number one spot is a Japanese barbeque in Osaka that serves Matsusaka Beef, while the third one is a sushi restaurant in Tsukiji. Surprisingly, the title of the second best restaurant in Japan went to Center 4 Hamburgers, a busy gourmet spot in Hida Takayama that’s also popular with foreign tourists who make the long journey there just to sample what the restaurant has to offer.

But it’s not Japanese cuisine they are after; it’s hamburgers. So the question is: why is Hida Takayama, the last place where you’d expect to find great hamburgers, seeing such an influx of foreign tourists?

We’ve visited Center 4 Hamburgers to solve the mystery of the Hida Takayama joint that has so many foreigners hooked.

The street is full of traditional Japanese row houses. If you don’t pay attention, you might walk right past the one with the “Center 4” sign. Once you’ve found it, go down the long corridor built in the distinctive, traditional style of “Unagi no Nedoko” (lit. “Eel Bed”) and you’ll arrive at Center 4 Hamburgers.

The Western-style interior goes well with the traditional Japanese architecture. Combined with the atmosphere of a hidden room, it explains why the restaurant is so popular with foreigners.

We’ve mentioned before that Takayama is a popular location among foreigners. There is even an itinerary devised by a European travel agency meant to promote Takayama as a hot tourist spot. It’s called “Samurai Route.” It starts in Nagoya and ends in Kanazawa with a stop in Takayama where foreigners who are tired of the hustle and bustle of big cities can recharge for a while.

It's all about meat

The restaurant only uses Hida Beef, which is one of top brands of beef

After talking with the proprietors of “Center 4,” the secret to its popularity quickly became clear: it’s all about the meat. The restaurant only uses Hida Beef, which has risen to the rank of Japan’s top brands of beef thanks to its velvety softness, intricate marbling, and rich taste. The restaurant also only uses the rarest cuts of Hida Beef to make their patties. Therefore, it wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that the “Hida Takayama burger” is the absolute best of the best.

Foreign hamburger experts across the internet have been giving the “Hida Takayama Burger” rave reviews, writing “This is the best burger I’ve eaten in my life!” or “It’s so good it’ll make you cry!” They’ve especially praised the placement of the meat in the burger.

Regular hamburger joints usually place the meat at the bottom of the sandwich. However, at Center 4 Hamburgers, the meat actually goes on top, which apparently greatly enhances the taste of the burgers.

When biting into a “Hida Takayama burger,” the first thing your tongue encounters is the crispy, crunchy lettuce. Then comes the sour, refreshing taste of the tomatoes, before finally you arrive at the juicy meat. Basically, when the ingredients all come together, they become more than the sum of their parts, making this the ultimate hamburger that follows the golden ratio.

After interviewing some of the foreigners at the restaurant, it quickly became clear why the establishment is so popular: it’s all about when the foreign customers visit Takayama. Tourists who visit Japan for 7-10 days usually end up coming to Takayama in the middle of their trip, around the fifth day, aka right about the time they get hungry for a burger.

After traveling through many of Japan’s popular tourist spots, sampling what the country’s cuisine has to offer along the way, most tourists arrive in Takayama missing the taste of their homeland. So the reason why foreigners crave hamburgers in Takayama is the same reason why Japanese tourists start craving Japanese food while traveling abroad.

Close relationship with tourists

This article is originally published by Toyokeizai Online, and edited by Ignition staff

According to our interviews, the restaurant’s distinctive Western interior is made up almost entirely of things donated by foreign tourists. It’s not unusual for restaurants to receive souvenirs from regular customers but it’s almost unheard of for an establishment to have this kind of close relationship with tourists.

The secret lies in the friendly service provided by the restaurant. The first three years after “Center 4 Hamburgers” opened had reportedly been hard for the restaurant due to a lack of customers. However, because they were never too busy, they could offer the guests first-class, one-on-one service, which you couldn’t get anywhere else. Thanks to that, word of their hamburgers spread, and soon the number of foreign tourists visiting the restaurant went up.

There were even times when the staff would go take a dip in the hot springs with customers they’ve just met that same day. And it all started with the proprietors wanting the customers “to eat something delicious.” With that in mind, they have continued to make nothing but the very best hamburgers out there, which is how they got to be so popular.

With so many tourists making the long journey there just to try the ultimate hamburger, Hida Takayama proves that “deliciousness” knows no borders.

(Writtern by TBS 世にも不思議なランキング なんで?なんで?なんで?)