Many Japanese foodies are enamored with the hamburger, in much the same way that their American counterparts are often besotted with ramen. The number of hamburger shops in Tokyo has exploded in the last decade, but there are also signs that the fascination runs deeper: There are books, magazines and websites in Japanese devoted to eating — and understanding — the hamburger.
Yoshihide Matsubara is the author of many of them, including “The Burger Map,” an authoritative guidebook to Kanto area burger shops. He insists, however, that he’s not just riding a trend; his love affair with the hamburger goes back further. It’s the cultural differences, between patties formed West and East, that he finds so captivating.
In a sense, Matsubara grew up with the hamburger: He was born just a few weeks after McDonald’s made its first appearance in Japan — opening a shop in Ginza in the summer of 1971, and henceforth defining hamburgers for the whole country. However, it wasn’t until a chance visit to Wendy’s in 2004 piqued his interest in “hamburgers that weren’t McDonald’s” that he began to get serious about them.
Five years later he quit his office job and pooled his resources to self-publish Hamburger Street, a magazine about hamburgers, which led to the book deal, the odd media consultancy and TV appearances. He still eats burgers several times a week, critiquing them on his website (www.hamburger.jp).
If you closed your eyes and tried to imagine what a hamburger expert might look like, it is unlikely that you would picture Matsubara. He is trim for one, neatly dressed and terribly polite. When he talks about hamburgers, he speaks with a steady authority shot through with enthusiasm.
“Japanese hamburgers and American hamburgers are completely different,” he tells me. “How so? The meat. What Japanese people don’t get about hamburgers is that they’re about meat.”
Matsubara was a longtime fan of Japan’s gourmet hamburgers until he visited California. During the trip, he tried to “taste things like an American”: to appreciate the outsized patty and the leaner meat. As a result, he would never be able to eat aibiki (the blend of beef and pork often used in hamburgers in Japan, particularly at Mos Burger) again.
To illustrate the difference between American and Japanese hamburgers, he points at a photo on a random page of “The Burger Map.”
“Look at how this is put together, not even held with a pick. See how the lettuce is folded,” he laments.
Indeed, the hamburger is miraculously tall, freestanding, its layers of rainbow colors neatly stacked like a well-executed parfait. The lettuce is folded so as to not hang over the bun. It is this appearance, he explains, that endears hamburgers to Japanese diners. Something about the round shape, the way it looks like it is just about to lose its balance.
“Japanese people are looking at this image of the hamburger, thinking it’s cute, something extravagant, and for that reason its trendy. But inside, the real thing, the meat — where is it?
“The Japanese do have a knack for making things look beautiful,” he concedes.
For a reverse analogy, cue the California roll, an inside-out maki roll containing cucumber, crab meat and avocado, invented on U.S. soil and considered by Americans to be sushi.
Matsubara traces the current hamburger craze to pioneering shops such as Homework’s in Tokyo’s Hiroo ( 3444-4560), which opened in 1985. The owners of such shops had lived in America and returned to Japan to find a dearth of acceptable hamburgers, he explains.
Others followed, but with each subsequent opening the food became further removed from the original inspiration and more colored by Japanese taste. For that reason, Matsubara is excited about a new wave of hamburger shops in Tokyo started by non-Japanese residents.
He namechecks Tokyo restaurants Fatz in Koenji ( 6762-3939) and Martiniburger in Kagurazaka ( 6280-8920) — both American-owned — but also Gem’s Burger ( 36-5022), which is run by a Turkish expat.
“With these new entries, the hamburger scene will evolve I think, and that’s a good thing,” says Matsubara.
The critic recently had a chance to style his own hamburger, creating the Lemon Burger for Tokyo Omo Style in Gotokuji ( 5799-6895). It’s a 100-percent beef patty topped with mozzarella cheese, lettuce, tomato and grilled onions and a sprinkling of salt cut with lemon zest.
“The toppings should complement the meat. A hamburger isn’t something on which you can stick just anything,” he says matter-of-factly. Pop down to Tokyo Omo Style for a bite and you’ll see what he means.
History in a bun
Hamburgers arrived in Japan with the U.S.-led Allied occupation following World War II. The first restaurants to serve them were opened either by Americans or by Japanese who had worked closely with them. However, these shops would only have been frequented by the elite at the time.
Two restaurants from this era are still open: Hosoya’s Sandwich in Sendai, Miyagi Pref. ( 223-9228), which boasts of having sold over 1 million burgers since it opened in 1950; and Bonnet in Atami, Shizuoka Pref. ( 81-4960), which has been running since 1952.