Update: We like hamburgers so much, that we are going to turn this article into a multi-part series called, “The Quest for Japan’s Best Hamburger”.
We will rank some of Japan’s less known, but more tasty (or not!) burger joints. We will rate each one using the following simple system. How good the burger is earns it between zero and three “stippies” as follows:
- 0 stippies: We’ll never go back to these places, and we’ll let you know why you should avoid them.
- 1 stippy: A hearty feast but nothing to write home about. You’d choose it over most other restaurants in the area but wouldn’t go out of your way to visit the area just to have a hamburger here.
- 2 stippies: you can tell that the owner has spent time considering the balance of his hamburgers. Ingredients are procured directly from farms and other small scale suppliers who care about the taste of their product.
- 3 stippies: ecstasy. You can’t get a 3 stippy ranking without at least one tear of joy being shed by the author.
Review # 1 – Awajishima Burger, Hyogo:
I don’t take my burgers lightly. As a big fan of hardcore burgers and an unforgiving critic of cheap imitations, I am on a seemingly endless search for Japan’s perfect burger for more than a decade. While I’m always hesitant to claim that I have found the Emperor of all burgers (because then I wouldn’t have an excuse to go out eating burgers every weekend!!), I think I have come pretty damn close.
My chance discovery was on the way home from Shikoku the other day. As we were driving over the whirlpools of Naruto (鳴門の渦潮) the road sign to Awajishima (淡路島) triggered a memory buried deep in the back of my mind which had nothing to do with the actual island (which forms a bridge from Shikoku to Honshu) that I was about to drive over. I’d been waiting months for an excuse to try out the cult-like 淡路島バーガー (“Awajishima Burger”) but without a car at home (Awajishima burger is – for some unknown reason – not in Awajishima, but in the heart of Nishinomiya, Kobe) this was the first day I was going to come anywhere near it.
You’d be forgiven for never having heard of Awajishima Burger. There is only one restaurant in the whole of Japan. It is nothing more than a sub 20 square meter hole in the wall of the wholesale market in Nishinomiya. It might be a small restaurant, but they certainly make one colossal hamburger.
The philosophy of the owner, Motoi Koshie (越栄基), is simple: To transform the hamburger from being “just another fast food” in to something remotely healthy. He only uses fresh organic vegetables (picture) from farmers that he has met over the years while traveling in Awaji Island. The concept seems to be working, as there was a semi-permanent queue outside during lunch time. What surprised me even more was that over 2/3 of the clientele that visited his restaurant while I was there were females in their 20s or 30s (here is the photographic evidence: Yes, I did count, because I didn’t believe my eyes!). I have to admit though, that I went there because the sheer volume of their infamous (in some circles) burger appealed to me, but why shouldn’t it – an organic hamburger – be a chic health food???
There are two items on the menu at Awajishima. A large (650 yen) and a regular (500 yen). If you’re anything like me and you grew up in the “it takes two hands to handle a whopper” era then you are gonna want to order the large. It comes with tomato, lettuce and sauteed onions and of course a burger smothered in Koshie’s secret sauce. The hamburger patty is pure beef and Koshie claims that the beef (from his friend’s farm in Awaji) is so soft and juicy that you can eat it raw. While I had my burger “medium”, I can testify that the patty melted in my mouth. For an extra 100 yen per item, you can add any of the following four toppings:
- Smoked bacon (home made)
- Fried egg (free range – damn! I didn’t know they even existed in Japan!)
- Cheese (fresh from the dairy farm)
- Onion Rings (The sweetest onions in Awajishima)
I went for the first three and was more than satisfied. If you add in Onion rings, the burger ends up being 15+ cm tall and even if you can hold the thing, you’re gonna struggle fitting it in your mouth. That said, under no circumstances should you miss out on ordering the Onion Rings. (You can buy a side order for 150 yen.) Order a couple before you leave to nibble on the way home as they are hard to beat. I’m not 100% sure but maybe he sautés the onion rings before he fries them. Let me know if you think you can work out the secret to their flavour.
I can hear you asking… what about the drink menu. Yes. A hamburger wouldn’t be quite the same without an ice cold beer to wash it down with. Although it has absolutely nothing to do with Awaji Island, I was pretty pleased with their stash of Hawaiian Beer. Longboard Island Larger, from Kona Beer is so smooth that you don’t even feel guilty drinking it after a heavy hamburger meal. Most of the locals around me were drinking coke but I definitely recommend the Larger (500 yen) with yours.
So this leaves me asking the question: Is this the best hamburger in Japan? To me it scored high in all categories. The burger was soft and juicy and you could tell that there was no cheap tsunagi (bread crumbs etc) holding it together like most excuses for hamburgers. The buns were soft and bouncy yet they were strong enough to withstand the onslaught from Koshie’s special sauce until the end of my meal. (Apparently he spent three months perfecting the buns with a local bakery.) To me having bacon and egg in a burger is a must and so doesn’t score any extra brownie points, but I really enjoyed biting into that home-made bacon though. Yummm. Despite being cooked after you order, the burgers come out fast and service is efficient. Given the volume, I don’t think I can argue that the price is too steep (especially when you think of the inflation at all of the other hamburger chains these days.) A little birdie tells me that Koshie had some advice from a Kiwi burger enthusiast when he was designing the contents of his burgers. What extras could I have asked for? Maybe pineapple? or beet-root? But that’s about it. The secret sauce on the patty is pretty good but it probably isn’t essential. If anything, it might taste more “organic” without it.
The Verdict: We know it is first off the bat in our new series, but Awajishima Burger gets 3 stippies. It was tantalising joy.
How to get there?: If you’re driving from Kyoto/Osaka down Route, take a left at 札場筋 (Fudabasuji) onto Route. Drive past the Nishinomiya City Office (西宮市役所) then hang a left before the Esso Service Station directly after the second set of traffic lights on the far side of the Higashi River (東川). Awajishima is then about 15m on your right hand side next to a dim coffee shop called Hikari (喫茶ひかり) and just before the entrance to the Nishinomiya Eastern Wholesale market (西宮東地方卸売市場). If you reach the Mos Burger on Route 2 then you have gone too far (in more than one respect).
If you’re walking from the station then you can get their from either Hanshin or JR (both Nishinomiya Station – 西宮駅) but it’s a little bit closer to JR if you have the choice and can afford the premium. If you live on the Hankyu line then Hanshin Kokudo (阪神国道駅) is the closest station but it’s the furthest of the three. It’s a little bit hard to find so it’s probably better to study the Google Map (below) in depth before leaving home.
Awajishima Burger (淡路島バーガー) – Some more details:
Address: 4-1 Ikedacho, Nishinomiya, Hyogo (西宮市池田町4-1 西宮東地方卸売市場内)
Business hours: 11AM~8PM (except Wednesdays which are holidays)
Official homepage: http://www.web-joho.com/awaji/
Map for Dummies:
View Larger Map
Have you found an equally tantalizing burger in the land of the Rising Sun? In particular, I’d love to hear about any of the cult burger shops in Sasebo (Here is the Sasebo Burger Guide Mapif you are keen!). Should I plan my next Golden Week to visit Nagaski? If anyone has tasted a hamburger that might rival the Awajishima, then I’m waiting with a long neck to hear about it. Please write about it in the comments section below, or even better, send us some pictures and your story!