Some culinary-minded travelers visit Japan to slurp down all the hearty ramen noodles they can get their spoons on, or to sample the best cuts of sashimi on earth. Others hop on a daylong shinkansen ride from Tokyo to get a taste of a regional specialty in the remote fishing village of Sasebo near Nagasaki — and it just happens to be a hamburger.
The reason for Sasebo’s uncanny local cuisine comes down to its history as host to a U.S. naval base. While the military campus in Sasebo was established by Japanese troops in the late nineteenth century, it became home to a constant stream of American marines just after World War II. The presence of the base has made the city globally connected and culturally diverse for a small, fishing town. And it was a hungry American GI who was responsible for first sharing the recipe for the iconic American hamburger with Sasebo locals, altering the town’s culinary legacy forever.
In 1951, the first “Sasebo burger” joint began peddling sandwiches in town, 21 years before global fast food chains ever touched Japanese shores. American troops venturing into Sasebo on breaks could then easily satisfy their cravings for familiar fare. In the generations to come, more and more Sasebo cooks would refine the original recipe, maintaining the hearty integrity of the sandwich while adding their own nuanced Sasebo spin.
Linking all of the more than 20 versions of the dish served up across the city is one requirement for bona fide status—the sandwich must include a cooked-to-order patty on a bun and as many ingredients from Sasebo as possible. Within that format you’ll find everything from minced chicken meat patties and boned rib to omelets, bacon and cheese.
One recipe addition adopted by a long-time burger stand owner is a sweet mayonnaise spread that better suits Japanese tastes. Local appeal is a vital criterion today; after the original wave of American military clientele, Sasebo burger joints are now overwhelmingly operated by locals, for locals. So, don’t expect to see any English menus.
Don’t let that dissuade you from visiting Hikari, one of the oldest and most mouthwatering Sasebo burger restaurants in town. This 7-table shop is renowned across Japan for its innovation—the jumbo burgers here are made with minced chicken meat, and can be layered with eggs, bacon, and various local vegetables.
It was Big Man Burger Stand, however, that put Sasebo on the map when it opened its second location in Tokyo in 2005. The Sasebo burger became a media sensation across Japan and the city seized the opportunity to make a name for itself—it even made the “Sasebo Burger Boy” its unofficial mascot. You can find his likeness greeting you outside every restaurant in the city that serves up certified Sasebo burgers.
The hubbub around Buru Sakai, or “Blue Sky,” the city’s oldest surviving burger joint, open only late-nights, is surely deserved. The minced beef Sasebo burgers here are prepared directly in front of you, and presented to you upside down (so that, according to the owner, they’re “easier to handle.”)
For diners who prefer a setting more out of the public eye, Misa Rosso is the idea spot to sample a classic Sasebo. Their sumptuous “Monster Burger” is served up in a quieter bar atmosphere and can be devoured alongside businessmen and students while browsing the restaurant’s complementary manga library.
If you still haven’t satisfied your meat tooth by the end of your stay in Sasebo, the classically greasy “Special burger” from Log Kit may be the right one to grab on your way to the train. There’s no way anyone’s leaving Sasebo hungry.