“If you go there, you must have the burger.”
I put down my Suntory Highball and give a chuckle to the 40-some-year-old salaryman sitting next to me. He was on a stretch of 14-hour workdays and decided to stop by for a drink at this bar just two blocks from Ikebukuro station before his one-and-a-half-hour train ride home. Despite his tired eyes and drooping posture, he was in the mood for conversation – or maybe to grasp the chance to talk about something other than work for the next hour or two.
Like any other local, his first question to me – sitting by myself and scrolling through feeds on my cell phone – was “where do you come from?”
I politely told him and he nodded. He said a few words about Canada being a beautiful country. Like any other local, his second question to me was, “what are you doing in Japan?”
I gave him the gist of my plan in Japan: after one night in Tokyo, I was flying out towards Nagasaki and slowly heading back towards Sapporo. His eyes glimmered with excitement as I mentioned the stops I was doing along the way. “First stop is Nagasaki, then a stop in Kagoshima, and a night at the hot springs in Yufuin -”
“Ah, Yufuin?” His smile widened. “Very beautiful city.”
I didn’t want to tell him that my knowledge of Yufuin was that it had one of the only ryokans that had private onsens for cheap; instead, I tried to scrounge for whatever piece of info I had recalled seeing on hotel websites and travel blogs about the place. “Yeah, it’s a beautiful city in the valleys, right? Lots of hot springs, right?”
The man nodded. “Yes, beautiful.” He gave a small laugh. “But, if you go there, you must have the burger.”
“The burger?” I ask.
He holds his hand out to mimic holding a large burger that’s about to fall apart. “Special Yufuin burger. You would like it!” he exclaims.
“What’s so special about the burger?” I ask, my eyes gazing on how big he’s advertising this burger with his hands.
“Very tasty! Famous burger of Yufuin, it is.”
Thinking that surely a place must be known for more than its burger, especially in Japan, I ask him about anything else that would be interesting to see; he shakes his head and continues to voice his praise for this valley burger in the middle of a hot-springs town. We continue to talk about other areas of Japan: what to do in Osaka, where to sightsee in Hokkaido, and other normal local-tourist questions, but no matter the attraction he always brought it back to “the delicious burger in Yufuin!”
“Don’t forget to go,” he says as I pay my bill. I thank him and head back to my hotel for the night. The man had mentioned something about some sort of brewery tour in Sapporo, and he had mentioned something about a geisha ceremony held in Kyoto for tourists. He had mentioned some websites and some phone numbers to contact to make sure I get a spot at these events. Naturally, I had forgotten all that and instead, the first thing I searched for when I got back to my hotel room was: “yufuin burger.”
Disappointingly, or at least very unfortunate at the time, the only thing I could gather about it was that it was sold at a place called “Yufuin Burger” (how convenient), it was midway between the train station and the ryokan I would be staying at, and that it had a 4-star rating on Yelp. In fact, it had only one review by a Chinese tourist who in one English word wrote, “good.” 
Regardless of what Yelp had said, I made up my mind to go and visit this place in person. It was now an honour to appease this salaryman’s wishes and try this “famous” burger of Yufuin.
The fact that this place only had one review on Yelp initially made me question the notoriety of the place. However, if anyone had told me there was a burger place to try in Japan, chances are I would have changed my plans just to try it out. For starters, I take recommendations seriously – why would anyone recommend something for others to try how bad it is ? Second, I am a burgerphile so at least I could check to try a burger in Japan off that list.
Three days later and a 15-minute walk from the ryokan I was staying at, I found nestled among the commercial area of Yufuin a wooden sign hanging from the rafters with a painted image of a burger and the words “Yufuin Burger”. The village of Yufuin, probably because it’s nestled between several mountains, had the appearance of a small town in the North American Rocky Mountains, minus the traffic and the drunks. It had the North American charm of coffee shops and souvenir stores with European-alpine motifs scattered down the main thoroughfare, with the Japanese aesthetic of streetside food kiosks and ryokan guests in yukatas meandering down the streets. One of the food kiosks even mentioned having won “the best croquettes in Japan “, which made the salaryman’s claim of the town having a very famous burger even more likely .
The Yufuin Burger store only had two other customers, a Japanese couple who were sharing the boldly-claimed famous burger. It must have been really good because as they were about to leave, the girl asked her partner for another burger for their train ride home. The menu itself was simple and consisted of three types of burgers: teriyaki, “Yufuin”, and bacon/egg . I studied the namesake “Yufuin” burger intently: in addition to the normal burger toppings of lettuce, tomatoes, and onions, the Yufuin burger also had cream cheese and a tomato-sauce base (instead of the usual mayo and ketchup).
I went up to the counter and pointed at the Yufuin burger and luckily, the person at the counter spoke English. I explained to her that “a man in Tokyo had told me that these burgers were famous and I should try them out.”
She looked surprised, “eh~?”
“Are they not famous?” I asked.
She laughed. “There’s so much food in Tokyo. It’s good to hear someone from Tokyo speaks so highly of our burgers!”
“Could I try the Yufuin burger? Is that a good one?” I ask.
“Very good choice,” she replies. The burger itself isn’t the cheapest – it came in at around 900¥, but the cashier said she would throw in some fried potatoes as appreciation for having come on the advice of someone from Tokyo.
It’s not long before the meal is ready, maybe 5 or so minutes, especially as I’m the only one in the restaurant. I find out later that the restaurant was actually closing and I conveniently came in at the time of last-call. I take a seat near the counter and, very unlike me, analyze the burger to see why a man 1000km away would recommend this place. Nothing particularly different and definitely not the nicest-looking burger I’d ever seen. Then, I take my first bite.
Unlike other burger places that depend on the meat to provide the taste of the burger, the Yufuin burger was so-dependent on the combination of the cream cheese and tomato sauce to hold the balance between the relatively rich meat of the burger and the lightness of the vegetables. And it worked, at least if you discounted the fact that the burger was a bit on the small side – there definitely was more sauce than needed for a burger that size.
Halfway through consuming the burger, the cashier comes by. “So, is the burger good?”
“It’s good,” I say back. “Thank you very much.”
Before she goes, I ask, “Is there any place like this around here?”
She nods and points to a place across the street. “You can get burgers anywhere now – “ She trails off.
“Are they the same kind of burger?” I ask.
“Well, it’s a different place so they do things differently,” she replies.
“I do like the ones here,” I say.
“Thank you,” she says. “I don’t usually eat burgers but I do like the ones here too!”
And then it hit me. When I started the trip, I had made the choice to do an informal “Japan Food Trip” and have Japanese food from start to finish; but that day, I had inadvertently broken that rule. Here I was eating probably the most un-Japanese thing around and enjoying it. The thing is, it’s not that it was a non-Japanese meal that made it enjoyable nor was it that they had done something extraordinarily amazing to make the burger top-notch. Instead, here I was having something that goes beyond the cultural food norm of Japan; if I had mentioned that I had a burger in Japan, a Westerner would probably think “so what?” 
Think of it another way: suppose I was from Shanghai and I went to Europe to a restaurant that a local said had the best Shanghai cuisine in town. No matter how good the food was, an expected reaction would probably be, “you went to Europe to eat Shanghainese food?” But that’s because of our own relative experience in having it probably more regularly – why go travelling to try something that you have regularly?
The answer, at least for me, is this: because travelling is not solely about myself but on how I have interconnected with the world around me. I don’t travel to see how the world can fit into the needs I map out on a travel itinerary or schedule; I travel to see how I fit in the world-at-large. It’s not about the “pursuit of fleeting novelty” or to “pad one’s experiential resume” , but about strengthening our understanding of experiences. Yeah, I had the Yufuin burger today, but it wasn’t about “checking-off” eating a burger in Japan; it was about the ‘why’: why had a man in Tokyo suggested at a burger place 1000 kilometres away?
And while the answer seems to be squarely in line with the answer of, “burgers are not consumed a lot in Japanese culture so a unique burger will hold more credence to a Japanese person,” it also says a lot about the experiences of what it means to make a recommendation. In retrospect, it would be selfish to presume or expect that a recommendation is made because someone knew who I was or they thought they knew what I’d like. A recommendation is essentially what one person sees of the world around them and their excitement to share it with someone else.
Maybe it’s not about “checking-off” that I had a burger in Japan but saying, “I shared the excitement of having a burger in Yufuin.” And there are no regrets to that.
As I leave, the cashier bows and says, “thank you and please come back.”
“Most definitely,” I say back.
 At the time, I didn’t check any non-English review sites but I’d assume that there probably was more at Japanese review sites.
 It is well known, however, that some restaurants that were publically shown how horrible their conditions were have had a spike in visitors who needed to know how bad the conditions were in-person. Ramsay Kitchen Nightmares anyone?
 The place, Yufuin Kinsho Croquettes, had advertised itself as having won the gold award of croquettes. I wasn’t sure what that meant but it’s quite delicious to have a hot croquette on a cold day in Yufuin.
 Egg on a burger is actually quite common in Japan. At the time I was in Japan, McDonald’s had on their menu the “Tamago Double Mac” – a hybrid of an Egg McMuffin and a Double Big Mac. Deliciousness, indeed.
 And is probably the expected reaction of someone who read the first few paragraphs of this passage.
 These phrases (and the general concept of the passage following) is part of Rebecca Bean’s New Yorker article on “Kicking the Bucket List” (Sept 2014). It is undoubtedly one of my favourite articles on the problems of a “bucket list”, a concept which in today’s parlay has become, as Bean describes it, a “YOLO-ization of cultural experience.”