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TokyoTreat Japanese Snacks BlogThe Japanese Fast Food Chains We Love

The Japanese Fast Food Chains We Love

Kim KahanKim Kahan
Published TimeJanuary 31, 2022

Japan loves fast food as much as anywhere else. Did you know that sushi was originally designed as high-class fast food? Japan’s love of fast food as we know it started after WW2, as Japan became more westernized. And it’s easy to work out why Japanese fast food chains caught on so well: they’re convenient, cheap, and delicious. 

In Japan, many recognizable fast food chain restaurants exist – McDonalds is the top fast food chain in the country – but Japan-made fast food chains are rife, too. Japanese fast food chains are often healthier than typical Western-style fast food chains. We’ll tell you more about that shortly. 

Types of Japanese Fast Food Chains

First, let’s have a look at the different types of Japanese fast food chains. There are many!

Burger Chains

Burger King and McDonalds are so popular in Japan that it inspired a bunch of copy-cat burger chains, each with a Japanese twist. 

The most famous is perhaps the optimistically-named Freshness Burger. Founded in an old house in Tokyo in 1992 by Mikio Kurihara, Freshness Burger’s original location is still in operation, as well as many other shops across Japan. Recent years have seen it expand to Hong Kong and Singapore. 

Freshness is said to be inspired by Kurihara’s time in Tennessee, where he was blown away by the delicious, freshly made burgers at the fast food restaurants. Freshness Burger offers a wide variety of condiments as well as coffee, locally made fries, vegetarian and hand-made desserts alongside their signature burgers. 

The storefront of Mos Burger, one of the Japanese fast food chains for hamburgers, with many Japanese signs, a menu, and promo signs hanging in front.
Mos Burger is another popular burger chain in Japan, most famous for their wide range of chilli burgers. Image via Shutterstock

The main rival and slightly cheaper alternative to Freshness Burger is MOS Burger, which has been around for 50 years, since 1972. Its owner, Sakura-san, was heavily influenced by his time spent working in LA and his local burger chain at the time, Tommy’s. 

Since its inception in 1972, MOS Burger has expanded into Southeast Asian countries such as China, Taiwan, and Singapore, as well as Australia. They have developed various Japan-first products, such as rice burgers. The rice burger uses a ‘bun’ of rice instead of the traditional bread and was a massive hit at its launch in 1987. 

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Beef Bowls (Gyu-don)

Beef bowls, or gyu-don, are loved among blue-collar workers and students across Japan, who flock there for the chains’ cheap, filling one-bowl meals and bargain lunchtime deals. Many gyu-don chains are open 24 hours to serve workers, weary after a night or daytime shift. There is little chit-chat in these places – simply head in, eat, and head out.

Yoshinoya

Yoshinoya is one of the longest-running and farthest-reaching Japanese fast food chains, having its current incarnation since 1945 and with stores in America and Asia. It is known for its beef bowls and pork miso ‘tonjiru’ soup. Entering a Yoshinoya, customers head straight to the counter, order, eat, pay, and go. Yoshinoya and other beef-bowl chains are there for two things: fast and food.

Yoshinoya also offers ‘nabe’ (hotpot) dishes, which often come over a flame so they keep cooking while they’re being eaten. Contrary to appearances, Yoshinoyas are actually great for vegetarians, who can order all the sides (like rice, salad, and Japanese yams), with no questions asked. 

A beef bowl from Yoshinoya, one of the popular Japanese fast food chains for beef bowls, with beef, onions, and pickled veggies on rice in a red and black bowl.
Yoshinoya beef bowls have a simple base, but there are plenty of topping options like kimchi, cheese, or green onion and chili oil. Image via Shutterstock

Matsuya

An alternative to Yoshinoya is Matsuya. Matsuya has been around since 1966, and its yellow and blue store front is instantly recognizable.

Head in and you’ll be greeted with the sound of eating and numbers being shouted out (or popping up on the screen) to call customers up for their orders. Matsuya offerings differ very little from Yoshinoya, although they make more of a claim to Japanese set meals, such as Hamburg steak and morning sets with rice and fish.

Matsuya opened a katsu-chain (fried cutlet chain) in 2013 – Matsunoya – which specializes in breaded pork cutlet set meals. 

Don-Buri (Rice Bowls)

In addition to beef-bowls, Japan has a wide variety of rice-bowl fast food restaurant chains, too. The popular Japanese rice dishes range from tempura (deep-fried seafood and veggie) rice bowls to chicken-and-egg rice bowls.

Ten-ya

Tenya was founded in 1989 in Tokyo and specializes in tempura rice bowls, all coated with a popular ‘special sauce.’ A little more social than their beef-bowl counterparts, Ten-yas have tables and sell beer with appetizers. Head into a Ten-ya and get a rice bowl set, or mix and match your own varieties of tempura. 

A tempura rice bowl sits on a white table with fried shrimp, fried shiso, and other fried vegetables on top with a side of soup.
The only difference between a fancy tempura bowls (or ten-don) and a fast food one is usually a difference in fish quality and seasonal veggies. Image via Shutterstock

Nakau

Nakau has been around as long as Matsuya and specializes in chicken-and-egg bowls. Arguably one of the cheapest of the cheap, Nakaou actually has nice rice for the price and also serves udon for a quick pick-me-up if chicken-and-egg bowls aren’t your thing. 

Chicken-and-egg is slices of chicken simmered in soy sauce and egg, creating an almost omelette-like texture. Nakau also offers sides of karaage (Japanese fried chicken) which are popular among customers.

Sushi

Sushi is the ultimate Japanese fast food and one of the most defining. If you ask someone to think of some words that remind them of Japan, chances are sushi will be one of the top options on the list. And it isn’t just a stereotype. Japan is an island, after all, so delicious sushi using fresh fish is readily available. 

Conveyor-belt sushi was invented by restaurant-owner Yoshiaki Shiraishi in 1958 and in 1970, when it was exhibited in Osaka, it quickly spread around Japan. After the Japanese economic bubble collapsed at the end of the 1980s, kaiten-zushi (conveyor belt sushi) spread across the world and is still one of Japan’s most famous exports.

The concept of kaiten-zushi is simple: head to the table, serve yourself some green tea, and pick up some sushi dishes as they move past on the conveyor belt adjacent to the table. There will be pickled ginger, wasabi (Japanese horseradish), and soy sauce sachets on the table, too. 

Supplement the conveyor-belt dishes with selections from the menu. Common sushi shop extras include chawan-mushi (a type of savory egg pudding made with fish stock) and ice cream or parfaits. Believe it or not, many sushi chains have a great line in desserts, like warabi mochi (soft pounded rice cakes)!

A group of people sit down at a conveyor belt sushi restaurant ordering sushi dishes from a screen at their seats.
Some sushi restaurants even have an option to order by screen and have a small train car deliver the food by train track right in front of your seat. Image via Shutterstock

Kura Sushi

Kura Sushi is a revolving sushi restaurant chain founded in 1995 and one of the largest and cheapest in Japan. It has over 250 chains across Japan and Southeast Asia, which all use the same type of vinegared sushi rice. Sushi is made contactless by special sushi robot machines, before being sent out on the conveyor belt to be picked up by customers.

Genki Sushi 

Ten years after Yoshiaki Shiraishi developed kaiten-zushi, Genki Sushi was founded, and to this day, remains one of the largest sushi chains in Japan and across the world. You can find Genki Sushi in America and even Myanmar, with the classic conveyor-belt sushi setup. 

Other popular sushi chains include Hamazushi and Hanamaru Sushi. 

Honorable Mentions

Here are some other types of Japanese fast food you should try.

Japanese Curry 

A plate of Japanese curry at Coco Ichibanya, one of the popular Japanese fast food chains, with an omelet and a fried pork cutlet in the center.
Coco Ichibanya is one of the largest Japanese fast food chains and with good reason! Image via Shutterstock

Coco Ichibanya has to be the most popular Japanese curry rice house in Japan. With a highly customizable menu, it is Japanese fast food at its finest. Head into Coco Ichibanya and you’ll not only be able to choose the sauce and all its toppings – such as deep fried veggies, Japanese pork cutlet, and scrambled egg – but also the sweetness of the sauce and even its spiciness, ranging from 1-10. 

Noodles

No matter what the type of noodle, in Japan, noodles are generally served with a side of green onions and with soup – either hot or cold.

Soba Noodles

Soba noodles are a delicious type of Japanese noodle, made with buckwheat. Fast food soba restaurant chains such as Fuji Soba are often open round the clock, for weary workers and post party-goers. 

Udon Noodles

A bowl of curry udon, a popular Japanese fast food dish, with thick udon noodles in a thick curry soup topped with fried pork cutlet and green onions.
One of the best combination foods ever is curry udon, giving the noodles a new, unique flavor! Image via Shutterstock

Udon (a thick wheat noodle) is another popular type of Japanese noodle. Many people believe it’s high in protein and see it as a Japanese comfort food (you know, the type your mum gives you when you’re sick). A common Japanese udon shop is Marugame Seimen which has over 1000 locations in Japan. They operate like a canteen, with customers picking up a tray and self-serving tempura, while staff make the udon itself from behind the counter.

Ramen Noodles

Ramen (Chinese-style wheat noodles) is actually a Japanese adaptation of a Chinese invention, but has become so popular in Japan that people often forget its Chinese roots. The most famous ramen shop in Japan is said to be Ippudo Ramen, which also has branches across the world. 

What are some of your favorite Japanese fast food chains? Let us know in the comments below!

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