Japan loves fast food as much as anywhere else. Did you know that sushi was initially 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 – McDonald’s 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.
First, let’s look at the different types of Japanese fast-food chains. There are many!
Burger King and McDonald’s are so famous in Japan that they 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 and many other shops across Japan are still in operation. Recent years have seen it expand to Hong Kong and Singapore.
Kurihara’s time in Tennessee inspired him with the delicious, freshly made burgers at fast food restaurants, which influenced the concept of freshness. It offers various condiments, coffee, locally made fries, vegetarian and hand-made desserts, and signature burgers.
The main rival and slightly cheaper alternative to Freshness Burger is MOS Burger, which has been around for 50 years since 1972. Sakura-san, the owner, was heavily influenced by his time spent working in LA and the local burger chain at that time, Tommy’s.
Since its inception in 1972, MOS Burger has expanded into Southeast Asian countries such as China, Taiwan, Singapore, and 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, 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 is one of the longest-running and farthest-reaching Japanese fast food chains, with its current incarnation since 1945 and stores in America and Asia. It is known for its beef bowls and pork miso ‘tonjiru‘ soup. Customers enter a Yoshinoya and head straight to the counter to order, eat, pay, and go. Yoshinoya and other beef-bowl chains are there for two things: fast food.
Yoshinoya also offers ‘nabe’ (hotpot) dishes, often served over a flame, so they continue to cook while being eaten. Contrary to appearances, Yoshinoyas are great for vegetarians, who can order all the sides (like rice, salad, and Japanese yams) without questions.
An alternative to Yoshinoya is Matsuya. Matsuya has been around since 1966, and its yellow and blue storefront 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. The chain opened a katsu-chain (fried cutlet chain) in 2013 – Matsunoya – specializing in breaded pork cutlet set meals.
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) to chicken-and-egg rice bowls.
Tenya was founded in 1989 in Tokyo and specializes in tempura rice bowls, all coated with a famous ‘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.
Nakau has been around as long as Matsuya and specializes in chicken-and-egg bowls. It’s one of the cheapest options and offers nice rice for the price. They also serve 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 omelet-like texture. Nakau also offers sides of karaage (Japanese fried chicken) which are popular among customers.
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. And it isn’t just a stereotype. Japan is an island, after all, so delicious sushi using fresh fish is readily available.
Restaurant owner Yoshiaki Shiraishi invented conveyor-belt sushi in 1958. In 1970, he exhibited it in Osaka, quickly spreading around Japan. After the economic bubble collapsed in the late 1980s, kaiten-zushi (conveyor belt sushi) spread worldwide and remains 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. Pickled ginger, wasabi (Japanese horseradish), and soy sauce sachets will be on the table, too.
Supplement the conveyor-belt dishes with selections from the menu. Standard sushi shop extras include chawanmushi (savory egg pudding made with fish stock) and ice cream or parfaits. Believe it or not, many sushi chains have great desserts, like warabi mochi (soft pounded rice cakes)!
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, all using the same type of vinegared sushi rice. Special sushi robot machines make sushi contactless before sending it out on the conveyor belt for customers to pick up.
Ten years after Yoshiaki Shiraishi developed kaiten-zushi, the founders established Genki Sushi, one of Japan’s largest sushi chains worldwide. You can find Genki Sushi in America and Myanmar, with the classic conveyor-belt sushi setup. Other popular sushi chains include Hamazushi and Hanamaru Sushi.
Here are some other types of Japanese fast food you should try!
Coco Ichibanya must be Japan’s most popular Japanese curry rice house. 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.
No matter the type of noodle, noodles generally come with green onions and hot or cold soup in Japan.
Soba noodles are a delicious type of Japanese noodle that uses buckwheat. Fast food soba restaurant chains such as Fuji Soba are often open round the clock for weary workers and post-party-goers.
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 (the type your mum gives you when you’re sick). A typical 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 from behind the counter.
Ramen (Chinese-style wheat noodles) is 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 worldwide.
Fast food chains in Japan offer a delightful array of flavors and unique dining experiences. From traditional favorites like conveyor-belt sushi and udon to modern twists on fast food classics, there is something for everyone. Whether you prefer the convenience of kaiten-zushi or the quick pick-me-up of udon, Japanese fast food chains have it all. So, share your favorites in the comments below and join the culinary adventure of savoring Japan’s fast-food delights!
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