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  • Laura Kaiser

A Uniquely Japanese Take on Fast Food: Gyudon Chains

The next time you’re in Japan, you will 100% notice the countless Japanese fast-food chains. Next to your standard McDonalds and KFC, there are some unique Japanese restaurants you can find. Actually, you will definitely find them. Chains like Sukiya and Yoshinoya are scattered everywhere. But it’s not burgers which are served at these immensely popular chains. It’s donburi!

beef rice bowl with a topping and chopsticks
Donburi are quick to make and taste good - the perfect fast food!

If you follow this blog a bit, you know that this is the second part of our Japanese fast-food series. In the first part I talked about Japanese fast-food in general. What I highlighted were the most popular burger chains. However, today I’m going to go more in depth on donburi chains! Like mentioned back in the other article, Sukiya ranks second after McDonalds when it comes to the number of branches in Japan (ca. 2.000). This alone shows how popular donburi restaurants really are.

What is donburi?

Let’s rewind a bit. What is donburi exactly? Put simply, it’s a rice bowl dish topped with whatever ingredient you’d like. Donburi (丼, literally just “bowl”) is a term for all different types of delicious rice bowls. Add scrambled egg and you get Tamagodon, add seafood and you get Kaisendon – it’s just that simple. This simplicity combined with the fact that it’s quick to prepare makes it the ideal fast food!

seafood rice bowl with a variety of different seafood
Kaisendon is a type of donburi that is characterized by the variety of seafood as its topping.

There are many different regional variations like Hokkaidon (with salmon), for example. By far the most popular bowls are Gyudon and Katsudon, however. While Gyudon has beef as its topping, Katsudon includes Tonkatsu (deep-fried pork). You can find these bowls all over the country – especially Gyudon. Other popular bowls include Tendon (topped with Tempura), Oyakodon (chicken & egg) and Unadon (eel).

Japanese Fast-Food Chains – Donburi Style!

So, with this short introduction to Donburi, let’s see where it’s served. There are three main chains well-known all around the country: Sukiya, Yoshinoya and Matsuya. Smaller chains and restaurants I’ll mention later as well.

a sukiya restaurant in japan
Sukiya comes second after McDonald's when it comes to the number of stores in Japan.

1) Sukiya

This donburi giant is the biggest out of the three main chains when it comes to branches in Japan. It even has stores overseas in South America! Sukiya (すき家) specializes on Gyudon and offers a lot of extra toppings. You can choose from six different sizes and toppings like kimchi, cheese and grated radish. Prices start at as low as JPY 330 for a small Gyudon and can reach JPY 1200 for a “MEGA”-sized Gyudon with cheese.

2) Yoshinoya

“Tasty, cheap and fast” is the main motto of Yoshinoya (吉野家). Founded in 1899, it is one of the oldest fast-food chains in Japan. They serve Gyudon but also other rice bowls. Similar to Sukiya, it’s also overseas in America and Asia. Yoshinoya’s menu is larger than Sukiya’s and offers many other dishes like curry and karaage (fried chicken). Though Yoshinoya is a bit more expensive as well. A small Gyudon costs JPY 388 here, for example.

3) Matsuya

Last but not least, Matsuya (松屋) is the third donburi chain which you can’t miss. It opened in 1966. In 2013 they also opened a sister chain called Matsunoya specialized on Katsudon and other katsu-dishes. The main chain offers many items similar to the other two but distinguishes itself as well. It has a much bigger focus on set meals and morning sets, for example. Also, their Gyudon is called Gyumeshi costing JPY 350 (+ a free miso soup).

gyudon set with miso soup and vegetables
Matsuya's gyumeshi usually includes a free miso soup.

It’s not just Gyudon

Despite the big three also offering other rice bowls, the focus still is the classic beef rice bowl. But there are other chains that are specialized on other types. TENYA, for example, is famous for its Tendon, while Nakau is all about Oyakodon. Similar to Matsunoya, Katsuya is a chain focusing on Katsudon. So, you see there’s a lot of variety when it comes to donburi chains!

rice bowl topped with egg, chicken and peas
You can find Oyakodon at Nakau, for example, but there are many more restaurants out there that serve it as well!

All in all, I hope you’ve gotten to know Japanese fast-food chains a bit better. There’s still a lot more to discover, so stay tuned for more articles on this topic! Maybe you now feel more like visiting a Yoshinoya instead of a Burger King the next time you visit. It’s worth checking out fast-food catering to a more Japanese taste!

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