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  • Laura Kaiser

Japanese Fast-Food Restaurants – Why You Shouldn't Miss Out

Updated: Nov 5, 2022

Japanese fast-food restaurants are probably not the first places you'd consider eating at in Japan. Visiting a McDonalds or Burger King while in Japan might seem uninteresting or even disrespectful. However, doing so can be just as rewarding as visiting a “traditional” Japanese restaurant. In fact, the Japanese fast-food scene is one of the most unique in the world. Here’s why!

a McDonald's drive through sign in the night
You might be annoyed by tourists mainly visiting fast-food chains on holiday, but in Japan it's worth it!

What’s So Different About Japanese Fast-Food?

What do you first think of when hearing “fast-food”? A burger with mystery meat? Maybe pizza soaked with grease? No matter who you ask in the West, the answer lies anywhere in between those two. Yet in Japan, the answer’s different. Of course, Japan also offers a variety of fast-food staples found in the West. However, I haven’t found a Domino’s outside of Japan that offers a pizza rice bowl yet.

delivery pepperoni pizza
Pepperoni pizza very much is a fast-food staple in the West.

Japanese fast-food restaurants have mastered the art of mixing the foreign with the familiar. By using local ingredients and being inspired by traditional dishes, some of the most interesting fast-food items have found their way on menus. Domino’s pizza rice bowl is just one of many of such creations, right next to McDonald’s Ebi-Filet-O (Shrimp Burger) or Pizza Hut's Bacon Wrapped Sausage Crust Mini Hamburger Pizza (that's a handful). Some local chains really lean into local ingredients like Jef in Okinawa does with goya (bitter melon).

McDonald's Ebi-Filet-O is a spin on the classic Filet-O-Fish. (photo: McDonald's Japan)

Japan’s Obsessed with Limited Items

Seasonality and limited items are huge in Japan as well. Like I described in this article, this focus on seasonality is also present in washoku (traditional Japanese food). For Sakura season in the spring, you will get many floral and pink-colored items. Around Valentine's Day you’ll see a lot of chocolate-themed items (like chocolate ramen!). Even Starbucks, which rarely localizes its products, is on a whole other level in Japan. You'll be able to try purple yam latte for Halloween and red-velvet-cake-like frappucinos for Christmas.

Starbucks pink-colored Sakura-themed Latte
Starbucks' Sakura-themed drink is a hit every year during spring season.

As you can see, Japanese fast-food restaurants thrive on novelty. The desire to innovate has put Japan on top of the food world in the Michelin star realm as well. Speaking of gourmet food – seeing premium ingredients used in fast-food restaurants is not a rare sight either. Be it sirloin beef on pizza or truffle sauce on burgers; the quality of ingredients does not automatically mean it's fast-food.

chocolate ramen bowl from Mensho in Tokyo
This chocolate ramen is a Valentine's special from Mensho in Tokyo (definitely not fast food though!).

Why are Japanese Fast-Food Restaurants So Different?

If the quality of the food itself is not what makes it “fast-food”, then what does? Drawing parallels to washoku again – it’s more about the how than the what. Ordering through vending machines, private booths and record-pace preparation all scream one thing: convenience. Food globalization (also called “McDonaldization”) is often seen as the big bad when it comes to preserving local food culture. However, in Japan, work and convenience culture have shaped the scene more than the West did. 24-hour chains and convenience store food are products of an industry adapting to a changing work force.

ramen bowl in a private booth at Ichiran Ramen
At Ichiran Ramen you sit in your own private booth and the ramen is prepared very quickly.

Of course, it’s undeniable that the West has left its mark on the food industry, but the Japanese have also made it their own. Like mentioned before, many menu items cater to a more Japanese palette. The entirety of yoshoku is an example of how Japan has “Japanized” Western food (like omurice & curry). You also already might have heard of the Japanese tradition of eating KFC fried chicken for dinner on Christmas Eve. Believe it or not – this tradition is already over 50 years old! In fact, fast-food has already been a phenomenon since back in the Edo period around 1850 with the introduction of tachigui (立ち食い) or “stand-up noodle shops”.

KFC burger, bucket of fried chicken and fries
KFC is on a whole other level of significance in Japan - so much so that it became a holiday food!

Where do Japanese People Go to Eat Fast-Food?

We’ve talked about what makes Japanese fast-food different as well as why. So, let’s get specific now: Which fast-food chain is the most popular? Not to disappoint you, but as some might have already expected – it’s McDonalds. McDonalds has by far the most locations in Japan (about 2.900). Second place, with “only” 1.900 stores, is Sukiya (a donburi restaurant). Other popular chains include KFC, CoCo Ichibanya (a curry restaurant) and the Japanese MOS Burger. Burger King, on the other hand, isn’t a big player in Japan and poses little competition for McDonalds.

entrance of Japanese fast-food restaurant Sukiya
Sukiya is a very popular fast-food chain specializing on donburi dishes.

There are many more popular fast-food chains and independent eateries which will become a topic in future blog articles. Covering them all here would result in a novel, so stay tuned for future parts of this fast-food series! For now, let’s focus on the burger chains. I already went into detail on McDonalds. Therefore, I’d like to highlight the local burger franchises MOS Burger, Lotteria and Freshness Burger.

fast food burger
Burgers - like in other parts of the world - are a very popular fast food in Japan.

MOS Burger’s has rice burgers on their menu – but what are they? Basically, the patties are put in between buns made of…rice. They also have a lettuce burger where the “buns” are simply just lettuce. I actually had the convenience-store-version of a rice burger before in Thailand; I personally think it works pretty well! Freshness Burgers or just “Freshness” is MOS Burger’s more well-known yet a bit more expensive younger brother. They offer healthier (than average) burgers with soy-based patties and a lot of vegetable toppings.

Lastly, Lotteria is another Japanese burger chain which has, however, found more success in South Korea. Still, the unique burgers at Lotteria cater well to the Japanese palette. For example, they have their own version of the rice burger and their staple shrimp burger.

Japanese Fast-Food Restaurants are Worth Checking Out

When it’s all said and done; everybody likes to eat some fast food from time to time. That’s why it is such a great idea to experience this side of Tokyo’s food scene as well. You get a glimpse of everyday food culture which is super unique at the same time. So, if you would like to get to know places where locals usually eat dinner after a long day – McDonalds might not be a bad idea after all.

Checking out Japanese fast-food restaurants is a great way to get to know everyday life in Japan.

Tokyo might be famous for its Michelin star restaurants. But fast-food restaurants are just as unique. Both sides are part of the same delicious food coin that we should flip more often. Much like with washoku, it’s all about balancing out the different facets of Japan’s cuisine. Japanese fast-food restaurants have just as much of a place in that cuisine as any other restaurant. If you’d like to know more about Japanese donburi, sushi and soba fast-food restaurants, there are more articles coming to you soon!

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