When we think about ‘fast food’, it’s likely that burgers, hot dogs, fish & chips, kebabs, or other processed takeaway foods will spring to mind – and we all know how unhealthy it is to consume such foods regularly! Of course, Western-style fast-foods are just as ubiquitous in Japan as in the rest of the world, but fast food is nothing new to Japan; it was widespread and popular centuries before processed fast foods arrived on the scene from America.
Okay, I’m distinguishing here between ‘fast-food’ and fast food. Still, the fact is most of the day-to-day diet of the Japanese is comparatively quick to prepare, and time-saving has long been an essential part of the Japanese lifestyle, both for working men and busy housewives. Gender roles may have changed somewhat in the modern era, but that has resulted in even more busy people with little time to dawdle over lunch.
For example, one of the first and most enduring Japanese fast foods was sushi, which is why, to this day, customers aren’t encouraged to linger after finishing their meals. Then, over time, other popular dishes like noodles and yakitori (skewered grilled chicken) started to be sold from stalls and bars on the streets. So let’s take a closer look at the kinds of traditional fast foods Japanese high streets have to offer the hungry traveler.
The Traditional Fast Foods of Japan
Sushi must be one of Japan’s most successful food culture exports of recent years. Once a fashionably ‘cool’ choice for diners seeking something different, sushi has since established itself on the global menu. Of course, in Japan sushi is sold everywhere, from high-end sushi restaurants to high-street sushi bars, and from bento (Japanese lunch box) shops to convenience stores. Sushi is tasty, nutritious, and fun!
The kinds of sushi enjoyed today have been around since about the 8th century, but the origins of sushi are far older. When rice cultivation came to Japan from China 2000 years ago, cooked rice was sometimes used to pack and preserve fish. It was inevitable that, sooner or later, people would eat the rice too. In this way, sushi was born.
Many up-market sushi restaurants in Japan have no printed menu, whilst the smaller sushi-ya (typical sushi bars) may only display prices in kanji characters. If in doubt, ask the sushi chef for his recommendations (osusume wa arimasu ka?), and he’ll be happy to tell you what the day’s best dishes are, depending on what you are prepared to pay per person. But always check if you can afford, or are prepared to pay, the prices at a given sushi restaurant.
Usually, sushi morsels are served in twos (nikan), but you can ask for single or multiple pieces. Select the items you want to eat as a course, which will be brought to you in the traditional order, starting with shellfish and ending with tuna (maguro). Everyone likes maguro, but ordering only that isn’t good etiquette! Try some non-raw fish dishes, such as the egg roll, grilled freshwater eel (unagi), or sweet saltwater eel (anago).
How to Eat Sushi
Sushi is served with a small dish of soy for dipping and some sliced ginger. After dipping it in soy, one should eat sushi with the fingers, but don’t dip the rice side, or it might crumble – always dip the fish side! Sushi is never nibbled either; just put the whole thing in your mouth and savor the flavors. Sliced ginger is an aid to digestion and is best eaten between dishes, preparing your taste buds for the next word. Hot green tea is also provided and integral to the sushi experience.
Not Overstaying Your Welcome!
You should try to finish each sushi dish as soon as possible and avoid taking too much time for your meal; there is a traditional expectation going back to the Edo period that sushi shop patrons will finish their meals within an hour. Observing the correct etiquette is very important at traditional Japanese eateries, and visitors who embrace these customs will be highly regarded.
My Tokyo Sushi Recommendation
Look out for ‘Midori Zushi’ chain restaurants in Ginza, Akasaka, Shibuya, Tamagawa, Kichijoji, and Umegaoka, plus their conveyor belt sushi shop in Shimotakaido. Lunch sets with salad and miso soup start at around ¥800. Dinner courses for under ¥2,000 can offer excellent quality and great value for money.
Popular in home cooking and eating out, donburi is simply a large bowl of rice with a topping of some sort. The variety of toppings is limited by the cook’s imagination but can include meat, seafood, vegetables, shirataki noodles, and even leftovers. Typically, toppings are served with or stewed in a sweet donburi sauce made with soy, mirin, sake, and sugar.
Unadon (grilled eel donburi), is said to have been the first donburi dish, originating in the Edo period. The eel fillets (unagi) are continually glazed with a sweet teriyaki-like sauce while being grilled, a cooking style known as kabayaki. Then they are served on a bed of rice with a sweet sauce for pouring. Unagi can be expensive, particularly at restaurants that specialize in eel, but it’s well worth trying; it is unbelievably delicious!
Many donburi toppings are stewed in the sauce, such as gyūdon, which uses thinly sliced beef (gyū) and onions. Butadon is the same but uses pork (buta) instead of beef. Beaten egg is also often added when stewing, making a kind of sweet omelet that holds the other topping ingredients together. Probably the most popular of this type of donburi is katsudon: deep-fried, breaded pork cutlets and sliced onion simmered with beaten egg. Similarly, oyakodon uses strips of chicken, sliced leek, and egg.
Donburi borrows greatly from other popular dishes too. Tendon is tempura served on a rice bowl, while Tentamadon is tempura simmered with egg. Sashimi (raw fish) can also get the donburi treatment; Tekkadon uses thinly sliced raw tuna (maguro), and Negitorodon is chopped fatty tuna (toro) and leek.
My Tokyo Donburi Recommendations
There are several large donburi restaurant chains, but my favorite is ‘Matsuya.’ The beef in their gyūdon always seems to have just the right softness, and the sauce is not over-sweet. A Matsuya gyūdon is tasty, and filling, and only costs around ¥500. However, brightly-lit chain restaurants don’t provide much in the way of a romantic atmosphere!
If you want a more traditional donburi experience, try one of the two ‘Minatoya’ shops in Ameyoko, a famous market area in Ueno. They have a very extensive menu, also in English, with prices starting at around ¥500. Minatoya gets its seafood direct from Tokyo fish market, so you can enjoy a fresh and filling seafood donburi for under ¥1,000.
For me, yakitori is the most iconic Japanese fast food. It’s not just about the ingredients or the flavors; it’s the way the aroma of charcoal-grilled chicken fills the night air, a defining feature of the city’s fleshpots and back alleys and the country’s festivals.
Yakitori is small pieces of seasoned chicken meat skewered on wood, bamboo, or metal skewers (kushi), and grilled over charcoal. The primary seasoning comes from a sweet sauce, similar to the donburi sauce I described above, which is brushed on the yakitori as it cooks.
With the exception of feathers, yakitori cooks use just about every part of the chicken, so it’s helpful to know what to ask for. The popular ones are sasami (breast meat), momo (thigh), hasami (alternating pieces of chicken, leek, and/or other vegetables), negima (chicken and leek), kawa (crisped chicken skin) and tsukune (chicken meatballs).
In addition, there’s rebaa (chicken liver), kokoro (heart), zuri (gizzard), and bonjiri, which I think is what my grandfather used to refer to as the parson’s nose!
Yakitori is often sold from small mobile stalls known as yatai, complete with portable charcoal grill. These can be found at festivals or on busy streets. There are yakitori restaurants and shops (yakitori-ya) with table seating, but they often do a lot of their business from a takeaway counter on the street. And Yakitori is usually on the menu at izakaya (traditional Japanese drinking establishments).
My Tokyo Yakitori Recommendation
Just in front of the entrance to Inokashira Park, you’ll find ‘Iseya’ – probably Tokyo’s best known yakitori-ya. Waits for a table can be long, so it’s quicker to use the takeaway counter. The last time I was there, a stick of yakitori was just ¥80. They have an English menu too!.
Japanese cuisine features a bewildering range of noodles, but by far the most popular are ramen, soba and udon. What sets one noodle shop apart from its competitors may be the quality and regional variation of its noodles, the flavour of its soup, or the kinds of toppings it offers. And not all noodle dishes can be described as fast food, especially the soba and udon offered at specialist restaurants.
However, there are many small noodle shops, often on back streets, that rely on a quick turnaround of patrons, in the same way sushi bars do. The better ones will be those with the longest queues to be seated! And if you’re looking a quicker, cheaper option, there are lots of chain restaurants.
My Tokyo Ramen Recommendations
If you’re looking for a traditional ramen shop, one of the best is ‘Ramentei’. Found on Denbōin-dori shopping street near Asakusa station, Ramentei offers Tokyo style ramen, wonton men noodles and shumai dumplings. You can enjoy a filling lunch or evening meal from just ¥500 to ¥1,000. You’ll know to trust it by the number of locals that eat there, so don’t be put off if you have to queue!
Alternatively, the ‘Hidakaya’ chain is cheap, has a large menu and has restaurants all over Tokyo. With over a dozen varieties of ramen, all under ¥600, Hidakaya is perfect for a quick and filling meal.
Soba and udon are among the best-loved Japanese noodles, and whatever toppings you choose, the noodles themselves are tasty, filling and nutritious. But these days you don’t even have to queue for a seat to eat your favourite noodles; now there are standing only ‘tachugui’ bars.
Time saving is very important to Japanese salaried workers, so a typical tachigui bar operates at remarkable speed! Typically, choices are made from picture menu buttons, and this gives you a ticket that you hand to the counter staff. Your soba will be served within three minutes or so, and with no seating or other distractions, most people can finish their meal in just a few minutes. There are even tachigui stands on some major station platforms, so busy people don’t have to break up their journeys! With minimum staff and fewer overheads, tachigui noodles are much cheaper – around ¥400 for lunch.
The quality of the food is generally excellent too, with generous portions of great tasting noodles and toppings. Popular choices include kakiage soba (soba with vegetable and shrimp tempura), sansai soba (with wild, mountain vegetables) or, my personal favourite, ebiten soba (served with large shrimp tempura).
My Tachigui Recommendation
Just a few minutes walk west of Shinbashi Station, on the north-west corner of Sakurada Park, you’ll find ‘Oniyanma’ tachigui restaurant. They serve homemade udon noodles in a light Kansai-style broth and you help yourself to any of the wide variety of self-serve toppings. The interior is very minimalist, and they have separate entrances and exits that help speed up the customer turnover, so the inevitable queues reduce quite quickly. With prices from ¥300, Oniyanma is a real bargain.
A Final Thought
What really sets traditional Japanese fast foods apart from Western imports is their comparatively low cost for such well-balanced nutritional value. Tachigui, for example, may be a recent trend, but with people becoming increasingly health-conscious and more circumspect in their spending habits, it’s easy to understand why Japanese salaried workers are turning to a more traditional quick lunch menu.
So, if you’re visiting Japan, forget about burgers and fries while out sightseeing and try the traditional, homegrown fast foods instead. You won’t be disappointed.