Prior to landing in Japan, I looked up many popularized chain restaurants in Japan, other than the typical Western fast-food culture (e.g., McDonald’s). From a Western perspective, it was quite fascinating to see the stark contrast between the two cultures through the lens of food.
Healthier options in food
One of the most obvious things that I’ve noticed was that the Japanese had such easy access to many healthy options that were cheap. The things that are considered unhealthy in Japan pale in comparison to the things that are considered unhealthy in America. For example, ramen is considered an unhealthy meal in Japan, and it definitely is, considering its sodium level and the lack of nutrients compared to their daily intake of rice, various side dishes, and soup. However, when compared to the standard American guilty pleasures like the greasy and chemically infused burgers and fries, it is definitely the healthier option. Even the burgers and fries in Japan aren’t so terrible considering its smaller portion, lack of grease, and finer ingredients.
I will explain some of the meals in Japan that were incredibly cheap and healthier than most fast-food chains in America.
A good place to start is by talking about a chain restaurant called Sukiya, a place that serves gyudon (a bowl of rice topped with beef and onion), which can cost as low as ¥290 (US$2.90). Other popular gyudon chains include Yoshinoya and Matsuya, which serve similar meal sets at very low prices.
I’ve also visited Marugame Seimen, a self-serve udon chain restaurant with the largest number of branches across Japan. A typical bowl of udon, noodles in soup ranges from ¥300 to ¥500 (US$3-5). Although they may not be the most nutritious option, they certainly aren’t unhealthy. Hanamaru Udon is another popular udon chain restaurant.
It certainly isn’t Japan without talking about sushi. An affordable way to eat delicious sushi in Japan is by heading to a kaitenzushi (conveyor belt sushi restaurant), where the sushi rotates around the entire restaurant, and you have the choice to take plates that pass by you or order one on your touchscreen monitor. Typically, a plate that contains two pieces of sushi can be as cheap as ¥100 (US$1), and the cost of one’s meal depends on how much they are able to eat.
It also wouldn’t be Japan without talking about ramen. There are so many different ramen chains, as well as local ramen shops, each place containing their own recipe of unique flavors and sacred ingredients, without a single one of them relying on MSG for flavor or on noodles that have preservatives. Despite the inherent unhealthiness of ramen, they truly put so much time and effort into making ramen that it has become some sort of an art, an expression of human creativity in terms of food.
The ones I’ve been to were called Kyushu Jangara (link in Japanese) and Ichiran, as they had vegetarian options. It was rather heartbreaking to be pescetarian in Japan, as I could neither visit any of the local ramen shops nor could I try some of the well-known and popularized ramen chains. Still, I could say that I’d had the best ramen experiences in Japan, which is saying a lot as I am originally from New York City, a place where cultures integrate with one another, and only the best of the best remain on the streets. I’ve had quite a few ramen bowls in my life, even before being a pescetarian, but Japanese ramen was on a whole other level despite the fact that I haven’t even tried what others called the best.
Other fast-food chains
In contrast to McDonald’s, MOS Burger was slightly more expensive, and the portions were smaller, but the quality and the service were top-notch (at least when compared to the McDonald’s in the U.S.)
CoCo Ichibanya didn’t even seem like a standard fast-food restaurant, as it tasted like authentic Japanese comfort food. Both options were also relatively healthy, at least when compared to the typical fast-food restaurant one would imagine.
Despite the easy access and the efficiency of chain restaurants, I definitely recommend visiting local restaurants that are probably beyond your expectations. Think of it this way: the popular chains hold the standard for what that specific dish is supposed to taste like, but local restaurants take this standard and pour their own creativity into it to make it their own. So every ramen, udon, gyudon, and curry will taste different at the hands of each chef; and it certainly might be a much more memorable experience.