Life in the Fast Lane
The image of fast food is just that: fast. It may not taste very good or be particularly good for you, but it's quick and inexpensive. Japan may have found a way to break down this stereotype by offering new types of fast food that are just as quick and inexpensive, but also nutritious and delicious.
Although Japan is no stranger to fast food, the new kid on its eat-quick horizon is a cafeteria-style chain of restaurants that sell piping hot udon, thick and satisfying wheat flour noodles. The hungry customer chooses from various quantities of noodles and types of soup, then moves down the line to be faced with a tempting array of Tempura (fried fish and vegetables) and croquettes. The smallest serving of noodles in a light and refreshing dashi-based soup costs only 100 yen (about US$0.80); the price climbs with the height of the extra ingredients the customer piles on top of the noodles. These shops are attracting customers young and old who appreciate both the low cost and healthy image of udon noodles.
Such brightly lit, squeaky-clean restaurant chains serving nutritious but inexpensive dishes are cropping up by the hundreds nationwide. The grandfather of them all is gyudon, steaming rice topped with beef and onions seasoned with soy sauce based dashi soup. One gyudon chain operates nearly 900 shops in Japan as well as numerous overseas outlets. Similar chains offer tendon, tempura over rice, and oyakodon, chicken and eggs over rice. Collectively, these rice-based dishes are called donburi-mono, so-named for the donburi bowl in which they are served. Most standard sized donburi cost between 300 and 500 yen.
Fast food has long been a part of Japanese lifestyles and culture. Until recent trends toward healthier living began, in fact, eating fast was considered to be a virtue. It is still not unusual to see a suited office worker consume an entire bowl of soba buckwheat noodles in four or five noisy slurps. Most train stations feature a soba or udon shop where travelers can enjoy a quick bowl of inexpensive noodles such as tempura soba which costs only about 300 yen.
Soba and Udon have been offered as quick meals at street stalls since the 17th century. Introduced in the 19th century, a donburi is an oversized rice bowl that can hold enough rice and toppings to form a complete meal. Donburi such as tendon are an informal presentation of rice topped with a flavorful mixture of ingredients. Traditionally, donburi were topped with fish, chicken, and vegetables but in the Meiji and Taisho eras, consumption of beef and pork increased and gyudon came into being.
When the first McDonald's opened in Ginza in 1971, 10,000 people a day, particularly young people, were eager to try this new food culture. It wasn't long before original Japanese burger chains such as MOS Burger and Freshness Burger appeared and captured a share of this demographic. To keep up with the competition, western chains have adjusted their menus to offer items such as teriyaki burgers and iced oolong tea that appeal to Japanese tastes.
Culture-shocked visitors to Japan might find comfort in the familiar taste of a cheeseburger and fries, but delicious, nutritious and inexpensive noodles and donburi are delightful alternatives, particularly in view of Japan's image as an expensive place to visit.