3 Must Try Chain Restaurants in Japan

I am consistently impressed by the quality (and creativity!) of Japanese chain restaurants.

Yes, I have definitely enjoyed exceptionally delicious meals in Japan at small independently run restaurants with long waits and high prices. But, if you find yourself in Japan, good cheap eats are plentiful and should not be passed up!

Just look at this meal I enjoyed in a food court!

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Normally I avoid chain restaurants.

To be honest, I am a bit snobbish when it comes to food (or so my friends will no doubt tell you). I prefer to consider myself as someone with a “refined palette.”

I think I became a foodie thanks to my mom’s truly excellent home cooking. She spoiled me. I was a bit annoying when I first arrived to college. Pretty much everything I ate, I would declare “mediocre.” My poor friends stopped asking me what I thought of the food, but instead would preemptively say, “Yeah yeah, we know. Your mom makes it better.”

Yummy welcome home cake from my mom. ^_^

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My mom has her own cooking blog! Check it out!

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I hope I have become more gracious about my food opinions… (Even if my opinions have not changed much.) I am still quite fond of good quality food, and prefer independent places to chain restaurants

But… some Japanese chain restaurants are great!

Of course, I am sure there are great chain restaurants in the U.S. too. But my general finding has been that Japanese quick-eat chain restaurants offer a surprisingly good experience. The quality is high; the service is quick; and the prices are reasonable.

Caught in the act! Yeah I just really like eating…

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This spring, one of my friends will be traveling to Japan for the first time, and she asked me for recommendations of sight/activities/restaurants in Japan.

It might seem ridiculous to recommend a chain restaurant (maybe it is a bit like recommending Olive Garden to a tourist visiting California). But, I did not hesitate to recommend my favorite chain restaurants to my friend!

Why I love these chain restaurants

There are lots of reasons to enjoy these places! First of all, you can enjoy all the same benefits as the other patrons: quick, cheap, good food.

Shrimp burger with rice “bun” at Freshness Burger.

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If you are a visitor, there are added benefits. The best benefit as a visitor is that you can enjoy the normal life of people living in that country. It is one thing to experience a fabulous restaurant, somewhere that is a treat even for residents. That kind of experience allows you to enjoy the very best the place has to offer.

But I love the chance to immerse myself in the everyday (even mundane) life of residents. You can learn a lot about the place, the culture, and the life of people there (while enjoying fast, cheap, yummy food).

These spots are always on my list of “must eats” when I visit Japan, and I hope they will soon join your list too! So here it is: my top 3 chain restaurants in Japan.

  • #1 – Mister Donut

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Truly, my first love in Japan.

Not sure, if it counts as a chain restaurant, I suppose it is more properly called a fast food restaurant.

My host family introduced me to Mister Donut during my first visit to Japan as a junior in college. We went there for an afternoon snack, after a long day of sightseeing. Donuts were firmly a breakfast food in my mind, and I was a bit confused why were eating there at 4pm.

 

But my skepticism quickly gave way once I ate a donut. So good!

Just look at how happy I am… Yum.

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And now that I think it over more carefully, donuts for breakfasts are basically an excuse to eat cake for breakfast. I think I agree with my host family – donuts (and other sweet cake-y things) – are probably best left for afternoon snacking.

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Mister Donut is firmly established in Japan with over 1300 stores, but it actually began in the United States in 1956. If you say the name in Japanese, it sounds a bit like Mister Donuts but also a bit different.

Click here to hear it.

Now Mister Donut is the largest donut chain in Japan, even while it has all but disappeared from the United States.

I love Mister Donut for two clear reasons.

Reason #1 – Free Coffee Refills

Bottomless coffee is pretty much unheard of in Japan. But Mister Donut offers “okawari saabisu” or free refill service. And the coffee is not bad! If you need to kill some time, hanging out at Mister Donut munching a donut and drinking endless cups of coffee is a great option.

Reason #2 – Limited Edition Donuts

Like lots of brands in Japan, Mister Donut often releases limited edition donuts. The creativity and ingenuity of these donuts is marvelous!

Here is the current line-up of “Cute Pop” donuts.

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When I was living in Japan back in 2011, Mister Donut briefly offered vegetable donuts. Actually those donuts should properly be called “cakes,” since they were baked not fried. But they were in the shape of a donut and just as rich, even while they came in deceptively “healthy flavors” like spinach and carrot.

Full selection of veggie donut flavors.

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(Image from Japanese Snack Reviews.)

My parents visited during this period of Mister Donut veggie donuts. My dad became quite fond of the “gobo” donut. (A gobo is the root of the burdock plant, and can reach lengths of 3-4 feet. It looks like a huge brown carrot, and tastes quite earthy.) Not the first ingredient I would consider for a donut.

That’s me in the yellow jacket buying gobo donuts…

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We made several trips to Mister Donut for my dad to enjoy gobo donuts.

Frozen (?) donut special for summer…?

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You can find Mister Donut shops pretty much anywhere in Japan – as standalone shops, in train stations, and in malls. Check out the full donut menu on their Japanese website!

  • #2 – Ootoya

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Even as I write this, I am sighing wistfully thinking of Ootoya.

Ootoya serves home style Japanese “set meals,” which come with a main dish, rice, soup, and vegetable side. It is basically Japan’s Panera.

I ALWAYS eat at Ootoya when I am in Japan. This past trip, I dragged along K and his dad to Ootoya. Neither of them had even heard of it before I introduced them. Shocking! But I am glad they are converts now.

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Everything at Ootoya is yummy, but there is a star – The mackerel coated in sesame seeds. The fish is oily, the skin perfectly crispy, and it arrives hot and steaming to your table. If you are not into fishy fish, order anything else on the menu. It will be good!

This place is particularly nice if you are eating alone. There is often counter seating for solo diners. And if you don’t speak Japanese, the menu has lots of pictures.

  • #3 – Hinano

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One of my friends who lives near Tokyo introduced me to this spot.

Hinano is an all you can eat buffet serving locally grown (often organic) foods. It is a fantastic choice if you are a vegetarian! Hinano also serves meat and fish, so non-vegetarians will be happy as well.

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Eating at Hinano is surprisingly exciting. I feel like I am playing a game – “try to collect them all!” – which I always lose because I get too full. The dishes in the buffet are constantly replaced, which keeps me going back and checking for new foods.

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(Image from Japan Visitor Blog.)

I have learned to pace myself here.

For my first plate, I take tiny servings of everything that looks yummy, so that I can enjoy plate after plate. The food ranges from traditional Japanese dishes to more modern Western-style dishes. And the dessert bar includes fruit!! (A major plus in Japan, where a single apple can cost upwards of $2.)

Relaxed Atmosphere

Aside from the food, my favorite part of Hinano is the slow pace of the restaurant.

Often all you can eat restaurants in Japan have strict time limits. Maybe Hinano has a limit but I have never been chased away for staying too long. Even restaurants without time limits in Japan often have limited seating, so I feel guilty about staying too long.

Hinano seating chart – Lots of tables!

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Hinano shops feel open with lots of space. I have comfortably enjoyed relaxed chats with my friends here and meals that stretched over two hours. Hinano restaurants are not evenly spread across Japan. There are at least a few in Kyoto and Tokyo.

Bonus – Hole in the wall spots in Kyoto!!

Yes… I love chain restaurants but I couldn’t resist sharing two of my favorite independent spots in Kyoto.

#1 – 568

Honestly, I am not even sure of the name of this restaurant.

There is a curtain hanging over the door that says “568” in Japanese (五六八). That is how I recognize it. Here are the GPS coordinates: 35.008489, 135.771079.

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It is a tiny bar/restaurant. The menu is written on bits of paper tacked to the wall. The guy cooked all of the food behind the tiny counter. I am not even sure how any equipment could squeeze back there.

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The fried oysters and “ochazuke” (green tea poured over cooked rice) are phenomenal.

#2 – eFish

This café is much easier to find! Here is a cute map showing the way.

eFish is owned by the designer Shin Nishobori. It has big windows overlooking the river, and is a super comfortable place to chill out for an afternoon. The coffee is great here.

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In terms of the food… I am embarrassed to say, that I have only eaten one thing on the menu – the tuna and cottage cheese sandwich. I ordered this sandwich the first time that I visited. And I loved it so much, that I never bothered to try anything else. The bread is fluffy and perfectly toasted. The cottage cheese is saltier than I expected and nicely balances the oily fish.

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Do you have any favorite spots in Japan or elsewhere? Do share!

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Come back on Monday! New recipes and musings on Japan posted here every week.

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