Why I Love the Japanese Fast Food Chain Matsuya

Aaron Gilbreath
7 min readFeb 26, 2020

Inexpensive beef bowls make good friends while traveling in Japan.

Classic beef gyudon. Photo by author

Matsuya is a 24-hour beef and rice bowl chain that has over a thousand stores across Japan. You pay at a ticketing machine, called a shokkenki or kenbaiki. The cook takes your ticket when you find a seat, and after setting a porcelain cup of hot tea in front of you, they deliver your food within minutes. Founded in 1966, it’s now one of the best fast food chains I’ve ever eaten at, and one of the best deals for budget travelers in Japan. You may have come to Japan for fancy kaiseki and legendary ramen, but eat cheap gyūdon here, too, and feel no shame about it. Businessmen in suits eat beside young people with blue hair and rough-skinned construction workers. This is everyone’s restaurant. When Americans say they want to visit Japan but hear it’s expensive, I tell them that getting there costs more than being there. If you eat at Matsuya every day or every other day, you’ll spend between two and seven dollars a meal. Think how much money that leaves you for whisky bars and train tickets and unnecessary cat stuff. I’ve only visited Japan twice, but Matsuya was as integral a part of my Japan travel budget as the cheap capsule hotels were, and it will be next time, too.

Matsuya is known for gyūdon: a savory, sweet dish made of tender beef and onion cooked in dashi and served over rice. It’s very filling and very comforting. ‘Gyū’ means cow, and ‘don’ means bowl. Matsuya calls their gyūdon gyūmeshi. Competing chains are Sukiya and Yoshinoya. Sukiya has more stores. Yoshinoya’s motto“Tasty, low-priced, and quick” is accurate, but to me, Matsuya is better. They also don’t charge for a bowl of miso or tea. A ¥380 donburi and tofu soup combo with free tea is very appealing to someone traveling in a city like Tokyo, where 200 Yen will take you two subway stops.

Despite Matsuya’s beef bowl specialty, their menu is varied. They serve tofu, pork, curry, donburi, sides of steamed salmon, and Western breakfast of eggs, bacon, and toast. Their sausage is killer: nice and smoky with a solid snap.

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Aaron Gilbreath

Essayist, Journalist, Burritoist. Longreads Editor. Writing: Harper’s, NYT, Slate, Paris Review, VQR, Oxford American, Kenyon Review. 3 nonfiction books.