Why I Love the Japanese Fast Food Chain Matsuya

Inexpensive beef bowls make good friends while traveling in Japan.

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.

I ate a huge bowl of rice with soup and salad one day. The next morning I ordered one sausage and one egg for less than one Yen. Another morning I ate a steaming bowl of peppered pork with rice, soup, kimchi and salad. A bowl of spicy red pork and cabbage topped with a runny egg and seasoned lavar seaweed flakes cost me 430 Yen. A side of cold silky tofu costs one Yen. An extra egg costs 50 cents.

They sell beer, too. In one Shinjuku location, a large, thirty-something man ordered a big bottle of Kirin at 11:15am.

When you keep breakfast and lunch cheap, you can splurge on really delicious dinners: a ¥2300 unagi meal; ¥2000 worth of hamachi and maguro and nikku-mi, and the most delicious log of fresh saba handroll you’ve ever had, at a train station bento place, for ¥1300. The charm of Matsuya is both financial and psychological: It’s different enough from what you’re used to to provide the new experiences you want from traveling, and after repeated visits, it becomes familiar enough to comfort you in a country where little else might.

Matsuya is spelled 松屋, but if you can say Matsuya, you’re good. It was my first meal in Japan, and I had no idea what it was called when I first landed at Narita Airport after an 11-hour flight, got off the train in Nishi-Shinjuku, and walked in to eat at a random restaurant with bright colors and a U-shaped counter that reminded me of a diner. I’d been pu for nearly 24-hours. I fell instantly in love.

Matsuya is everywhere: Poking its head out from the side of buildings, the circular red and orange logo on a banner down the street, temping you with its simplicity, its immediacy, its anonymity. The light is always on for you, offering food and rest.

Most stores are built around a single counter, either long, or shaped like a U around the cooking station. Like the American Subway chain, Matsuya’s yellow interior is loud. It’sbusy looking, filed with stacked clean plates and pots and condiments, but it’s clean and somehow simple, making it approachable. Even when there are tables, take a stool at the counter. Contemplative eaters sit around you and slurp, holding bowls to their faces, then leave without much adieu. You don’t come here to linger. You eat and leave.

Limited seating means people eat quickly to make room for other customers. At Lumine location outside Shinjuku Station, four people lined up against the wall behind the counter, waiting. The man beside me glanced at them, clearly feeling rush. Other locations are much more relaxed.

As a tourist, I lingered in those in order to watch.

I enjoyed watching how the restaurant worked while I ate my food. For the basic pork bowl, the cook throws three slices of pork on the grill. The rich brown curry gets its own vat, with the spicy aroma wafting into the air if you’re lucky enough to sit near it. If you order a sausage, the cook will heat it in the microwave then toss it on the grill to brown the sides. Literally, they’ll roll the little brown weenie onto the grill from the Tupperware they nuked it in.

Stores stack huge brown paper bags of rice in the back near enormous circular rice cookers. That’s their bread and butter: rice and meat. One Shinjuku Station location had five four-kilogram bags and ten two-kilogram bags stacked on top of each other; the top one was empty, the folded flap still open and a few grains stuck to the glue.

If you order sausage and one egg like I did, the cook will probably study the ticket as if searching for answers then ask you, “No rice?” Coming here and not eating rice is like ordering a burger with no bun. This is a gyūdon chain. There must be some misunderstanding. Many Japanese people have what gaijin critic Donald Richie called low expectations of foreign visitors, expecting us “to know nothing,” and that affords us freedom to break customs. But the cook will assume the gaijin hit the wrong buttons on the shokkenki and didn’t realize they only ordered part of a meal. No, you say, no rice, please, it’s okay, thanks. You’re on a budget, or you only came for a snack. The cook nods and gets to work, concealing whatever pity they might feel for you.

I’m not sure what the Japanese do to their chickens to produce such brilliantly orange yolks, but even at fast food chains, the eggs are rich and safe to eat raw. Industrial eggs are one of Japan’s many culinary marvels. Matsuya will crack a raw egg on your bowl. Stir that velvety verdant yolk into the rice, and savor the texture without concern.

Sure, I went for the challenging choices on my trips — the yakitori with five stools where everyone seemed to know each other but me; the clam restaurant on the back alley where no gaijin were eating; the sushi bar with no chairs, where I shared a table with two businessmen and three locals who kept pouring me sake I didn’t even want. Like you, I flew a whole day across the ocean to savor rare cuts of sushi and authentic unagi. But Matsuya is undeniably Japanese, and it offers a distinctly Japanese flavor and experience. It’s different than what you’re used to back home, and isn’t that what traveling is all about?

I love it so much I want to open the first Matsuya in America, right here in Portland, but it wouldn’t be the same

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

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