Gyudon is typical Japanese fast food and consists of a bowl of rice topped with beef cooked in a sweet sauce of spring onions, soy sauce and mirin.
Three large chain stores: Yoshinoya, Matsuya and Sukiya head the list of the top three gyudon restaurants in Japan. Typically these three restaurants operate 24/7 and 365 days a year.
The three have different menus and may serve not just classic gyudon, but also butadon (pork on rice), kimichidon (kimchi on top of the meat) and unadon (eel on rice).
There are also variations for the amount of the meat, gravy sauce on the rice such as tsuyudaku (extra sauce) and negidaku (extra onions). Gyudon is traditionally eaten with miso soup and Japanese green tea which may or may not be complimentary depending on the store. Various sets are also served which include miso soup and Japanese pickles - tsukemono.
Visitors to Japan on a budget or looking to try Japanese fast food should try eating at one or all of the three chains. Menus are usually in English, Chinese and Korean as well as Japanese.
Yoshinoya is the oldest of the three gyudon chains and dates back to 1899 when meat-eating became more widespread in Japan as part of the increased westernization of the early Meiji Period. The first store appeared in Tokyo in the Nihonbashi fish market of Tokyo (maybe to offer the workers a new experience and change to their diet) before moving to the Tsukiji Fish Market after the Great Tokyo Earthquake of 1923.
Yoshinoya has since grown to have over 1,000 restaurants in every prefecture in Japan as well as outlets in several other countries such as the USA, China, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand.
Yoshinoya was hit by the outbreak of Mad Cow Disease (BSE) in the USA in 2003, which led to a ban on the import of US beef into Japan until 2006.
Matsuya is another of the big three gyudon chains in Japan with over 1,000 stores in 30 plus prefectures throughout Japan. Matsuya is the only one of the big three where customers need to buy tickets from a machine to order. Matsuya also offers curry in addition to its gyudon or gyumeishi meals.
Matsuya began life as a Chinese-style restaurant in Tokyo in 1966 in Nerima-ku, Tokyo and opened its first gyudon restaurant in 1968. Matsuya offers gyumeishi with free miso soup for eat-in orders as well as a breakfast menu served between 5am-11am including a grilled salmon set with rice, a western-style breakfast with sausage and egg and side dishes of tororo (grated yam), tofu and potato salad.
Sukiya is the largest gyudon chain in Japan with over 1800 restaurants in all 47 of Japan's prefectures as well as restaurants in Brazil, China, Taipei, Mexico and China. Sukiya began in Namamugi near Yokohama in Kanagawa in 1982 and has seen huge growth since then under the umbrella of the huge Zensho food company.
Sukiya is known for its wide choice of gyudon toppings such as the Chinese-style seafood kaisen chukadon and family restaurant style seating, not just the traditional counter seats.
Sukiya had a bad reputation for exploiting its staff who were forced into what is known as "black baito" (poor part-time working conditions with long hours and low pay). Sometimes only one part-time member of staff was on duty during the night shift, whereas Matsuya and Yoshinoya usually had two staff working the night shift. Various strikes and protests and, most tellingly, great difficulty in attracting part-timers to work there, led to this skinflint company raising wages and improving conditions.
Customers can pay in cash or by using popular IC cards such as SUICA, PASMO, manaca etc.
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