13 Japanese Fast Food Items We Wish We Had In The US

Fast food restaurants are famous for following the same standards at their locations across the United States. For starters, a McDonald's happy meal will almost always taste the same in Miami as it does in San Francisco – appealing to many of the brand's patrons. However, when we look at things from a global perspective, it's evident that fast food chains like McDonald's or Starbucks don't serve the same thing in the U.S. as they do outside the country. In France, for example, McDonald's introduced a line of delicate macarons, which you can polish off after eating a McBaguette. Meanwhile, in India, the chain famously serves an extensive vegetarian menu.

Just as in many other parts of the world, Japan's fast food restaurant menus are also unique. They often use a variety of local ingredients, like soy sauce, wasabi, and fresh fish. However, in addition to American chains, Japan has its own convenience food brands, many of which serve healthier fare. Freshly-made soup, octopus balls, and sushi all have speedily-served versions in the "land of the rising sun." And unfortunately, many of these treats are tricky to find on the international market. From Fuji Soba's speedy noodles to Domino's pizza rice bowl to go, these are some of the Japanese fast food items that we wish we could find in the United States.

1. Fast noodles from Fuji Soba

In the United States, many people think of fast food as being unhealthy, but in Japan, that's not always the case. For example, the Tokyo-based restaurant chain, Fuji Soba, offers several options that can be more nutritious than your average order of fries. As suggested by its name, the restaurant is best known for its scrumptious soba noodles. This high-protein dinner is made of buckwheat flour and contains antioxidants that may help lower cholesterol (via Healthline). Some families in Japan even encourage their children to eat soba when sick.

Just because soba noodles are healthy, however, doesn't mean that they aren't scrumptious. At Fuji Soba, clients can complement their noodles with a range of toppings, including scallions, seaweed, and hard-boiled eggs. And, if soba doesn't appeal to you, the Japanese fast food restaurant offers other menu items, like udon and curry. On top of being reasonably nutritious, Fuji Soba is also super convenient. The store is open 24/7 and even has a unique ordering system that allows clients to order their soba and toppings via a ticket machine. The food is prepared immediately using automated machines, making this one of the fastest food options on the list.

2. Quick Tempura from Tenya

While Fuji Soba offers healthy fast food fare, the same cannot be said about Tenya. This popular Japanese fast food chain is famous for serving tempura bowls, or deep-fried fish and vegetables served over a bed of white rice. Although Tenya's tempura bowls have a reputation for being packed with oil for frying, they are also pretty delicious. The restaurant's in-store menu offers breaded seafood items, like scallops, squid, and tiger prawns. Vegetarians can opt for fried greens, like seaweed or bamboo shoot tempura.

Although many fast food chains struggle to balance quality with convenience, Tenya has structures in place to ensure the quality of its tempura bowls. The restaurant automates most of its kitchen and prepares everything, from noodles to rice to the tempura, in a series of pre-programmed machines. Even the ordering system in Tenya is fully automatic. Before customers even walk through the door, they can place their orders using a touchscreen device located beside the entrance. As a result, the service at Tenya is ultra-quick, with some clients receiving their food in approximately five minutes.

3. Gindaco's Takoyaki with seasonal toppings

If you are looking for an authentic Japanese fast food experience, look no further than Gindaco. This restaurant is famous for its takoyaki, or octopus balls fried in delicious pancake batter. These incredible octopus dough balls are said to hail from Osaka, where street vendors most commonly sell them. Gindaco, however, brings this traditional street snack to a fast food environment, serving up dough balls with scallions, pickled ginger, and seaweed in bustling parts of Tokyo. 

As of the publication of this article, Gindaco has three locations in the United States. However, its stateside menus are a little bit different from the original version. The biggest difference is the Japanese locations offer a seasonal takoyaki menu, which offers exclusive new toppings and sauces every few months. In the past, the brand has offered pizza takoyaki topped with mozzarella, salami, parmesan, and red sauce. On another occasion, Gindaco released a seasonal menu item known as "Kuji Negi Mayo Burnt Soy Sauce." As implied by the name, this delicious treat is doused with mayonnaise and burnt soy sauce before being topped with handfuls of green onions.

Unfortunately, however, two separate press releases for Gindaco revealed that these mouthwatering fast-food items are only available nationwide in Japan (via PR Times, and Gindaco). This means that folks in the U.S. will have to journey across the Pacific to get a bite.

4. Shrimp burgers from McDonald's

Various McDonald's in Japan also have some interesting goodies that aren't available in the United States. One of the most delicious examples is the Ebi Filet-O-Shrimp burger, a fried shrimp patty served on a bun smeared with tangy Thousand Island dressing. Unlike many other shrimp cakes, which contain more bread than anything else, the one served at McDonald's has huge chunks of shrimp inside. And, different from most fried fish, this shrimp patty's outer layer has a lighter tempura flavor. 

The good news is that the Ebi Filet-O-Shrimp burger isn't the only shrimp sandwich offered at McDonald's in Japan. At the beginning of 2023, the fast food chain released a limited time Asian Gohan Sweet Chili Shrimp burger. This unique menu item serves a crispy shrimp patty on a rice bun, creating a satisfyingly crunchy consistency. Topped with a thick layer of sweet chili sauce, the shrimp burger is also a bit spicier than your average McDonald's fare. If you really want to complete your Japanese burger meal, wash it down with a Suntory Kuro Oolong Tea.

5. The all-you-can-eat menu at Starbucks

On an international level, Starbucks is pretty synonymous with coffee. However, in Japan, the brand has one location that offers something way more unique — its all-you-can-eat menu. Located in the trendy Ginza neighborhood of Tokyo, the giant Starbucks Reserve Ginza Marronnier-dori store hosts an Italian-themed eatery called Apericena. And the branch is dedicated to serving tasty meals to get your fill for the relatively reasonable price of 3,080 yen — approximately $23. 

At this one-of-a-kind location, you can indulge in all sorts of Italian goodies, ranging from cold cuts to olives to fancy cheeses. And while this unique Starbucks changes its menu from time to time, you can generally find freshly baked bread and thick-crusted pizza at the buffet. Interestingly, coffee is not the primary drink served at Apericena. On the contrary, clients can enjoy something stronger — the all-you-can-eat menu includes a complimentary drink, with a choice of wine, beer, a mocktail, or even a cocktail.

Unfortunately, dining at Apericena is not nearly as convenient as going through the Starbucks drive-thru. Unlike most Starbucks locations, which are easily accessible, this unique branch has become so popular that they don't accept walk-ins. As a result, customers must book their tables as far out as a month in advance by filling out an online reservation form. 

6. American cherry pie frappuccino at Starbucks

If you aren't too keen on Starbucks' all-you-can-eat menu, fear not! The brand has other fast food items that aren't offered in the United States. For example, in spite of its name, the American cherry pie frappuccino is a delicious order that's only offered at Starbucks Japan. This unique beverage blends coffee with plenty of cream and a generous helping of cherry compote. However, the star of the drink is the miniature dome-shaped cherry pie that sits on top of the contraption. Interestingly, the American cherry pie frappuccino is not the only cherry-themed coffee drink that you can only find at Starbucks' Japanese locations. 

The cherry chocolate frappuccino blends rich chocolate with tart cherry flavoring to create a well balanced dessert coffee. More famously, the Sakura Frappuccino hits the market every spring, around the time when the cherry blossoms bloom. While this seasonal beverage tastes like strawberries, it was designed to physically resemble a cherry blossom. It even has crushed bits of strawberry macaron sprinkled over the whipped cream layer to create the impression that you are looking at a blooming flower. The best part is that the drink was designed to be dairy free, using a soy milk base that's perfect for vegans.

7. Ramen from vending machines

When we think of fast food chains in the United States, we often imagine a physical restaurant with a kitchen, a dine in area, and sometimes even a drive-thru. In Japan, however, convenience food brands often lack all three. Instead, many fast food companies in Japan turn to vending machines to sell their products, as these automats are so popular that there is one for every 23 people. The best part is that you can often find entire meals in Japanese vending machines, including ramen.

Ramen is a type of noodle soup that's extremely popular in Japan. Although it is categorized as sit-down food in the United States, people in Japan often enjoy this meal on the fly. Vending machines in hotels and ferries across the country sell instant ramen noodles that simply require the addition of water. 

However, in 2021, a more advanced iteration of automated ramen hit the market when Frozen 24 vending machines opened in the Tokyo subway. These vendors sell brown boxes full of ramen ingredients, such as pork, noodles, sardines, mushrooms, and greens. Once you buy one, all you have to do is heat it all up, and voilà, you'll have a steaming bowl of delicious ramen. The best part is that the process is incredibly efficient, allowing workers to purchase their lunches while they are waiting for the metro in the morning. 

8. Boba-flavored vending machine ice cream

Ramen isn't the only type of Japanese fast food that you can find in a vending machine. Ice cream bars are also available in automats across the country, and they come in many unique flavors, including boba. Boba is little tapioca spheres often served in iced tea drinks called bubble tea. Originally from Taiwan, these chewy little pearls were most traditionally consumed with green or black tea. However, more recently, Japanese versions of boba have taken Tokyo by storm with items such as matcha boba tea, boba-filled beer, and, of course, boba ice cream.

To taste a delightful frozen bar of brown sugar boba, search for one of the black vending machines labeled Brown Sugar Boba Ice Cream Bar, insert your money, and then select the ice cream bar that you desire. Be aware that choosing your brown sugar boba bar won't be as simple as pressing a button on the vending machine. Instead, you'll have to play a classic claw game, where you'll use a metallic claw to grab your frozen treat. If this all sounds a bit daunting, don't worry. The game is designed so that nobody loses, and customers are allowed to keep playing until they actually win their prize. 

9. Conveyor belt sushi

It's no secret that a sushi dinner can be pretty expensive, but that doesn't mean that it's impossible to enjoy sushi on the cheap. In Japan, many people rely on conveyer belt-style sushi restaurants for an inexpensive and quick way to enjoy their favorite meal. At these spectacular restaurants, you can sit at a sushi bar and watch as different plates of food whirl past you on a conveyer belt. Whenever you want to try something, all you have to do is grab a plate and dig in. Some restaurants already have AI camera systems in place that can charge you for the food as you select each plate.

Since these restaurant settings are informal, prices generally start at just 100 yen per item, meaning that each plate of food costs less than a dollar. Some of the most expensive items cost up to 500 yen or just under three dollars. However, restaurant clients must follow a few important rules to enjoy these low prices. For one thing, it's traditionally expected that they will finish their meals in under an hour. For another, patrons should try to be hygienic and avoid taking anything off the conveyer belt that they don't plan on consuming.

10. Super spicy curry from Coco Ichibanya

If you are looking for a Japanese fast food restaurant that turns up the heat, you might want to check out Coco Ichibanya. This iconic Japanese fast food restaurant serves all kinds of different curry platters, using a simple base of yellow curry and rice. Clients, however, can dress up their curry by ordering it with different veggies, cuts of meat, and even levels of spiciness. For a red hot Japanese curry experience, Coco Ichibanya offers a maximum spice level of 10, which might just make your eyes tear up a bit. Meanwhile, folks looking for a milder curry can choose one of five mildness levels, depending on their preferences.

While Coco Ichinbanya has recently opened eight locations in California and Texas, its U.S. versions are unfortunately quite different from the Japanese original. One of the most significant differences is the curry's spiciness level. In Japan, a bowl of regular heat curry is going to make your mouth burn, while in the United States, the spice level is totally toned down. As a result, the authentic, Japanese extra spicy curry is best ordered on the other side of the Pacific. 

11. The pizza rice bowl from Domino's

In the United States, Domino's might be known for its pizzas. However, in Japan, the fast food brand offers something a little bit different — pizza rice bowls. These unique bowls use rice as a base but still serve many of the same toppings that Americans would normally find on a pizza. Of course, this means that most Domino's rice bowls boast basic pizza elements, like red sauce, cheese, and even pepperoni. But the toppings don't stop there. There are seven delicious pizza bowl varieties, and some of the more elaborate bowls contain other popular American ingredients, like short rib, garlic, and buttered rice. 

Interestingly, these menu items demonstrate the way that brands add a Japanese flair to popular meals from abroad. Per one piece in the Japanese outlet PR Times, these unique pizza rice bowls represent "a manifestation of a unique Japanese culture that Japaneseizes foreign things." And, in some ways, this conclusion is not wrong. At the end of the day, the pizza rice bowl is a fun interpretation of an American take on an Italian classic. Getting to experience that unparalleled cultural moment might even be worth a trip to Japan.

12. Donburi bowls from Matsuya

To try a convenient version of typical home-cooked fare, head over to Matsuya. This well known Japanese fast food restaurant serves donburi bowls — also known as the ultimate family leftovers meal. These bowls consist of rice, meat, seafood, veggies, or literally anything else lingering in your fridge. They are well known throughout Japan as convenient or stress-free weeknight meals that take leftover ingredients and turn them into a toasty warm comfort food. And although not anyone can wander into a family's home and share this delightful meal, Matsuya makes it accessible via their fast food format. 

At Matsuya, patrons can't choose from the same range of ingredients that would be in, say, their refrigerators. Instead, the brand offers a beef and rice bowl base that clients can order with other toppings. Some of the options include grated radish, ponzu citrus soy sauce, green onions, and soft-boiled eggs. Regardless of the toppings that you choose, your order will come with a steaming hot serving of miso soup. The best part is that you can order this donburi bowl as a part of a lunch promotion. For just 500 yen, or a little less than $4, you can enjoy a beef donburi bowl served with a side of soup, salad, curry, and an egg. 

13. Yakitori from Iseya

Literally translating to grilled chicken in Japanese, yakitori is a typical street food made by skewering chunks of chicken and cooking them over charcoal. This delightful treat is famous for gaining much of its flavor from the cooking process itself. Because of this, Japanese cooks are very specific about using a unique type of white charcoal binchōtan, which tends not to leave the meat with any sort of overwhelming flavor. They also try to cook the skewers on very low heat, thus minimizing the chances of the chicken becoming crusty and burnt.

While you can purchase yakitori from a typical street vendor, you can also head over to Iseya for their fast food version of this popular meal. Simply line up at the long outdoor takeaway counter, place your order, and dig into some juicy chicken. Since Iseya is not a chain like McDonald's or Subway, it doesn't have the same mechanical precision that we see in many typical American fast food joints. Instead, the brand provides patrons with a street food-inspired experience that takes place within the four walls of a physical restaurant.