There are a lot of preconceptions about Japan from abroad. While some of these are simply untrue (Q is for Quirky) and some are very much true (W is for Work) some are somewhere in the middle. And one such preconception is that the Japanese eat healthily.
The trouble is, while that’s not wrong, it doesn’t paint the whole picture. While the typical image of a Japanese diet is one rich in seafood, rice and miso soup, the simple fact of the matter is that I can walk out of nearby Omiya station and be within reach of FIVE McDonald’s within five minutes walking. Have you been to the deli counter in a Japanese supermarket? That ain’t deli my friend, that’s the “here’s stuff that fell into the deep fat fryer today” section. But having said that, yes, seafood, rice and miso soup do rotate heavily on their menus. I think what makes the Japanese one of the most healthy developed nations on earth is not because they eat like monks everyday: they simply have more variety. Without even meaning to, I went three days without eating meat last week. In the UK I don’t think I would’ve lasted three hours – and Japan’s supposed to be the country where it’s hard to be a veggie!
So yes, even the Japanese like to indulge in some fast food now and then. But that’s not to say that all Japanese fast food is imports like McDonald’s, KFC and the like. In fact, one of the most beloved fast foods in Japan is about as Japanese as you can get – the Gyudon.
Gyudon (牛丼, lit. ‘Beef bowl’) is a simple bowl of rice with slices of beef and onion on top. That’s it. As an extra, perhaps you might sprinkle some beni shoga (pickled ginger) on top, but the beauty of the gyudon is it’s simplicity. This hearty soul food is the fuel of many a Japanese salaryman, from as early as breakfast to as late as…well, so late it might as well be breakfast again.
So it stands to reason that this evergreen staple dish is being served somewhere. Well, in Japan there are three big chain restaurants that specialize in gyudon: Sukiya (すき屋), Yoshinoya (吉野屋) and Matsuya (松屋). Each has their own separate menus and styles, but for each of them the star of the show is the humble gyudon.
I can’t speak for Yoshinoya or Sukiya that much, as the nearest gyudon places to where I live and work are both Matsuya, but I’m more than happy with that as Matsuya offers the genuine gyudon experience. Do you sit down and order from a menu? As if! No, you choose what you want the moment you walk in the door, via the handy vending machine.
You grab your ticket, take a seat and hand your ticket over to the shop assistant. Before you can even get settled in your seat your gyudon is set before you, and if you ordered it, side dishes of salad, miso soup or rice too, as well as a complementary serving of green tea too (hot or cold, depending on the season). My recommendation is to get the set with raw egg. Yes, raw eggs are fresh enough to be edible as-is in Japan, and poured over gyudon it is simply divine. And as you’d expect you can expect a full set to be cheap: gyudon alone is about 350 yen, with full sets at around 600 yen.
Like Ramen, Gyudon is a clear indicator of the sheer variety of food in Japan. Not everything the Japanese folk like to eat is a delicately form gastronomic delight. Do the Japanese eat healthy food? Sure. But sometimes you’ve just gotta have beef on a bed of rice.
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