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Culture

The Japanese Twist on American Fast Food Chains

Explore how iconic American fast food brands evolve in Japan, from unique menu items to cultural adaptations. Dive into the surprising twists and flavors that await you in the Land of the Rising Sun.

By 5 min read

One of the joys of living or traveling in Japan is trying out all of the wonderful local restaurant chains. While there’s plenty to be said for popping into a McDonald’s, Burger King, or Starbucks to see what unique menu items they have, for the most part, the experience will be similar to what you would get back home.

Others feel straight out of an episode of Black Mirror. While the name and even logo may be familiar, the menu is almost 100% different. It can get even stranger when it’s a beloved chain from your childhood. Here are some fast food chains that are different in Japan.

Denny’s

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That’s a little too healthy looking for our liking…

Denny’s Japan has been around since 1973. From the outside, their restaurants look similar to American Denny’s; even the chain uses the American logo from the 1970s. However, prepare for disappointment if you’ve come expecting famous dishes like “Moons Over My Hammy” or a “Big Dipper” melt.

Denny’s Japan is part of the country’s family-restaurant tradition, a style of diners that includes Gusto, Jonathan and fellow American transplants Coco’s and Big Boy. Family restaurants generally sell Western-Japan fused food like demi-glace hamburg steak, cod roe spaghetti and gratin. The Denny’s Japan’s menu also includes washoku (Japanese food) like pork shabu shabu, teriyaki chicken and miso soup. You can even get ramen.

Of course, they have breakfast too, but don’t be shocked when you get a salad with your (oddly runny) scrambled eggs. Japanese family restaurants can be a fun way to get a meal, plus they make a great place to kill time after a long night out. That way, they’re not so different from Denny’s back home.

Domino’s

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Pizza rice bowls, salmon, camembert cheese, eggplants, mayonnaise, and other local favorites.

What toppings make the perfect pizza? If you said corn, mayonnaise and squid, chances are you probably grew up in Japan. Pizza in Japan can be very different from the West. Popular pizza chains in Japan include the homegrown Pizza La and transplants like Pizza Hut, Shakey’s Pizza and Domino’s.

A quick look at Domino’s Japan menu reveals some surprising pies like the mayo jaga with potato slices, pork sausage and double mayonnaise. Or how about the New Orleans BBQ chicken with roast chicken, BBQ sauce and corn? The “Big Easy” it ain’t.

Cheap is also what it ain’t. While a large specialty pizza in America costs around $15, a similar order will set you back around ¥4,000 in Japan. Even with the current exchange rate, that’s double the price. Pizza in Japan is expensive due to the limited ingredients, labor, and overhead costs, making it a meal for special occasions rather than the college survival food we know in the West.

Wendy’s

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Wendy’s pasta, seasonal boba teas, foie gras and bunless burgers.

Japan loves a good hamburger. It’s not surprising, then, that US restaurant Wendy’s would have a presence here. What is surprising is that out of Wendy’s three big selling points—square hamburgers, baked potatoes and fresh salads—the only one you can find in the “land of the rising bun” is the geometric patties.

Wendy’s has a long and convoluted history in Japan. Currently operating under the name Wendy’s First Kitchen, it’s had a presence off and on here since the 1970s, with at least one bankruptcy along the way. Most of its current locations are in the Kanto area, including Tokyo.

If you’re looking for baked potatoes covered in toppings, you’re out of luck. The closest Wendy’s Japan has is chili cheese fries. Also different is the pasta menu, which recalls cafe chain Pronto more than anything. There is even a boba tea selection. You can forget about the loaded nacho cheeseburger, too (that might not be too much of a loss). They do have the “Baconator,” though. Fans of Dave’s signature burger should order the “Wendy’s Burger USA.”

Taco Bell

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The limited but familiar menu of Taco Bell Japan.

Over the years, several entries, departures, and comebacks have marked Taco Bell’s journey in Japan. The first Taco Bell restaurant opened in Japan in 1983, introducing the Japanese palate to Tex-Mex flavors beyond Okinawa’s taco rice. It garnered a decent following, but due to competition and differences in Japan’s taste preferences, Taco Bell withdrew in 1988.

However, Taco Bell didn’t give up on the Japanese market entirely. After a long hiatus, the brand returned to Japan in 2015 with a new strategy tailored to the local market. This time, Taco Bell focused on offering a more limited menu—which might surprise anyone used to the options back home. There is even a popular taco kit for making tacos at home.

While you can still find classics like hard and soft tacos and chicken burritos, the compact menu includes the “crispy chicken chick star,”  a Japanese-exclusive menu item that features crispy chicken wrapped in a tortilla. There are also some simple sweets like chocolate cream-filled quesadillas and soft-serve on top of cinnamon tostada.

Krispy Kreme

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Honey butter, apple, and chestnut seasonal flavors.

Krispy Kreme in Japan is another American chain that has undergone a fascinating transformation to cater to the local market. While the brand’s iconic hot, glazed doughnuts remain a staple, Krispy Kreme Japan has introduced a variety of Japanese-inspired flavors and limited-time offerings that can boggle the minds of doughnut enthusiasts.

One of the most notable differences is the introduction of seasonal and regional flavors. Krispy Kreme Japan has a knack for creating unique doughnuts inspired by Japanese culture and ingredients. For instance, during cherry blossom season, you can indulge in sakura-themed doughnuts with pink-hued glazes and floral flavors, celebrating one of Japan’s most cherished natural events. Of course, matcha (green tea) is another flavor staple.

Krispy Kreme in Japan also offers a more cafe-style experience than in the West, with comfortable seating and atmosphere. Krispy Kreme Japan also collaborates with franchises to create special-edition doughnuts, turning them into collectibles and sought-after treats for avid fans. The concept of “mochi doughnuts” has also made its way into Krispy Kreme Japan’s offerings. These doughnuts blend mochi’s soft, chewy texture (a glutinous rice cake) with the classic Krispy Kreme taste.

Of course, the true king of donuts in Japan is Mister Donut. It began as an American brand but was acquired by the Japanese company Duskin Co., Ltd. in the 1980s. Since then, it has become deeply ingrained in Japanese culture, offering various doughnuts, including their distinctive “pon de ring” doughnuts with a chewy texture.

What’s your favorite foreign chain in Japan? Let us know in the comments!

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