TOKYO -- Not long ago, most Chinese restaurants in Japan were small family-run businesses. But that appears to be changing, as popular fast-food chains from China are popping up on the streets of Tokyo and elsewhere.
These locations are often packed with Chinese people living in or visiting Japan, craving true Chinese cooking while abroad. But Japanese, too, are experiencing the joy of discovering unfamiliar specialties from various regions in China.
In June, the first Japanese outlet of Shaxian Snacks opened on a corner near Tokyo’s Takadanobaba Station, not far from the city's busy Shinjuku district. After only about a month in business, it has already become a popular diner, with people often lining up outside at all times of the day, not just during the lunch rush.
At first glance, the location looks like an ordinary ramen noodle shop, but inside feels right out of China, with people chatting and ordering meals in Chinese. "It was delicious," one customer said in Chinese, smiling.
The shop serves various dishes, from noodles mixed with various ingredients and sesame dressing, to wonton boiled dumplings in soup. Each dish costs around 500 yen ($4.52).
Shaxian Snacks is one of the top Chinese fast-food chains by number of outlets, originally from Shaxian, Fujian Province, in southeast China. The chain boasts more than 60,000 franchises across China.
Shaxian Snacks Group, a company sponsored by the Chinese government, manages franchising of the brand. Wang Yuanyao, a Chinese businessman who runs a tech company in Japan, obtained a license to open Shaxian Snacks shops in Japan. Wang brought a shop manager of the chain from China so as to provide the same taste as what is served in China.
Wang plans to have 20 to 30 Shaxian Snacks diners mainly in Tokyo and environs, including Ikebukuro and Ueno in Tokyo. He is also working to draw up an operational manual, seeking to provide the Japanese-standard of services and lure more Japanese customers to his eateries.
Another Chinese chain that has landed in Japan is Mazilu, an established chain of Lanzhou-style beef noodle soup restaurants. Mazilu has been certified as a "time-honored brand” by the Chinese government. The chain opened its first branch in Japan last August in Tokyo’s Kanda district. The chain is also known for providing food that is compliant with halal, the Muslim dietary principles.
Meanwhile, Zhangliang Spicy Hot Pot, a Sichuan-style noodle chain, now has six locations in Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya and others in Japan. Customers can customize their bowls -- the base soup costs $3 or so per serving -- with noodles of their choice and a variety of toppings.
Japanese comfort-food chains, such as Ippudo ramen shops, run by Chikaranomoto Holdings, and Yoshinoya, which serves gyudon beef and rice bowls, have already gained popularity in China. It may be time for Chinese brands to grab the heart of Japanese with their traditional -- and delicious -- specialties.