So I finally visited Japan, a country whose culture has aroused my curiosity for years. A friend invited me to stay with her in Tokyo and her hometown Shiga. There I knew my dietary requirements wouldn’t pose any issues, but when alone I thought I would really struggle given my rudimentary Japanese.
Before going I had completed a 6-week beginner’s language course at my University, learnt katakana and hiragana using online memory games, and used the book Japanese for Busy People to cram some basics before my trip. I would thoroughly recommend to any vegetarian or vegan to learn a few basics before heading to Japan. Though the written language might seem daunting, the pronunciation of the Japanese language is very easy to emulate given its monosyllabic nature.
A post on the blog Never Ending Voyage helped me tremendously when it came to learning the lingo that would enable me to find something to eat, and getting an idea of the different dishes which might be suitable. I did however find that not all phrases are going to work.
What to say?
There are a few ways of communicating that you are vegetarian in Japan:
Watashi wa bejitarian des – I am Vegetarian
Though this is understood by some, and often in bigger cities such as Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, some people will stare blankly at you when you say this. I often found myself having to elaborate, which is only really possible if you speak Japanese, or if the person you are talking to speaks good English (quite rare in Japan). Vegetarian tends to also mean vegan, but if in doubt you can always elaborate and learn the words for milk (miruku) and egg (tamago). The former is not a commonly featuring ingredient in traditional Japanese cuisine.
...Taberarimasen – I don’t eat…
This would be the starting point for explaining what vegetarian means. Here’s an example:
Watashi wa niku toh sakana toh tamago wo taberarimasen – I don’t eat fish, meat or egg.
This sentence did cause me some trouble, as it doesn’t cover dashi (fish stock), which makes its way into just about every dish and condiment, nor does it explain the ethical reason behind many people’s decision to be vegetarian (including my own). This statement might just make a waiter think you don’t like meat, fish or eggs.
Alternatively you could try asking for Shojin Ryori food, strictly vegan food that is prepared for practising Buddhists. The question would be Shojin ryori wa wa yatte imasuka?? (‘do you serve any buddhist vegetarian meals?) This is more likely to be understood, but not all hotels or restaurants will offer such a specialist meal. You are more likely to find this in and around Buddhist temples, but it’s worth trying.
In the end, without perfect Japanese and when in a situation where I was certain I wasn’t being understood, I brought out my handy notebook ,with a page written by my friend explaining that I couldn’t eat any animal products whatsoever and that my meal shouldn’t come into contact with such products. You could try asking someone in your hotel if they could do something similar for you. Though sometimes confused because of the language barrier, usually Japanese chefs are very willing to accommodate your dietary requirements.
Where to eat?
When you’ve figured out where the best vegetarian restaurants are in your area, you are in for a treat. Japanese vegetarian food can be delicious and is usually made with the best fresh ingredients, given that it is a preference often a preference of health conscious locals. Here are some of the things I ate during my trip.
Some of the Best eateries
T’s Tantan was an unexpected find as I was about to hop onto one of Japan’s legendary Shinkansen to head to Kyoto. Not only are there vegetarian options, this place is 100% vegan. It was one of the few places where I was able to enjoy a broth-based dish without worrying about the notorious dashi, and it was delicious too.
Hanada Rosso is a great place to try authentic local food and Japanese vegetarian takes on Western food such as veggie burgers and fries. As with most of Japan, expect minimalism and rainbow-coloured dishes. I got just one slice of every vegetable, but this did make me appreciate the high quality of the food more. Japanese curry is mild but still flavoursome.
A lucky find close to Fushimi Inari, Choice cafe was one of the best places I ate in Japan, and also one of the hippest. The interior is cool and minimalist, the menu features dainty, flavoursome and creative Japanese and fusion dishes, along with a great tea selection and the somewhat elusive green juice. It was also one of the few places where I saw hummus, and some rather expensive dark chocolate imported from France. The teriyaki soy meat was incredible and comes very recommended.
Koyosan, a secluded mountain temple town, should be a compulsory pilgrimage for every traveling vegan or vegetarian, being the centre of Shingon Buddhism. Here (for a steep price) you can stay in a Buddhist temple, taste authentic Shojin Ryori and get a taste of what it’s like being a Buddhist monk and get woken up early to attend Buddhist prayers.
After a long and gruelling literal pilgramige (during which I only met one other person) I arrived in Koyasan. The trek took me through luscious forests from which I could catch a glimpse of Miyazaki-like landscapes. The sights and sounds were however quite repetetive, and I found myself feeling as though I were repeating a mantra; the desired effect I suppose. I had booked a night in the Shojoshin-in, one of the oldest temples in town, where I would sleep in a traditional Japanese ryokan-like temple and eat Shojin Ryori food for dinner and breakfast.
Japanese flavours inside Japan can be quite strange to a foreigner with a Western palate. Expect fermented foods, tofu which can be found in many forms and textures and many unexpected acquired tastes. What was most satisfying about this meal was the eating experience, sitting on tatami mats in an old temple with an open rice-paper door allowing me to gaze out at the zen-like pond in the courtyard, alive with dragonflies and koi carps. There were so many little dishes which kept coming, which provides the opportunity to taste many flavours without getting too full to appreciate them.
General Eats (available all over Japan)
Vegetarians will enjoy Okonomiyaki, a fast-food dish consisting of an egg and cabbage pancake, topped with various sauces and sometimes cheese. Just hold on the bonito flakes (fish) and potential meaty fillings.
So long as you make clear that you want your vegetable tempura cooked separately to other deep fried animal products, vegetable tempura can be vegan. My friend’s grandma cooked some delicious vegetable tempura for me using fresh vegetables from her own garden. If you can find a Japanese grandma to cook for you, it will likely taste better!
Upon commencing your travels in Japan, you will soon learn that onigiri (rice balls) are among the most ubiquitous snacks/light lunches you can eat on-the-go. Though the most common filling is salmon, you can find unfilled onigiri, umeboshi (sour plum) filled onigiri and inari onigiri (rice balls wrapped in a sweet tofu ‘skin’, pictured on the right). These can be found in some cafes and most 7-elevens, which are found everywhere. Just try and learn to recognise the characters of the food groups you can or cannot eat, or if in doubt ask a local whether they can speak English and translate the ingredients for you.
Any discerning vegetarian or vegan will be impressed with the variety and freshness of Japanese soya milk and tofu, both browsing the aisles of a supermarket or trying it from a street vendor in Kyoto, or izakaya (Japanese pub). As a quick pick-me-up in summer I enjoyed the simple but delicious iced coffee; an espresso is poured into a glass of fresh, creamy soya milk with ice.
One easy fast food solution is the Yasai Burger at Mos Burger. This chain is found in most towns and cities. The burger bun is replaced with two sticky rice slices. Paired with fries, this makes for a satisfying mini meal.
Last but not least, a trip to Japan would not be complete without eating sushi. Can’t eat fish? Contrary to popular belief, ‘sushi’ just means vinegared rice, and can be consumed with a number of different fillings. Sushi trains are the ultimate place to go if you want to feel isolated in a dystopic future and not communicate with any other humans. You order on a screen, your food arrives on a conveyor belt and you send your empty dishes back the same way. There wa is usually an option to translate the menu to English. Among the flavours I saw were Natto (fermented soy beans, another acquired taste I’m afraid), the previously mentioned delicious Inari (tofu skin), kappa maki (cucumber) and a variety of other more elaborate fillings including cream cheese and chive for the none-vegans and pumpkin and french fries. Speaking of which, you can also order french fries from the menu. Another safe option is edamame, fresh soya beans in the pod.
Thanks for reading this mini guide to Vegetarian and Vegan Japan. As you might have figured, being a vegetarian in Japan without speaking Japanese can be difficult, but it is very doable, and quite enjoyable once you get the hang of it. This list of ideas is far from exhaustive, but if you think I am missing anything essential please do get in touch in the comments below! I always reply.