It can be quite challenging being a vegetarian or vegan in Japan as many dishes that you think look solely made of vegetables can contain fish stock (dashi), which is a staple ingredient throughout Japanese cuisine. As for that reason, I am sure there will be many vegetarians and vegans who think that there is no way for them to enjoy authentic Japanese food.
However, with the increase in people changing to vegetarian and vegan lifestyles, many restaurants and ryokans across Japan have been trying to accommodate all tourist’s requirements and needs to fulfil ‘Omotenashi’, the Japanese concept of hospitality.
When it comes to living in Japan full-time, not too long ago and probably still for older Japanese generations, being vegetarian was seen as just an expensive diet and health choice and in turn something that mostly only women care about. For older generations its hard for them to grasp why you would give up eating things such as suchi, yakiniku and tonkotsu ramen.
But as time passes and gentrification hits areas around Japan, more modern thinking and accessibility for different lifestyles has been increasing. One such example is Natural Lawson, a more health conscious convenience store that provides more vegetable and health conscious-based convenience food such as bento boxes, delicatessen items and desserts. There were over 130 of these healthy convenience stores in Japan in 2016 with the number set to rise in the future.
It goes without saying that the more you live out of a city and in the countryside the easier it is to find fresh local produce. But that doesn’t mean city dwellers can’t get the freshest of produce either. In Tokyo there has been a farmer’s market hosted by the UN University in Shibuya every weekend for years now. From 10-4 every Saturday and Sunday farmers sell local and organic produce and are readily available to answer any questions about their wares (Japanese knowledge or a friend will be best for this however). Its not just local citizens that frequent this marker, restaurant owners and chefs from around Tokyo are known to come here to buy organic produce, especially those within Shibuya’s neighbouring district of Omotesando which recently has become a hotbed for vegetarian and vegan dining.
Recently there has even a Vegan festival in Tokyo’s Kiba Park. Gourmet Vegan Fest has been held in October or November annually in the last few years to bring together the best of Vegan and Vegetarian dining from across the country and to spread awareness of vegan lifestyles with food stalls dotted around the park.
For tourists who will usually only have a week or two in Japan it can be a bit more daunting the thought of finding vegetarian and vegan food in a country where you can’t speak the language. Luckily the majority of restaurants in Japan now provide English menus allowing you to understand what’s available to you.
And if you’re lucky enough to take a trip to Mt. Koya and spend an evening in temple accommodation with the Buddhist monks who live on the mountain, you’ll be provided a ‘Shojin Ryori’ meal. Translated as Buddhist cuisine, these strictly vegetarian meals allow you to experience the diet of the disciplined Buddhist Monks.
So as you can see options are constantly growing for vegans and vegetarians in Japan and things can only get better as the 2020 Olympics get closer with all eyes in the tourism world looking directly at Japan.
To finish here is some vocabulary and useful dialogue when it comes to reading menus and asking questions at restaurants.
Niku 肉 – Meat
Gyu niku 牛肉 – Beef
Buta niku 豚肉 – Pork
Tori niku 鶏肉- Chicken
Sakana 魚 – Fish
Kai 貝 – Shellfish
Tamago 卵 – Eggs
Chi-izu チーズ – Cheese
Yo-o-guruto ヨーグルト- Yogurt
Gyu-u-nyu-u 牛乳 – Milk
Watashi wa bejitarian desu. (I am a vegetarian.)
Tamago to cheezu ga taberaremasu. (I can eat eggs & cheese.)
Niku to sakana wa taberaremasen. (I can’t eat meat or fish.)
Niku (meat) ka sakana (fish) ga haiteimasuka? (Is there meat or fish in this?)
Dashi to katsuobushi wa taberaremasen. (I can’t eat dashi or bonito fish flakes.)