How to be Vegetarian in Japan

How to be Vegetarian in Japan

Although people had warned me that it might be a struggle to avoid meat and fish in Japan, I must admit I didn’t quite appreciate just how difficult it would be to find vegetarian food there before I went – that is to say, vegetarian food which constituted towards full, wholesome meals. For the first half of my trip I really struggled, and mainly survived on rice balls and pizza flavoured crisps (don’t tell Grandma). However, after slowly discovering more and more vegetarian and vegan options hidden in the corners of menus, by the end of the holiday I was fuller and fatter than ever.

I wrote this blog article so that you know what to eat if you’re planning on going to Japan and avoiding meat or fish when you’re there…there’s no time to be hangry when there is a beautiful country to explore!

Your Basic Vegetarian Food Groups

1. Onigiri

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Whenever you’re stuck for something to eat, get yourself to the nearest Family Mart or Lawsons and pick up some rice balls. They tend to either be plain rice with a small amount of filling wrapped with seaweed, or flavoured rice without the filling or the seaweed. Both versions are delicious and provide a great lunch or snack. The vegetarian flavours in the filled onigiri are seaweed (two varieties) which have a green label, or pickled plum. The rice balls without a filling tend to all be vegetarian – in any case you will be able to tell if there aren’t because you’ll see the bits of meat mixed in the rice from the outside.

2. Sushi

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Famously sushi often contains raw or cooked fish (apparently tuna mayo is extremely tasty) however you can usually find veggie versions in both supermarkets and restaurants. I really recommend conveyor-belt sushi restaurants for eating out – you can clearly see from the menu what you’re getting, and even better the vegetable sushi is the cheapest going! Keep your eye out for sushi with cucumber (my favourite), pickled radish, spring onion and egg, which seem to be common. Just whatever you do, don’t go for the bean stuffed sushi, it is terrible.

3. Inarizushi

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So technically this is a type of sushi, but since it is so delicious it deserves its own category. Inarizushi is made of abura-age (fried tofu pouces) stuffed with vinegared rice and flavoured with soy sauce. It has a pleasant sweet taste and is very moreish! You can find these in supermarkets on their own or in mixed bento boxes, making it very convenient as a picnic food, and are also found in some restaurants. This was my favourite savoury snack in Japan!

4. Vegetable Tempura

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I was told about this dream by my sister before going on holiday, and we discovered it on our second night there. Simple and effective, tempura is literally something on a stick which is deep fried, giving it a crisp batter and is often accompanied with a dipping sauce or salt. It turns out you can make tempura out of anything, including shrimp, sausage, meat, tofu, aubergine, potato, cheese, asparagus, onion, tomato and quail egg. At more casual tempura restaurants you can choose precisely what selection you want – giving you complete veggie freedom – however if you go to restaurants with set menus, sometimes they will only have an option for mixed tempura (including shrimp). I found that in this instance you can ask for only vegetables and they will happily accommodate your request, but it would be worth checking this before you all sit down and order drinks.

5. Okonomiyaki

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Basically a pancake made with the usual ingredients of eggs and flour as well as shredded cabbage, this dish makes a very hearty meal. It is often sold as a street food, but can also be ordered in special restaurants where you have designated hot-plates in front of you to cook it the way you like it: an extremely messy and fun experience! Hiroshima Okonomiyaki is another version of the pancake with added yakisoba noodles. You can find both of these pre-prepared in some supermarkets too – just be careful that they aren’t hiding pieces of pork, which are sometimes added for flavour.

6. Instant noodles

When you’re in dire straits, and you just need a big hot meal, turn to instant noodles. Japan has the biggest selection of instant noodles in one corner shop that I have seen in my lifetime, you are honestly spoilt for choice. Some have meat in, but if in doubt the curry flavour is a safe bet for since it only contains vegetable stock. There are also some pot pastas which are conveniently titled in English so you can get your tomato and basil fix too, and you can fill them up with boiling water provided by the supermarket. Convenient!

7. Tofu alternatives

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Japan doesn’t really do vegetarian meals on purpose, however often they do it accidentally by including tofu in dishes as a protein alternative to meat. Keep an eye out for these dishes, especially as part of soups or sides, because you are sure to find them on a few menus.

At our ryokan (traditional inn) the chefs kindly swapped my fish for tofu however with a week or so of warning – above is the delicious meat-free meal they made for my breakfast, featuring fried tofu.

8. Tomato Ramen

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This food is not particularly common, nor easy to find, however if you come across it you must try it, because it will change your life. A mash-up between Japanese and Italian cuisine, it basically features ramen noodles, vegetables and other ingredients in a tomato-based broth. Since being vegetarian means you can’t sample traditional ramen (which is made of a broth using meat or fish) this is a great alternative to try some of the food you’ve heard so much about, in a strangely familiar fusion dish. You can also add cheese, satisfying the dairy craving you’ve had since arriving!

9. Sweet Treats

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The deserts are to die for in Japan, and happily usually vegetarian friendly! Although the soft textures can take some time getting used to, the subtle sweet flavours are heavenly. I recommend shaved ice with syrup to cool you down in the hot weather, which is a traditional snack, and to have a matcha tea with a cake in a traditional tea house. It is a must-have for any stay in Japan!

Recommendations for vegetarians

1. Eat at western-inspired restaurants

I know you came here to sample the “authentic culture” and the “local cuisine”, but if you’re tired of accidentally eating bits of fish, then treat yourself to a nice big meal in an Italian restaurant or British pub (yes, they have those, and they are hilarious). There will always be a vegetarian choice of pizza, chips or garlic bread on the menu, and you will be very grateful for it despite being able to eat the same meal in Britain any day of the week.

2. Eat the sides, not the main course

Often in restaurants you can order your main meal and choose from lots of extras, just like in the UK. If you don’t mind confusing the waiter, order lots of sides instead of a dinner. You can make up a good meal out of grilled vegetables, salad, rice and noodles this way if you can’t find anything appropriate on the main menu.

3. Cook

One of my favourite meals there was when we tried cooking our own dinner in our apartment using the ingredients on offer at the local supermarket. It was loads of fun to work on something together and we saved some spending money too. Get yourself some sake and have a wild night in…

4. Bring a meat-eating friend

They will never get tired of eating free food, trust me. It’s super useful to have someone on your team willing to try the weird and wonderful things you spontaneously buy, and give them the okay. I really appreciated my sister taking on my unwanted food when I bought the wrong stuff, I hate wasted food!

5. Explain yourself

Don’t assume that restaurant staff know what ‘vegetarian’ or ‘vegan’ means – it is not a well-known diet choice in Japan! Always explain yourself fully when ordering food and be specific about what you want.

6. Your enemy…

…Is dashi (fish broth) and bonito (fish flakes). They are used in loads of dishes in Japan and are to be avoided at all costs if you want a pure veggie diet. You should be able to tell if a dish has them in though because of their smell.

7. Go pescatarian. Yes I said it.

If you’re not too fussy over what you want to eat, and want to concentrate on more important stuff than searching for a restaurant you can all agree on, then being pescatarian for your holiday would certainly make your life a lot easier. Since the Japanese diet is heavily based on fish, it would open up your options to accommodate most of the menu in any restaurant. However, using the pointers above you won’t have to go to this extreme if you don’t want to.

Useful Phrases

It’s worth learning these phrases before you go to save yourself some unpleasant mouthfuls…

I am vegetarian. Watashi wa bejitarian desu

Is this vegetarian? Kono bejitarian wa?

Does this contain meat or fish? Kore wa niku to sakana ga haitte imasu ka?

Does this contain fish stock? Kore wa sakana no dashi ga haitte imasu ka?

I don’t eat meat and fish. Watashi wa niku to sakana wo tabemasen

I don’t eat meat, seafood, eggs and dairy products. Watashi wa oniku to shīfūdo to tamago to nyūseihin wo tabemasen

Or if you can’t remember that: No meat or fish? Niku mo sakana mo nai?

Yes, it is okay. Hai, daijōbudesu.

I’ll have this please. *point at menu* kore kudasai

No thank you. Kekkō desu.

Obviously I was only in Japan for two weeks and have only scratched the surface of what delicious foods they have to offer the vegetarian community! If you have any tips and foodstuffs to share, please let me know.

Thanks for reading.

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First Impressions of Japan

First Impressions of Japan

Below are some observations of what I found unusual or interesting about Japan from my visit there. I hope they entertain you and give you a glimpse of my experience in this wacky and wonderful country! If you’ve been to Japan and want to add anything to this list or share your own stories, please do in the comments section, I’d love to hear about it.

 
• People are really polite and go out of their way to be helpful, to the point where it can even become inconvenient, such as showing you how to get on a train you don’t want or directing you how to take the best photograph.
• If you ask for directions, you will probably be led in person right to your destination.
• Most people are very petite and it is rare to see someone slightly overweight, making it impossible to fit in as large westerners!
• There are vending machines absolutely everywhere, selling every kind of soft drink imaginable as well as beer, cigarettes, chocolate and even cooked food.
• The main train stations are massive, and we got lost more than once whilst trying to find the right exit.
• Each train station has its own little jingle which plays when a train arrives. Lots of these are from well known songs, and some can be quite majestic.
• In rural areas especially, there are lots of cyclists who never use the bike paths and choose to disturb pedestrian walkways. Instead of ringing the bell to ask you to move, they artfully weave in and out of the people who are walking.
• There is matcha tea flavoured everything!
• The toilets range from being very high tech (with self-opening, self-flushing, music playing and rinsing capabilities) to basic squat toilets. Sometimes in one bathroom there is a choice of both to suit what people are most comfortable with.
• Every street is lined with loads of cables and power lines, which make quite impressive silhouettes in the evening.
• Most things, such as shrines, shops and museums, close early around 4 or 5pm outside the city centre, making lazy lay-ins impossible.
• Except for in certain night-life areas, in the evenings the streets are completely silent and barely anyone is around.
• Women dress very fashionably – mostly in loose, plain clothing – and have immaculately clear skin.
• People can smoke in bars and drink on the street, which takes a while getting used to.
• People rarely talk on the train, but often have a nap instead. I also didn’t see anyone eat or drink at the station or on the trains.
• Of all the Japanese manners I learnt before arriving, very few were followed by modern Japanese people, such as not displaying public affection or ordering the same drink in the first round.
• If in doubt, nodding and smiling gets positive feedback in all social interactions even if you can’t say anything other than “sorry”, “please” and “thank you”.
• Despite there being no rubbish bins to be found, the streets are very clean and tidy. Our hosts were strict on waste disposal and it seems to be taken very seriously here.
• The rural landscape consists mainly of forested areas instead of the meadows, farmland and shrubbery of the UK countryside. It is very beautiful.
• People are obsessed with cute animals here since pet ownership isn’t as commonplace – meaning cat, hedgehog and owl cafes are common! However animal welfare for both pets and livestock is questionable…
• Every single temple and castle we visited had been burnt down due to lightning or war and rebuilt.
• Food is either soft, sticky or slimy. Finding hard food in a meal is a rare treasure!
• The Japanese diet relies heavily on rice, which constitutes for the bulk of both savoury and sweet food.
• Zebra crossings alert you that you may walk by playing various bird noises.
• Ponds often have thriving communities of terrapin and koi fish who beg for food by gathering under bridges and opening their mouths.
• You can buy a decent meal out for £7.
• As a hobby or treat, Japanese people hire traditional kimonos and accompanying outfits, and walk around pretty parks and temples in them taking selfies.
• Animals are huge, especially butterflies, wasps, fish, crows and ants. Strangely the cats are still skinny though.
• People seem to be quite pious and often visit shrines and temples to pray. There are all sorts of good luck charms you can buy from shrines to help with love, study, wealth, family and health.
• Nothing is done by halves in Japan, and everything from adverts to shop signs to themed cafes are taken to the extreme by being loud, bold and obvious at all times!

 

Read more about my travel experiences such as what you come to appreciate living in Cambodia, or Misa’s story of starting a business as a young Cambodian woman in rural Battambang.

 

Thanks for reading!