Plant-Based Travel in Japan – Preparation

Japan is not as friendly to vegans and vegetarians, compared to other developed countries. Despite that, we never went hungry! I’m sharing my experience as a vegan visiting Japan + what I’ve learnt in my 28 days trip, and the places where we had incredible food!

Notes:

  • Veg*n is a shortened, inclusive term to refer to vegans and vegetarians.
  • We visited Sapporo, Asahikawa, Tokyo, Yokohama, Kamakura, Kyoto and Osaka. These articles are solely based on my own experiences and research, thus may not represent the whole of Japan.

 

Problems you may FACE in Japan:

Lack of idea ABOUT what vegan/vegetarian is

Japan is full of Buddhist temples, but don’t expect to find Buddhist vegetarian food as easily as in Singapore. In large cities, there’s better understanding due to a more international population, but you still can’t expect every place to have veg*n dishes. A quick browse in all the vegan/vegetarian Japan facebook groups shows that most of the members are expats or tourists. Veg*nism seem to be a new concept to most local Japanese.

The word for “vegan” is ビーガン or ヴィーガン. But, not everyone knows what it means. There’s also no vegetarian or vegan labelling for packaged foods, and most of the ingredients are in Japanese. Slightly easier if you can read Chinese. But if you can’t, join the Is It Vegan Japan, Vegan Supermarket Finds in Japan and Vegan Japan Facebook groups to familiarise yourself with how the vegan foods look like.

The Chinese word commonly used for vegetarian does not carry the same meaning in Japan! This is shellfish stock.

Fish is a common seasoning

Since Japan traditionally depended greatly on the sea for sustenance, fish as a basic seasoning is already ingrained in society, mainly in the form of katsuobushi. Fish is in certain soy sauces, miso pastes, soup stock and other seasonings. Sometimes dried fish flakes (bonito) are used on a topping even in vegetable dishes. Fish parts are also used to make dashi, a traditional soup stock used in many dishes. It’s so common and invisible that even servers who may know what veg*n means may still forget about the little bit of fish in sauces. Which is why being specific helps more instead of saying “vegetarian”.

Miso soup can often contain fish sauce or stock, so it was one dish that I ate only at veg*n places.

Communication

The level of English varies between age groups – generally younger Japanese people seem to have better English. 90% of Japanese people I met understood basic to moderate English; the other 10% of the time I used gestures, Google Translate or pictures (I highly recommend getting a good connection on your phone). So that wasn’t a major issue through my trip. The main issue is that most people don’t understand “vegan” and many still think fish sauce is okay for veg*ns.

VEGETABLE-BASED doesn’t mean veg*n

Japan loves veggies (yasai). Even the convenience stores stock fresh produce. Cafes proudly advertise that they use a large variety of veggies. Just because something looks like only veggies and tofu doesn’t mean it’s automatically vegan. It’s likely to be cooked in meat or fish stock, with small bits of meat. Common dishes like “vegetable curry” or “vegetable soup” from a non-veg place, very likely have pork or fish in the soup base.

“Summer Veggie Bento” that has chicken, egg and milk listed in the allergens.

Alliums

Japanese use a lot of alliums in cooking to give the umami and pungency. The good thing is that awareness of allium-free diets seems quite common in the veg*n places. “Oriental vegetarian/vegan” is the term used locally to describe this requirement. I realised it’s quite common for servers at veg*n places to double check if you can take alliums, or have labelling of such information in the menu. Many places also can do allium-free meals if given advance notice.

The words for each type of allium to help you in a pinch:

  • Onion = 葱, ねぎ (negi)
  • Garlic = ニンニク (ninniku)
  • Leek = ネギ, ねぎ (also negi)
  • Chives = ニラ (nira)
  • Asafoetida = アサフェティダ (not commonly used in Japanese cooking)
  • Without = なし (nashi)

Alcohol

90% of eateries serve alcohol like beer or sake. Japanese use a lot of alcohol ingredients like sake, mirin, sake lees and amazake in food. Also, fermented foods like miso have small amounts of alcohol which is a result of the natural fermentation process. So what you can eat depends on how strict you need to be. I’ve also seen alcohol used in packaged foods too. The kanji surely means alcohol is present. For my list, I will try my best to indicate if alcohol is present.

Some common alcohol ingredients:

  • 酒 = sake, generic word for alcohol
  • 味醂, みりん = mirin (a type of rice cooking wine)
  • 甘酒 = Amazake (low alcohol content fermented rice drink)
  • 酒粕 = sake lees (pulp left from sake production)

Note for vegan Muslim friends: I’ve not seen halal certifications displayed in Japan. Thus if you visit a non-veg place, there’s high chance of cross contamination with pork, since such ingredients are very commonly used in foods there. Halal Media has a guide for Muslims visiting Japan, but note that most of the eateries listed may not have veg*n food.

getting easier to be veg*n in Japan!

Japan is full of wonderful experiences which you can enjoy regardless of what your diet is. Awareness of veg*nism is spreading thanks to:

2020 Tokyo Olympics

The Olympics will bring even more veg*n tourists to Japan. NGOs like Tokyo Smile Veggies and Japan Vege Project are campaigning for more local restaurants to offer veg*n dishes. The Tokyo government is actively pushing for locals to learn English. Pretty sure if you visit closer to 2020, there’ll be more options available with less communication barriers.

Vege Project is now actively helping veg*ns live easier in Japan.

Allergen information

Japan takes food allergies seriously and is very transparent in regards to allergen information. Allergens are clearly labelled in almost all food places and on food products. The allergens that are required to be declared include egg, dairy, certain seafood and meats. Thanks to this, it’s pretty easy to spot the veg*n option. Note that some Japanese may not know the English word for allergens, so use “arerugi アレルギー” if needed. This helped me once while searching for vegan breads on a supermarket shelf. The store assistant only understood “arerugi information” and even helped read out the ingredients!

Allergies = アレルギー (arerugi)

Very common to see food allergens listed, like this vegan bento from Tokyo Station.

It’s really quite easy – if you stick to tourist areas

In most areas where tourists or expats visit, you’ll have the least problems finding veg*n food. People there are more used to communicating in English and might have served a few veg*ns before you. But if you go outside of these areas, you have to be more prepared by packing something in advance. Note that some areas that serve mainly domestic or China tourists have very little or no veg*n food due to lack of demand. Eg: Tomamu Ski Resort in Hokkaido.

Food in Japan is SO GOOD.

Japan’s food is the best quality food I have ever had so far. Although it’s more expensive than Singapore’s, I seldom felt disappointed as the taste, freshness, service and creativity are MUCH better! This alone is worth looking forward to and doing more research on.

One of the best Japanese style meals we had from Aoi Sora Cafe.

 

To-do before GOING:

Have a list of the places to eat at

1.Happy Cow Japan’s listing

Note that Happy Cow has its limitations. They prefer to list vegan or vegetarian places to support them – which is a great initiative. But, it excludes many non-veg places that may offer veg*n dishes, and in certain situations (eg, your non-veg family want to eat seafood) that’s not the most practical. Sometimes the information (eg hours, address) listed may not be updated, as restaurants tend to prefer to update their own website or social media first, so follow the restaurant’s Facebook page for updates.

2. Facebook groups

Join the Facebook groups for more information and get the latest news on which products are vegan, events, new places opening, new menus, places closing etc. Also great way to know which packaged foods are vegan so you can buy them without worries!

3. Japan Vegemap

I think this map is constantly updated by Japan Vege Project, and is currently not fully complete. There’s places I visited in Hokkaido that aren’t listed. Thus I will share my own google maps but I recommend that you check back to this map in future. They also provide printed maps for Tokyo and Kyoto.

4. abillionveg

This is a new platform that helps you find vegan and vegetarian dishes from anywhere in the world. The last time I checked, there’s plenty of reviews from Tokyo. Download it for free from the app or play store. I highly recommend posting your dish and product reviews. Not only each post contributes $1 to an animal welfare group, you’re also helping others to find food easily and you can give private feedback to businesses through the app too. Here are my reviews from Japan.

Plan around food

One main reason for my visit was to enjoy foods that I can’t get in Singapore! So I planned all our accommodations and schedule around veg*n places that are highly recommended by locals and expats. I had half a year to plan, so I found plenty of places to explore. In fact I only visited 60% of my to-eat list in the end.

If you don’t have control over your schedule and place to stay, don’t worry too much. Most convenience shops (konbinis) in cities have good and cheap options, such as rice balls, sushi, salads, snacks and ready-to-eat tofu. As usual, be careful of hidden animal ingredients in seemingly vegan foods. Konbinis are everywhere (sometimes 4 together in a spot) and literally do everything for you, including heating the meal for free. Here’s the most complete list of vegan finds at konbinis. Here’s a video of vegan food in 7-11.

 Budget more for food

Eating out is generally pricier in Japan compared to most Asian countries, and pure veg*n places are usually more expensive. Veg*n cuisine is seen as healthy and organic food with Western influences. This is the main reason I booked Airbnbs so that we could cook. An average meal for one in Tokyo can be $10-$20, while $20 groceries can make about 2-3 meals for one person. We could also do laundry without additional costs.

If you really don’t wish to cook (although I’d recommend it if you’re on a budget), you can depend more on konbini foods, or dine at the chain eateries which offer veg*n dishes.

Some places that serve meals below 1000Y:

  • Cocoichibanya (some outlets have vegetarian menu),
  • Chabuton (all outlets have vegan ramen and gyoza, soy sauce at the table has fish)
  • Soup Stock Tokyo (at least 1 vegan soup)
  • Kyushu Jangara Ramen (all outlets have a vegan ramen that can be done without alliums)
  • Afuri (Only Tokyo outlets have seasonal vegan ramen)
  • Sushi belt places (Often have veggie sushi. Bring your own soy sauce – usually provided ones have fish. Some konbinis and supermarkets have this mini soy sauce!)

Learn Basic food-related lingo

Here’s some handy language card. If you have to go to a non-veg place and may face communication issues, flash this.

Printable vegan card.

You’ll likely need packaged foods during your trip. Almost all labels are written in Japanese and there’s no vegan labelling there. Here’s where you can learn useful words and phrases:

Important note for those who look like Japanese people

Most locals, at first sight, seem to automatically assume that those with East Asian features are Japanese. Sometimes, even if I spoke English to them in the first place, they still thought I’m Japanese – so they replied in fast Japanese or gave Japanese printed materials. This caused some miscommunications and awkward moments. If you’re not confident speaking their language, I suggest you speak English first and ask for English menu from the start. You can use Japanese words to assist if needed. This is so that they know that you aren’t local and adjust the service to help you better.

During your visit, please double-check information

Many veg*n restaurants are small businesses run by individuals or one family. Their opening hours may be irregular as they have less manpower compared to large chains. For example, in Hokkaido, most places only do lunch and require a reservation if you want dinner. In Tokyo, some places are only open for weekday lunch. Some can be closed for few days during public holidays. Before visiting, best to contact, or at least check their social media pages for latest updates. I used Facebook messaging to check directly if they were open. All of them could reply in English, and were very friendly and welcoming!

A message I sent to confirm opening time.

Although it seems like quite a bit of work to prepare for a holiday, these are guaranteed to make your visit in Japan incredible. You’ll be rewarded with a richer experience and your taste buds will be delighted at what Japan has to offer!

Next – Plant-Based Travel: Hokkaido

 

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