Have you ever had people ask you where you get your “power,” from? Do you frequently get looks from locals that seem to imply that you might be out of your mind? Have you ever heard the comment, “What do you even eat!?” Have you ever gone to a local festival to discover that your dining options are limited to French Fries and soft cream? If so, then you might be a vegetarian living in Japan! While it can often seem daunting, there are definitely ways to continue to have a vegetarian and vegan lifestyle in Japan. Not only is there a community of people just like you, but there is hope of being quite successful with a vegetarian lifestyle!
Challenges Veggies Face
At times, the challenges to being vegetarian in Japan can seem daunting. I wouldn’t recommend that anyone try to transition into vegetarianism in Japan. One must be on guard for the pitfalls many vegetarians face. These challenges can be especially prevalent when dining out; however, if you know what to look out for, one can successfully overcome restaurant adversity!
ALTs with a good command of the Japanese language have a definite advantage over vegetarians who are just beginning to study Japanese. However, even with superior Japanese language skills, one must be ever-vigilant for what I like to call “surprise meat!” My husband and I have often encountered situations where the descriptions on the menu do not include all of the ingredients. Several times, we’ve felt pretty confident that our meal will be meat-free only to be surprised with bacon or some other unforeseen meat! I like to think that the chef is trying to “hook us up” with bonus food. Regardless of the chef’s motives for these extra ingredients, I recommend checking with the wait staff to make sure that certain items are not included in the dish even if the menu doesn’t list meat in the description.
To avoid this scenario, I recommend learning some handy Japanese to help talk to wait staff. Some helpful vocabulary to learn are:
niku 肉= meat
yasai 野菜 = vegetables
tamago 卵or 玉子= egg
katsuobushi 鰹節 = bonito flakes
sakana 魚 = fish
shiifuudo シーフード = seafood
gunyuu 牛乳 = milk
dashi 出汁 = dashi (fish and kelp soup stock)
It is also helpful to learn the kanji for these items too. Not only will this help with ordering in restaurants, but when going to the super market as well.
You can use some simple phrases to help with restaurant ordering. Some examples are:
(niku/sakana/katsuobushi/dashi) nashi de onegaishimasu.
Without (meat/fish/bonito flakes/dashi) please.
…do you have?
Watashi wa beijitarian/ zettai-saishoku-shugisha desu.
I am vegetarian/vegan.
[Note: veganism is not widespread in Japan, so servers may not be familiar with the term, even in Japanese.]
Watashi wa________o taberaremasen.
I cannot eat_________.
This is another ingredient that often pops up even in the most unexpected dish. Many vegetarians simply choose to be more flexible on this point due to the frequency that dashi is used in Japanese cooking. However, some do not have this option, nor should you have to eat dashi if you chose not to. Just realize that dashi and bonito flakes are used pretty frequently, so it is important to be able to ask whether or not these things will be in your food and ask for them to be left out. Sometimes, the server at the restaurant will look extremely confused as if their head might explode and some restaurant items are super difficult to modify for whatever reason. So, it is helpful to choose a “plan B,” and even a “plan C,” when dining out.
The “perks” to being vegetarian in Japan
While it is not easy to be a vegetarian in Japan, there are some definite positives you might encounter. First of all, tofu is much cheaper compared to many places around the world. I know in the U.S. tofu was about the equivalent to 300 yen or so a package. Here it is often under 100 yen! There are many delicious tofu restaurants in Japan and really yummy tofu treats you can find all over the country. Similarly, you can find an abundance of soy milk options in Japan, along with soy yogurt that is pretty tasty! Many a veggie will also be excited to find delicious, fresh, local vegetables at the local super markets. I think the veggies here are much healthier looking and better tasting compared to what I found at the big-name super markets back in America. Also, if you get to travel around Japan, you might get to visit temples and experience shojin ryori or Zen Buddhist food that is highly recommended by many vegetarians!
While the hardest part to being a veggie in Japan has to do with dining out, there are also some very exciting places in Fukushima where you can fill up with ease! I would like to recommend a few great places that I have visited.
1. Raghupati, Aizu Wakamatsu (インディアンレストランラグパティ）[Map]
This Indian food restaurant is super tasty and has a section of the menu dedicated specifically to vegetarian main dishes. If you are vegan, you might still want to make sure whether or not eggs are included though, but I recommend it for a relaxing dinner out! Though, in my experience, almost any Indian food restaurant has several vegetarian dishes on the menu, so find your favorite Indian food place and enjoy!
2. Don Jalapenos, Koriyama (ドンハラペーニョ) [Map]
I can’t say enough about this wonderful restaurant! The owner is super accommodating to vegetarians. I recommend liking Don Jalapenos on Facebook and when you plan to visit Koriyama, just send him a message to make a reservation. He prefers that you let him know that you are a veggie ahead of time so that he can make sure to have the ingredients on hand to make you a delicious meal! Of course, I recommend this place for your non-veggie friends too because it is really delicious!
We were pleasantly surprised to learn about these two culinary gems in Inawashiro from a local vegan. Located conveniently near JCN, the Japan Cat Network, you can fill up on a yummy vegetarian burger at Hero’s for lunch or dinner and stop by for soy desserts at Comaya. While Hero’s is known for super-massive, meaty burgers with homemade buns, the staff is used to many vegetarian foreigners visiting their restaurant and will happily accommodate for vegetarian diners. They will substitute the meat patty with their awesome onion rings if you ask. Or, you can simply ask for a Susan Burger, and they will fix you right up! They also have delicious fries and larger sized drinks!
Comaya is just down the street practically right across the street from JCN. They have delicious desserts such as soy cheese cake, soy pancakes, soy ice cream, and delicious coffee drinks! I recommend both of the restaurants not only for the delicious food, but both vendors are active supporters of Japan Cat Network!
4. Discover Your Favorite!
I recommend exploring your town to find other good places where you can get really wonderful vegetarian meals. You might be surprised how many places you can find! Many of the restaurant staff will be happy to accommodate if you just ask. Of course, it is relatively easy to find vegetarian options at Italian restaurants, pizza places, okonomiyaki restaurants, and even more traditional restaurants can fill vegetarian bellies with just a little bit of communication with staff and reading skills! While you might sometimes meet with disappointment, I think with the right attitude, not only will you get to experience culinary adventures, but you will find many delicious treasures as well!
Here are some resources to help you on your veggie adventures!
- Veg Jet-Face Book group specifically design to support vegetarian and vegan JETs. They have a ton of resources and links to help you with daily life, super market shopping, dining out, and travel suggestions.
- Cook Pad-A recipe site written by local people translated into English that uses ingredients you can find in Japan. They have a vegetarian section and a section using specific vegetables.
- Yummly–While not specific to Japan, you can find many delicious recipes by ingredient.
- Never Ending Voyage-a blog that talks about surviving in Japan as a vegetarian. There are some really delicious looking food pictures from their exploits along with suggestions for dining out and travel.
- OiSix-vegetable box delivery site
- Tengu Natural Foods-website that specializes in natural foods and vegetarian foods.
A Quick Recipe for Basic Japanese Sauce
This sauce recipe was recommended by my husband, Aaron. It is really good used with pan-friend veggies or tofu and rice!
Equal parts of the following items:
- Soy sauce
Simply mix together and enjoy!