By Amber Jones
One common misconception about Japan is that it must be super vegan friendly. After all, they eat a lot of rice and vegetable dishes, they have more varieties of tofu than beans, and the soymilk section has flavors you could only imagine. However, having lived in Japan for over three years, I have found that to be far from the truth. Almost everything is cooked or prepared with fish broth, meat, or a meat extract (yes, including the vegetables), and it can be difficult to wade through a long list of ingredients if your Japanese level is N6 or below.
“So Amber,” you ponder, “how does a dedicated vegan find food in a country where meat is the matriarch and katsuo is king?”
Well, my curious friend, for daily life a home-cooked meal will always be the safest bet. Japanese grocery stores have a lot of seasonal vegetables and ingredients familiar to the Western eye in addition to an abundance of ones you may not have at home. Personally, I really enjoy konnyaku in all its forms. Also, more and more vegan-friendly products are making their way into Japanese grocery stores like egg-free mayonnaise, vegan pancake mix, and dried soy meats. I’ve even found microwave cakes at Ellena and soy ice cream and cheese in Max Value and AEON.
“But Amber,” you say incredulously, “I live in the inaka/on an island. There’s no way my little mom and pop grocery store is ever going to carry any of that.”
Well, my struggling friend, in this modern age the internet is one of our biggest resources and almost anything can be found therein. So, here are three websites that I use and recommend. First, iHerb.com is a very popular and reliable site with a diverse inventory. It’s where I buy my protein bars, nutritional yeast, and peanut butter powder. They ship from overseas and the products usually arrive very quickly. Second, Alishan-Organics.com is another good one. They are based near Tokyo and they offer a lot of imported goods including dried beans and vegan butter. They also offer frozen veggie meats like vegan hamburgers and hotdogs. Third, PuraTempeh.com is the one I use most often. They are based in Hokkaido and they ship handmade tempeh all across Japan. Other than the original soybean, they also make black soybean, adzuki, and sometimes green pea tempeh too.
“But Amber,” you ask, “what about when traveling or if I want to go out to eat with my friends? It’s unrealistic to cook at home all the time.”
You are very correct. One thing I’ve learned is that it’s very important to do research. These days Japan has many vegan and macrobiotic (which is a vegan-friendly diet) restaurants. They are easy to find by doing a quick Google search, checking HappyCow.net, or looking through local vegan Facebook groups. The bigger the city, the more likely you are to find a vegan-friendly restaurant.
But what do you do when you can’t find a dedicated vegan restaurant? One option is a Korean restaurant. Every Korean restaurant I’ve been to has had a hot stone bowl bibimbap, and they’re always willing to remove the egg and the meat if you ask them to. Another option is Coco Ichibanya which has a dedicated “no animal products” curry, a soy meat katsu, and plenty of vegetable toppings to choose from. Indian curry restaurants can also be accommodating. Above all, don’t be afraid to ask ahead of time. I’ve eaten at a Michelin-star-rated Chinese restaurant because when I made my reservation I asked the chef to make me a vegan meal. He ended up making me a vegan Peking duck! I’ve even eaten at work nomikais when the locations knew about my dietary restrictions ahead of time.
However, even when I’ve done all the research, made all the plans, and asked all the restaurants, sometimes I’ve had to settle for a meal in my hotel room thrown together from what I can find in a convenience store or supermarket, or a dinner of fries and salad with friends. And there’s nothing wrong with that! I don’t let that stop me from traveling and experiencing Japan.
Although Japan isn’t as vegan friendly as the world makes it out to be, it’s still a great place to live with many interesting and delicious things to eat. More and more products and places are marking allergens, so it’s becoming easier to find what’s safe to eat even with low-level Japanese. So, don’t be afraid or discouraged, my fellow and aspiring vegans. Go out, live your life, and eat!