Japan: A Survival Guide For Vegans

At the moment I’m sitting in a cottage in France (recovering from a cold, but that’s another story), a land notorious for not being so vegan friendly except in the larger cities. The native cuisine is generally not vegan - even vegetable dishes often use things like dairy products or animal fats or stock in the cooking process, which can make things difficult. But if you are a vegan you probably know about this, and come prepared accordingly. (I think it’s a lot easier for lacto-ovo vegetarians in France; you could live on the delicious bread and cheese.)

If you are going to Japan, you might think that being vegan would be a lot easier. Japanese cuisine has a reputation for using lots of vegetables, seaweed and other vegan-friendly products. There is even a particular kind of cuisine in Japan called sho-jin ryouri (精進料理), a mostly vegan temple cuisine, with a long and highly regarded tradition.

But as a reader who emailed me recently found out, being vegan in Japan is just as hard as it is in Europe.

There aren’t many vegans or vegetarians in Japan

I don’t have any numbers in front of me, but I am guessing that there are far more vegans or vegetarians in North America and the UK than there are in Japan as a percentage of the general population. According to this article in the Japan Times, most Japanese people, even those that frequent vegan/vegetarian restaurants, do so for health reasons rather than ethical or religious reasons (and most aren’t veggie 100% of the time). Generally speaking, the Japanese diet is based on fish, sometimes poultry and eggs, rice, legumes (pulses, beans) and vegetables, with meat and dairy being a later addition.

Traditional Japanese cuisine and dashi

Traditional Japanese cuisine, or washoku, is very healthy (the only thing you should watch out for really is the high salt content in some dishes). It uses lots of vegetables, seaweed, legumes and so on, with a relatively small amount of protein from fish or meat. However, one thing that makes it almost impossible to be a vegan in a traditional Japanese restaurant is the fact that dashi is used in practically everything. Here is my recipe for basic dashi; as you can see, it contains dried bonito (fish) flakes, or katsuobushi. All regular dashi recipes specify the use of katsuobushi or niboshi (dried fish). Even dashi granules, unless specified otherwise, contain bonito extract. There are dashi granules made from seaweed sources only, but these are not usually used in restaurants.

Dashi is not only used in the obvious places like soups and stews. It’s used in just about every savory dish. It’s used in dressings and sauces for vegetable dishes, as a cooking liquid for sushi rice, in dipping sauces, as a ‘hidden flavor’ (kakushi aji 隠し味) and so on. Just about the only things that are fairly sure to be dashi-free are plain rice and homemade pickles. Even things like umeboshi (pickled plums) often have some dashi added to them.

Ironically the only vegan umami flavor additive is probably pure MSG (the most common Japanese product name is Ajinomoto), which is made from soy beans. But the better a restaurant is, the less likely they are to be using straight MSG in their cooking. A better establishment would make their own dashi, and a cheaper one would most likely use dashi granules.

The use of dashi takes nothing away from the fact that traditional washoku is very healthy. For omnivores, I can’t think of many other cuisines that are better for you. But of course if you can’t eat fish in any form for whatever reason, the omnipresence of dashi can pose a problem.

Some regional cuisines like Okinawan cuisine use a dashi made of fish and pork or chicken. (Okinawan cuisine relies a lot on pork.)

So can’t I just dine on sho-jin ryouri all the time?

Sure, you could. You would need a very generous budget though. Sho-jin ryouri is Japanese haute cuisine, and a typical meal at a sho-jin ryouri restaurant can set you back 10,000-20,000 yen per person or more. (You might have luck finding less expensive places in the Kyoto/Nara area or from some temples open to the public.)

Non-traditional Japanese cuisine

So what if you were to avoid washoku altogether in Japan, and stick to ‘western’ style food? That can be a problem too. The reader who sent in the question was having a very hard time finding any vegan bread. In Japan, mainstream bread usually uses white flour, butter, and/or eggs. You can find things like baguettes and hard rolls that are probably butter-free, but you would have to ask. Whole grain breads are slowly gaining in popularity, but usually a ‘whole wheat’ bread in Japan means something with 10% or so of whole wheat flour, with the rest being white flour.

Japanese-style western cuisine or yohshoku is largely based on traditional French cooking techniques. So, the better yohshoku restaurants rely heavily on the use of properly made beef stock and demi-glace. (A pot of carefully prepared demi-glace is a badge of honor for a good yohshoku restaurant or cafe.) Besides the fact that most yohshoku dishes are meat or egg based anyway (beef stews, curries, omurice, etc.) this is not a good choice for a vegan or even a vegetarian.

So what’s a vegan to do in Japan?

For eating out, there is the Japan Vegan Restaurant Pocketguide in English - they say the new issue is due out in March. You can also try looking for macrobiotic restaurants (マクロビ or マクロビオティック). The aforementioned page on The Japan Times site also has a small list (though it’s from 2007, so check before you go.) And treat yourself to an authentic sho-jin ryouri restaurant at least once!

But if your stay in Japan is more long term, as in many countries your best bet is to cook for yourself. You can even cook washoku for yourself, using vegan dashi. Use my vegan dashi recipe, or find konbu seaweed based dashi granules. There are all kinds of interesting vegetables in Japan for you to try, as well as different kinds of beans an legumes (dry or canned). And of course, there are the many varieties of tofu. If you can, get tofu from a tofu-ya (tofu store) that makes their own. Freshly made tofu is just amazing.

Try to eat brown rice instead of white rice. You can find all kinds of brown rice in Japan, some of which can be cooked exactly like white rice with no extra soaking time and so on. In fact, as a vegan in Japan you’ll want to base your diet around brown rice and zakkokumai rather than whole grain baked products, if only for the fact that rice is much easier to find. You can even buy things like microwaveable brown rice or brown rice porridge; even a tourist can take advantage of these handy products.

If you can’t find things like whole wheat bread at your local supermarket or konbini (convenience store), try the food halls of department stores, or look for natural food stores.

Lawson, the konbini chain, has a new ‘concept’ store chain called Natural Lawson. While they are not necessarily vegan or vegetarian, they purport to carry things like organic, low calorie and ‘natural’ products. List of stores (in Japanese); so far only in the Tokyo/Kanto area.

If you are in Japan long term, investigate joining a farming coop (農協)in your area, or just signing up for a national one that ships their products. Ask your neighbors, or look in magazines like Kurowassan (クロワッサン (Croissant)) which often has special issues on macrobiotic or vegetarian/vegan cooking, natural healing and such. There’s also a quarterly magazine called Veggy STEADY GO! that you can look for.

Incidentally, you can rest assured that any Japanese or not-Japanese recipe categorized as vegan on Just Hungry or Just Bento will really be vegan! For Japanese recipes, I always make sure to use vegan dashi.

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Re: Japan: A Survival Guide For Vegans

A Japanese city where a vegan CAN indulge in gourmet tourism.

It's true that Japan, and even Tokyo, is tough for Vegan visitors. The article above gives excellent advice.

There is one food, however, that vegans can indulge in. Often bland and insipid and utterly reliant on a tasty dashi broth, the humble udon noodle can also be a remarkably delicious treat. Unfortunately, Japan's finest udon isn't so easy to find in the Kanto region, but for anyone prepared to go to Takamatsu on Shikoku, there's much of the world's finest sanuki udon for the tasting. And it's ridiculously cheap too.

Most of the city's udon is served just as you choose. Dashi is optional, as are most of the toppings, and you can choose any combination of vegan/vegetarian accompaniments. The sanuki udon is such good quality that plain noodles with just a little soy sauce are all that's needed for a memorable meal. The extraordinary thing is that the same dish at a local competitor's store just a few metres away will taste noticeably different.
Here's a map showing the udon shops in Takamatsu:
http://www.e-sanuki.com/udon/maptakamatu.html
and of the surrounding area:
http://www.e-sanuki.com/udon/map.html

Armed with this and a translation tool, it IS possible for a Vegan to indulge in gourmet tourism in Japan. Even those with modest budgets. Just as long as they're a sanuki udon fanatic (and I'm quietly confident that anyone who eats udon in the Kagawa region will become one)

Takamatsu can be reached from Himeji in 3 hours and the train fare costs ¥3,640 (from Osaka there are buses, the trip takes just under 3.5 hours and costs ¥3,600, from Kobe 2.5 hours,¥2,650). Ritsurin Park alone makes it worth the trip.

EDIT: I just found a charming and very recent blog entry that puts the case for visiting Kagawa better than I have
http://punkyoujapan.blogspot.com/2009/01/wonders-of-udon.html

In Tokyo, a recommended, but not cheap, place to try decent udon is Hinaya
Review: http://metropolis.co.jp/tokyo/560/restaurants.asp
And this article written by the owner's daughter: http://tokyoalacarte.blogspot.com/2007/08/hinaya.html

Loretta | 5 March, 2009 - 20:56

Re: Japan: A Survival Guide For Vegans

Standard udon soup is based on dashi with bonito or niboshi, so you'd have to ask about it or carry your own dipping 'sauce' as one of those blog entries suggest.

maki | 5 March, 2009 - 23:02

Japan Times veggie recommendations.

Maki,
Thank you so much for your great sites. Creating a bento stash from Just Bento recipes has brought a lot of enjoyment to my lunch break life in the last year.
Weighing in on the vegan in Japan thing - one of the most frustrating aspects is identifying what's been cooked in katsuo dashi because kinpira or soba might seem vegan but usually aren't.
My husband Robbie writes the Japan Times Food File column and two weeks back wrote up a funky soba place that uses vegan dashi - it's all vegan except for the tamagoyaki. Here's the link: http://tinyurl.com/dd3kb6
Here are links to some other reviews that vegan or the veggie oriented visiting Tokyo might like.
Modern Macrobiotic - J's Kitchen http://tinyurl.com/86uo6o
Kurkku Kitchen - organic veg (but meat too): http://tinyurl.com/ctp93k
Yasaya Mei - also organic veg but with meat options: http://tinyurl.com/579hbr
N-115 - veg et al. http://tinyurl.com/6wkrve
My favourite - charcoal grilled veg and wine in a funky food alley. Takahashi san in Ebisu Yokocho (in the box at the bottom of the article)
http://tinyurl.com/9em6tz
Once again - thank you for all the great articles in JH and JB and get well soon.

Denise Swinnerton | 6 March, 2009 - 07:03

Re: Japan Times veggie recommendations.

Denise Swinnerton wrote:

My husband Robbie writes the Japan Times Food File column and two weeks back wrote up a funky soba place that uses vegan dashi - it's all vegan except for the tamagoyaki. Here's the link: http://tinyurl.com/dd3kb6

That's a wonderful recommendation!
Soba seems to be one of those foods that vegans and vegetarians SHOULD be able to enjoy in Japan, but the reality is that there just aren't any ways to order it in a mainstream restaurant (even where the soba is hand cut and of the finest quality) that taste particularly nice.
When udon is very very good, you don't need the dashi, but even the best soba I find unpalatable with just soy sauce and some garnishes.
I'm delighted to have this link to somewhere in Tokyo where soba can be enjoyed and not endured by vegans!

Another, this time counter-intuitive, recommendation for vegans and vegetarians travelling in Japan. And that's the yakiniku (grilled meat) restaurants where the food is cooked at a table top grill (BBQ). Not all yakiniku places have the table top grills and you'll need to judge how well cleaned the grills are (often they're pristine). A selection of vegetables (and often tofu) is usually available from the menu.

Loretta | 6 March, 2009 - 13:23

Re: Japan: A Survival Guide For Vegans

There are a number of vegan delis and bakeries in Tokyo (that also sell vegan ingredients online) but you have to do your research. I think Kyoto has a growing vegan community, as well. But vegan foods and restaurants can be expensive. If you are cooking for yourself and you can read Japanese, I recommend the 菜菜ごはん cook book series. Yumiko Kano has some great washoku ideas. (And there's this blog, too!)

Brown Rice Cafe and Deli in Harajuku is quite nice and they have an online store. http://www.brown.co.jp/ If your reader is ever in Tokyo, he/she should definitely check it out!

En | 6 March, 2009 - 08:50

Re: Japan: A Survival Guide For Vegans

Please have a look at my blog, it is called Survival guide for Vegetarians, but there are lots of recommendations suitable for vegans as well.. restaurants, recipes, etc.
There is so much great food in Japan, also for vegetarians/vegans, it's just a bit of a hassle to find it sometimes ;)

http://vegetarianjapan.blogspot.com/

Julia | 6 March, 2009 - 13:32

Re: Japan: A Survival Guide For Vegans

Julia, your blog is a great resource!

Denise and Loretta, thank you for all the great links!

Ed, Yumiko Kano is one of my favorite cookbook authors. I think I have all her books (though she is so prolific I have to check periodically to see if she has a new one).

maki | 6 March, 2009 - 16:14

Re: Japan: A Survival Guide For Vegans

I know this may not be very popular... but I have been a vegetarian for about 10 years and a couple years ago I went to Russia in an exchange program. And I decided that before I went that I would not insist on being a vegetarian while I was there. I really felt I would be imposing on my host and seem ungrateful for her taking me into her home if I was too picky about my food, since being vegetarian is really kind of foreign there still. One woman in my group was a "vegetarian" (but would sometimes eat chicken and fish) and everyone (including her host) just thought she was being a pain in the ass.

So I think that is something to take into consideration. That if someone is inviting you into their home and preparing meals for you you might want to just suck it up and gratefully eat what they make (even if it does mean, like it did for me, tummy aches).

Stephanie | 7 March, 2009 - 02:28

Re: Japan: A Survival Guide For Vegans

Stephanie wrote:

So I think that is something to take into consideration. That if someone is inviting you into their home and preparing meals for you you might want to just suck it up and gratefully eat what they make (even if it does mean, like it did for me, tummy aches).

I'm sorry you felt you needed to suppress your ideals on your own stay.

Having been both a guest and a host to people from all kinds of cultures with all kinds of diets (I was vegetarian for over 15 years, but for health reasons I finally compromised and returned to eating fish) I have a different take on this.
A home stay is a two way exchange. Just as you learn a great deal about your host's way of life and their culture, your host is also learning about yours. It goes without saying that one should explain one's dietary choices and values before accepting the offer to stay in someone's home.
It's very possible that the host will enjoy learning about a vegan/vegetarian diet.
What would be wrong is to assume that a host family will adapt their own habits to cook these, often quite alien, meals for you. But a gracious guest will take this responsibility on for themselves. This may involve bringing along a supply of key ingredients in order to achieve this.
Not all families are the same, some will balk at the 'rabbit food' prepared, others will relish the opportunities to sample new dishes you can show them.
Co-operation in the kitchen can be a beautiful thing and lead to a richer, deeper understanding of your lifestyles for both of you. Vegans and vegetarians are not an insignificant part of North American and European culture, it would be a shame to deny your host this chance to learn about who you really are.

Loretta | 7 March, 2009 - 11:43

Re: Japan: A Survival Guide For Vegans

I really do not feel that I compromised my ideals, I am still a vegetarian, but rather I was being realistic given the culture and the available foods. Having enough in many Russian households is still an issue, so I did not want to put an extra strain on my host.

But as far as an exchange program being a two way street, I understand that. I did let my host learn more about me while I was there though food and by talking to her. I actually cooked a number of vegetable dishes for her while I was there and let her know how much I appreciated what she made for me.

Stephanie | 7 March, 2009 - 20:22

Re: Japan: A Survival Guide For Vegans

Stephanie wrote:

Having enough in many Russian households is still an issue, so I did not want to put an extra strain on my host.

I'm sure you've identified the key issue here. I don't think I would feel able to stick to my principles in a culture where food is hard to obtain either.
Thankfully, Japan isn't one of those countries. (I appreciate that my alternative opinion to yours is one born out of mutual luxury, both for the host and the guest)

Loretta | 7 March, 2009 - 23:11

Vegan restaurant in North(East) Shinjuku

I was just rooting around for places to eat in this area and found this reasonably priced Vegan option (just like most places, it's cheaper at lunch times than in the evenings - lunch set is 900yen or 1,000yen on Saturdays)

http://www.showtennen.com/menu.html

I'm too fond of pigs to eat the usual kind of gyoza, but this place make meat free alternatives. Also of interest to me are the vegan mabo dofu offerings, a Chinese inspired dish which is very popular in Japan. I've yet to try it.
I'm definitely going to visit!

Loretta | 14 March, 2009 - 13:07

Re: Japan: A Survival Guide For Vegans

It is difficult to survive as a vegetarian, not to mention being a vegan. I would definitely go with the macro route. I was at a Japanese temple and had a wonderful meal that was mainly tofu-based. I would definitely stick with the rice, some seaweed vegetables (not marinated in soy) or red bean dessert :) Go for tororo zaru soba, just don't dip the sauce.

Kim | 25 March, 2009 - 14:27

Re: Japan: A Survival Guide For Vegans

Great article and a wonderful resource. I will definitely ues this when we visit Japan! Found you from serious eats...looking forward to reading more.

nithya at hungrydesi | 25 March, 2009 - 15:51

Re: Japan: A Survival Guide For Vegans

I recently spent about four days in Tokyo and will admit that was the EASIEST time as a vegan out of the entire six and a half months I've been here. There are vegan restaurants EVERYWHERE. I ate with a fork for the first time since leaving America. I drank coffee at a cafe that wasn't Starbucks. I indulged on things I haven't had since leaving my home country and thoroughly enjoyed everything. It was incredible.

I am vegan, and though I've been pretty much unable to eat out at all here in Nagasaki, I don't mind cooking my own meals. I spend a little more money than the other students from America but that's because they are living off of incredibly unhealthy prepackaged foods. I really love experimenting with all the new and exciting vegetables and other things here. I recently found a small store called "vegetarian" [that actually sells meat.. hah] and found 玄米もち! I was so excited. I can't wait to try it. I really like making the chinese savory version of 粥 kayu [rice porridge] with my own personal twist, usually using some miso, a package of natto.. various veggies.. sometimes tofu.. and of course seaweeds. It's a great meal for any time of the day. I like to stir fry, make curries out of kabocha squash, cauliflower and red lentils [that my lovely boyo brought me from america- thank goodness for lentils!!!] and pretty much steaming or broiling [i have no oven] any vegetable I can find. At first I ate the same boring mix of bean sprouts and carrots but thankfully have branched way, way out. Don't forget to try all the different kinds of mushrooms and greens!! Renkon 蓮根 [lotus root], yamaimo 山芋 [mountain yam], satoimo 里芋 [taro root] and of course satsumaimo 薩摩芋 [sweet potato] are all delicious and usually quite cheap. I could live off kabocha squash- it's THAT good.

I recently found pure organic soy milk and there's organic tofu here that is super, super cheap. I like unsweetened ankou [azuki bean paste] on brown rice cakes and soy milk with fruit and brown rice flakes found in the organic section of one of the supermarkets I visit.

I'm rambling now, but I hope you get the jist of this entirely too long comment of me slowly adjusting to what's available here. I think my visit to Tokyo [and enjoying things like sakura muffins and vegan tempeh sandwiches] will hold me over until August.

Thank you Maki for the awesome sites and post. I love all of your sites- especially hungry for words! Keep up the great work [and thanks for the email back about the bread!]

:]

Asha | 2 April, 2009 - 08:57

Re: Japan: A Survival Guide For Vegans

Asha, thank you for that very detailed followup! I'm going to feature it in a post of its own so people don't miss it!

maki | 2 April, 2009 - 20:29

Re: Japan: A Survival Guide For Vegans

I was at the library last week and picked up a wonderful recipe book called "Good Food from a Japanese Temple". I'm half way through it. It's a really old book, published in 1982, so not many photos but enough to guide you. Definitely check it out for the vegan recipes; they also adapted the ingredients for what's available outside of Japan. I'm surprised that sho-jin ryouri cuisine costs so much. Most of the recipes in the book have simple ingredients and not time-consuming (desserts are the time-consuming ones). I haven't tried them out yet, but what I like so far is that you need very few seasoning ingredients and kitchen tools: soy sauce, sake, sugar, wasabi, sharp knife, grater, grinder, and pots & pans you already have. Isn't that wonderful? I'll report back after some "taste tests."

Pat | 20 April, 2009 - 21:55

Re: Japan: A Survival Guide For Vegans

Does anyone know of a place where you can get cheap whole wheat flour in Tokyo? So far I am paying an arm and a leg from an international supermarket. None of the four local supermarkets I have been to have whol wheat flour.

Desperate Baker | 27 April, 2009 - 08:31

Re: Japan: A Survival Guide For Vegans

I was a vegan and raw foodist when I lived in Tokyo last year. I found it pretty easy to get by, but I did make exceptions to my usual diet while traveling or eating out with friends, because I believe that people and the connections I make with them are more important than food.

For shopping, I relied on a farmer's market in Kiba for most of my produce, which was inexpensive and from local farms in Ibaraki. National Azabu in Hiroo has a good selection of organic produce and imported specialty items, and there is a similar, but smaller, store called Nissin World Delicatessen by Azabu-Juban eki. Crayon House in Omotesando has a tiny health food store that carries organic vegetables and a wide selection of whole grains.

For those not in Tokyo, on the Internet, the Foreign Buyers' Club (http://www.fbcusa.com) is a good place to go for things you might miss from back home. I also loved ordering from Tengu Natural Foods (http://www.alishan.jp/shop/nfoscomm/catalog/).

Restaurants with vegan options in the Tokyo area that I enjoyed include Pink Cow (Shibuya), Brown Rice Cafe (Omotesando), Crayon House (Omotesando), It's Vegetable (Kinshicho), Momonoki House (Harajuku), and Veggie Paradise (Yoyogi-Uehara). I agree with the others who suggest macrobiotic restaurants, but keep in mind that some macrobiotic dishes include fish (the macrobiotic restaurants I went to had well marked English menus).

Finally, if you're in the Tokyo area and eating strictly vegan is important to you, and you want to go out and have a good time with other people, I suggest that you check out some of the veggie groups on meetup.com. I went to several raw food potlucks and had a great time.

anon. | 13 June, 2009 - 04:11

Re: Japan: A Survival Guide For Vegans

What about using the great vegan restaurant resource at Vege-navi.jp

There is also a mainly English resource starting up at VeganJapan.info but it is still early days yet.

One of the great things about Japan is the variety of new and seasonal foods that are available for vegans, if you are willing to step outside of the major cities and look out for local markets. The variety of sweets is in another world compared to the West.

The truth is, of course, the "problem" is really down to the language. Best to ask a friend to write a cheatsheet in Japanese and show it to staff. Folks are polite and helpful, service is wonderful.

Vegan Japan Info | 6 November, 2009 - 17:22

Re: Japan: A Survival Guide For Vegans

If you are looking for organic and vegan foods try my company's home delivery service: www.yoyomarket.jp. We have a big selection of Costco and other imported foods and have a lot hard to find items. We deliver anywhere in Japan. Give us a look!

jason | 10 July, 2010 - 12:30

Re: Japan: Vegans

greetings,

i would like to know any vegan + eco friendly store ( selling food + daily use items) in japan or other country.
as i intend to open in other asian country

so if anyone can give web link or contact, will appreciate

i may not use their franchise but can tie up with them

thanking you

best wishes

gope | 6 October, 2010 - 08:40

Re: Japan: A Survival Guide For Vegans

By the way, since people often stumble across old posts at JH since it's such a great resource, here are my Delicious bookmarks for vegetarian-friendly restaurant and other listings in Japan: http://www.delicious.com/wintersweet/vegetarian+japan (I have a pipe dream of taking my vegetarian best friend there someday!).

--
http://www.readableblog.com (for English learners)
http://www.talktotheclouds.com (for teachers)

wintersweet | 17 November, 2010 - 20:59

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