Being vegetarian in the world’s biggest foodie paradise…Japan

On my recent trip home to Sydney I was constantly asked by friends and family how I was doing in terms of food. That seemed to be a major concern of theirs (and as it would appear, there many been some recent unwarranted weight-loss on my part brought on by a packed travelling schedule). And it was a major concern of mine coming into this whole Japanese adventure. So much so that I made a polite but very selfish request to be placed in a major city at my JET interview so that I would have access to vegetarian food (whether they listened to my request or not is beyond me but boy am I glad it all worked out!).

Japanese food, though a very healthy cuisine overall, is based primarily on meat and seafood with very little vegetables. Until recently, the concept of vegetarianism or veganism was unheard of and often misunderstood. ‘Oh you’re vegetarian, so you only eat vegetables.’ ‘Oh, that’s why you are so thin‘. ‘But you still eat fish, right?

When I visited Japan on holiday years ago, it was very difficult to find vegetarian food and have the concept fully understood. These days, however, there has been a shift in mindset, with a small vocal vegan community rising up and creating waves (especially in Tokyo).

While I still have to be very specific with my requests when ordering food, asking the right questions is key. Not simply stating – ‘I am vegetarian, is this vegetarian?‘ This can be interpreted (and lost in translation) as to be ‘yes, this is vegetarian because it has vegetables accompanying the meat’. Asking ‘Does this have _________ (meat/fish/eggs etc)’ will warrant a smoother ordering experience. There have still been times (mind you, this is likely in less touristy areas in rural Japan) where I have made sure (in Japanese) that there was no fish in my food, the waitress assured me that that it could be removed and it came as requested, expect topped with the normal garnish of little sardine like fishes.

For the most part, as I live in Japan, I tend to cook my own meals and take left overs into work for lunch the next day. This works for me as it means that even though I don’t particularly enjoy cooking, I am able to tailor make what I eat and pack in all the veggies that I can. My repertoire of meals that I can cook is quite limited and I am hoping it expands this coming year.

Eating on the go is very popular here – and by that I mean, most people pick up their meals at the local convenience store or most restaurants cater for people eating alone really well. However, this is also quite difficult. If for some reason I do not have time to prepare my own meals for the next day, the range of options to pick something up on my way to work is limited. I have found what works for me though – fruit, yoghurt, edamame (soy beans) and inari (rice with vinegar wrapped in bean curd) have been staples from the conbini as well as various sugar laden goods from the local bakery.

Eating out, on the other hand, has been surprisingly painless most of the time. This is partly due to the fact that the lovely people I hang out with – be friends or colleagues – are so accommodating to my strange dietary requirements. My colleagues often will eat entirely vegetarian meals when we go out to eat together, which is so kind of them but completely unnecessary!

The up and coming vegan scene also means that there are entirely vegan restaurants which makes life a whole lot easier. Before coming here, I had never had proper ramen in my life – but one of my favourite restaurants in Tokyo is T’s Tan Tans at Tokyo station (a vegan ramen specialty restaurant in the most convenient of places). Additionally on one of my first days in Tokyo, when I first met my supervisor, we went for lunch in a partly vegan restaurant right  near my apartment called Hidamari Cafe in Kamata. The set meal was so healthy while being entirely delicious! A fancier place that I went to with my friend Karina recently was 8stablish – another entirely vegan restaurant that is a little more upscale in Omotesando. Rather than a Japanese focus, it felt like this restaurant could be situated anywhere in the world (the food and the decor alike).

There are constantly new vegan places cropping up as the weeks go by and I’m excited that I will have the next one and a half years to explore them all!

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