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Surviving Japan as a vegetarian

Rice cakes

Discover vegetarian treats like Gohei Mochi (rice cake) in Japan. Photo: JNTO

So I just got back from a two-week overseas holiday to Japan, and the first thing everyone (and by everyone I mostly mean my Mum) wants to know is, how was the food? What did you eat while you were over there? What I think she really wants to know is: How did you survive for two weeks in Japan without eating seafood or meat?!

Obviously I had done a little bit of research before I went; scribbled down a few phrases, ran a few Google searches, contemplated buying a few available guides for navigating Japan as a vegetarian, remembered I was destitute because I’d just spent my last dollar on plane tickets and poured over Lisa Dempster’s helpful blogs on the subject instead. (Thanks Lisa!) Still, I definitely was a lot more cavalier about the impending challenges than I should have been thanks to my sheltered Australian upbringing and the fact that I haven’t really had to wonder whether they’d be a vegetarian option for me available when eating out since first becoming a vegetarian back in the early 2000s.

A lot of Japanese café owners and restaurateurs understand the word “vegetarian” – particularly if you swap the ‘v’ for a ‘b’, ie “begetarian”, which makes more sense to the Japanese – and others don’t understand at all. I had the Japanese phrase for “I don’t eat meat” (a much simpler concept in Japan than not eating meat due to ethical reasons) written down for when “begetarian” got me blank faces and found this didn’t fare much better. At the Studio Ghibli Museum I was asked, when I explained that I don’t eat meat, whether or not I had an allergy. It would probably have been easier to lie, but I’m not much one for lying. The Studio Ghibli Museum is a good example of the importance of speaking up – the menu stated it had an “overstuffed vegetable sandwich” available – when I asked in stilted Japanese whether it had meat in it, I was told it had both chicken and bacon. (“Wouldn’t you advertise the chicken and bacon?” I asked my brother aka patient carnivore travelling companion. “Presumably for you folk it’s the best part!”) Still, after struggling through, I managed to get them to remove the chicken and bacon and the vegetable sandwich that I was presented with was the best vegetable sandwich I’ve ever eaten in my life. Does everything not taste at least 80% better with the inclusion of avocado?

In fact, most Japanese restaurants have display meals or picture menus, so simply pointing to an item that looks safe and then confirming with staff usually isn’t particularly difficult. We also found a few awesome buffet places which was the perfect way to experience a variety of different Japanese vegetarian foods. (And, okay, once we hit up a pizza buffet place, which might not have been a very cultural experience but sure did great corn pizza and pesto pasta!) There are also chains like Mos Burger, which has a vegan-friendly Kinpira rice burger (thanks for the tip Lisa Dempster!) and Freshness Burger, which has two different vegetarian burger options. Pastry shops abound in Japan, and delicious croissants and apple and cinnamon scrolls are never hard to track down (even if it means you find yourself in Starbucks.) Overall, it might be a little complicated and challenging to navigate Japan as a vegetarian, but it’s definitely possible and I had more than my share of delicious food – in fact, possibly I had more variety in my meals than my brother, who seemed to get by on curry, rice and Coke for the entire trip. Still, though, I couldn’t help wondering how I’d fare if I ever made the jump to veganism!

Just remember, if push comes to shove: you can always stick to edamame and white rice!

Sian Campbell

One Comment

  1. charlotteamyharper wrote:

    I had many of the same problems in Japan, but did eat some good vegetable tempura and really delicious green tea ice cream. Okonomiyaki (Japanese pancake) was another great find. But I have to admit to resorting to visiting Italian restaurants twice while there.

    Thursday, April 5, 2012 at 10:31 am | Permalink