I'm going to be traveling to Japan with my family. What do I need to know about being vegetarian in Japan?
Japan has a lot of foods like tofu or miso, which are globally well known especially among vegetarians, however, it is actually far from a vegetarian friendly country. Though Japan had a vegetable-oriented eating style in the past, food-westernization completely changed the landscape. Now meat is found everywhere and many people believe that having meat, fish and dairy products is good for their health. Therefore, it can be challenging to be a vegetarian in Japan. In a society where animal product consumption is strongly encouraged, people tend to be prejudiced against a vegetarian way of eating.
However, we, who used to be rarely meat eaters, have developed very healthy and nutritious vegetarian food. Tofu and soy lovers will definitely get excited to see shelves filled with a variety of tofu and unique traditional soy products such as natto or yuba in supermarkets. (Natto is soybeans fermented by natto bacillus, it is sticky and has strong smell and taste. Yuba, also known as bean curd skin, is the skin that forms on soy milk when it is heated. Both are highly nutritious and good sources of protein.) These products are often served with fish and seaweed stock called "dashi" in restaurants, but when you buy and cook them by yourself, you can enjoy them without dashi. In fact, these products are delicious when you use only salt or soy sauce for seasoning. If you stay in a ryokan (Japanese traditional hotel with tatami and futon) or a hotel with cooking facilities, you can also try cooking Japanese noodles without dashi. You can season them with soy sauce and sweet sake.
Since many Japanese dishes are cooked with dashi or any kind of animal products (mainly fish and seafood), it is actually very difficult to find vegetarian dishes in Japanese restaurants. I have to tell you that the availability is limited, still, there are some. At first, you can order a bowl of steamed rice, the everyday must for Japanese. Then as side dishes, try vegetable pickles, fried tofu, grated radish, vegetable tempura, fried noodles or okonomiyaki without meat and sauce. (Okonomiyaki, or vegetable pancake, is usually made with eggs, but you may be able to ask for them prepared without eggs. You also need to ask not to put sauce, which usually contains animal products.)
It may be difficult to explain to Japanese people what you cannot have, because the concept of vegetarianism is not widely understood. For example, if you say you are vegetarian, they may offer you beef or chicken soup without meat itself. If you want to avoid meat or fish stock, you have to be very careful-- especially hidden dashi. From yu-tofu to miso-soup, quasi-vegetarian dishes served in Japanese restaurants almost always contain this stock made with fish and seaweed. The same is true for Japanese noodles such as udon and soba. Unfortunately, it is impossible to ask to cook these Japanese dishes without dashi at restaurants, because dashi is what makes the bases of Japanese dishes. Since soups for noodles or some dishes are already prepared (because it takes time, sometimes a few days, to make soups and other dishes), it is difficult to ask for individualized preparation. You will have to expect that many things offered at Japanese restaurants contain animal stock, even if it is not apparent.
If you wish to avoid the fear of hidden dashi, you can visit Japanese-Western or Japanese-Italian restaurants, where you will find Japanese arranged pizza or pasta. They would have some vegetarian options and are probably more flexible about cooking individualized foods like pizza without cheese, since, unlike Japanese restaurants, they usually cook after getting an order.
If you do not mind facing a lot of fish and seafood, sushi restaurants can be an option too. It will be easy to ask them to make your own sushi at sushi chain restaurants, because sushi is supposed to be made, or performed in front of customers. You will have some choices like cucumber, natto, okra, pickled eggplant and so on.
Also, bakeries are another place to go. Bakeries in Japan are a bit different from the ones in the US or Europe. They offer a variety of breads from sweet bread with jam, custard cream, fruits or tea, to what is called meal bread with corn, peas, mashed potatoes, mushrooms, curry, noodles and more. They usually have bread without eggs, butter and milk, which are safe for vegans. Some of the bakeries attach cafes, so you can enjoy various breads with coffee or tea, for a break, or even for lunch.
As another option, you can look for a vegetarian or macrobiotic restaurant. You will be able to feel most relieved here, at least people here understand vegetarians and you do not have to pay attention to avoid animal products in your dish. Macrobiotic has been in fashion last some years, especially among young women who care about their figures and health. The number of vegetarian-oriented restaurants is also slowly increasing. The websites below can help you find a restaurant.
I am from Japan and have been a vegetarian for years, but I do not know any vegetarians around me. My family and friends are always worried about me being vegetarian, and sometimes even get angry with my eating style. Compared to the US or Europe, the idea of vegetarianism is not known yet, therefore I can say that Japan would be a difficult country to live in or travel to for vegetarians. As I imagine, it would be like the US 30 years ago.
Although I have written something negative for vegetarians, it is possible to keep being vegetarian while you are traveling in Japan as long as you are careful. You do not have to bring heavy luggage filled with foods from your country, rather try local vegetarian foods, which are fresh and healthy. Please do not hesitate to come to Japan because it is not the most vegetarian-friendly place. The first thing for vegetarians is to expect that many Japanese people have little knowledge about vegetarianism. Also it may help you if you memorize two sentences, which mean "I do not eat meat and fish", "niku, sakana ha tabemasen" and "I do not eat dashi too", "dashi mo tabemasen", to say when you eat out. Again, it is difficult, but possible to avoid non-vegetarian food in Japan and enjoy Japanese vegetarian food. I hope that you will come across great Japanese food and enjoy your trip to Japan.
by Yuko Tamura, VRG intern from Japan