How to survive as a vegan in Japan

This christmas break I spent at my family’s in Japan. Already months before I arrived, they started to worry what I would be able to eat – A: because that’s what they always do, make a huge effort to let me eat all the most delicious things they can find (^-^ lucky me!) – and B: because this was my first time as a vegan coming home to Japan.

Although japanese cuisine includes a lot of vegetables, nearly everything contains dashi, fish based broth. Konbu dashi, based on seaweeds, is also available, but most of the time, katsuo or other fish-based dashi is used. So basically, as my step-mother jokingly suggested, if you want to survive as a vegan in Japan, the easiest way would be to quit veganism – but that was not an option for me. And after spending two weeks here by now, I figured out that it is also possible not to starve as a vegan in the Tokyo/Yokohama area, even though you need to read ingredient lists very carefully. As there are not so many guides about japanese everyday vegan nutrition in English available yet (especially for Yokohama), I thought I’d sum up my experience and tips in this blog post.

Japanese foods that should be “animal-free” in general are

  • a couple of tofu dishes: for example tofu topped with grated ginger, leeks and shoyu, or yudofu (cooked tofu, I ordered it cooked with vegetables only and in vegetable broth, they probably used konbu dashi)
  • some mochi dishes: Yakimochi (Mochi grilled with nori = sea weeds and served with shoyu), Odango (mochi balls available in different varations, eg. topped with sweet bean paste or a sweet soy sauce glaze)
  • several otsumami (snacks served along with drinks): tsukemono (pickled or fermented vegetables), hiyashi tomato (cooled tomato) if eaten with salt and without mayonnaise, morokyu (kyuri = cucumber, with miso) and edamame
  • a few traditional sweets: yakiimo (baked sweet potato – delicious!), kurikinton (a paste of sweet chestnuts), youkan (sweet bean paste available in different variations for example with green tea), other sweet bean paste desserts

Vegan restaurants in Tokyo/Yokohama

There are already a couple of very nice guides for vegan/vegetarian restaurants in Japan, for example here and on Happy Cow, so I do not want to repeat everything, there is just one addition, which is Natural Harmony Coa in Yokohama.

vegan tokyo yokohama - 03
Curry lunch plate (vegan) at Natural Harmony Coa

Located in the basement of the North Port Shopping Center in Center Kita, Tsuzuki-ku, this small restaurant serves organic washoku (japanese dish) style food of high quality. Their menu always varies a little bit, depending on the ingredients available, but they always offer several vegan menus and also some fish or meat menus. I went there twice with my family, and as they’re omnivores it was the perfect place to go to, where vegans as well as non-vegans can get super delicious food.

Eating in “standard” japanese restaurants

A few general tips:

  • miso shiru (miso soup) and all kinds of sauces and soups are mostly made with fish broth (katsuo dashi or other fish-based dashi), be careful with those.
  • if in doubt: ask! Ask whether the dish contains any kinds of “doubutsu kei” (animal derived) things, for example dashi

Noodle restaurants (soba or udon): ordering with daikon oroshi and shoyu (grated radish and soy sauce) or shoyu and wasabi instead of the normal sauces is a very tasty option as the standard sauces usually contain fish broth. For ramen, there are a few restaurants serving vegan ramen, for example T’s Tantan and Kyushu Jangara in Harajuku/Omotesando.

Sushi restaurants: aside from kappa maki (cucumber rolls) and inari sushi (fried tofu bags filled with rice), several sushi restaurants also offer kampyo (a kind of gourd, called “calabash”), ume shiso (sour plum with shiso, a herb) maki, oshinko maki (oshinko refers to all fermented vegetables but for sushi, usually takuan, fermented radish is served), and once I even found nigiri with nasu no tsukemono (fermented eggplant). So at sushi restaurants vegans can find quite a selection of vegetable based traditional sushi and as these are not considered the sushi specialties, they’re most often rather cheap.

Yakiniku (Korean BBQ) restaurants are certainly not the best choice to go to for a vegan, but if you happen to be accompanied by omnivores like me, it is also possible to eat vegan there. Usually they offer “namuru” (korean  pickled roots and vegetables) and different vegetables you can put on the grill. As the tare (sauce) with which the vegetables were seasoned contained some animal-derived products, we simply ordered them separately and they were so kind to even offer me some vegan dipping sauce options (shoyu and wasabi as well as shiodare, sesame oil with salt). I also ate bibimbap without meat and egg, basically rice topped with namuru, nori (sea weeds) and gochujyang (korean spicy seasoning paste) which was also quite delicious as a vegan version.

Eating on the go & grocery shopping

Eating on the go a.k.a. buying something from the convenience store is rather tricky in Japan. Sandwiches and baked goods more or less always contain dairy or meat/fish products, and japanese snacks like onigiri are filled with fish most oftenly. Sometimes you can get onigiri with konbu filling, but be careful and check the ingredient list (scroll down for a short kanji guide) as the filling might contain katsuo dashi or other fish-derived ingredients. Another option can be inari sushi, if they’re available. For drinks it is a little bit easier as you can always find different teas and also plain coffee, and I even spotted matcha soy latte from the muji brand in some family marts, but for sure those cannot be found in every single convini.

Grocery shopping can also be quite complicated in Japan when it comes to vegan specialty products. There are several soy products which contain animal-derived ingredients unexpectedly (like gelatin in soy yogurt), so be careful to check ingredient lists here as well! Two products I’ve checked and have been buying frequently are this soy milk and soy yogurt:

vegan tokyo yokohama - 01
Vegan to-nyu-gurt (soy yogurt) and to-nyu (soy milk)

For soy milk, most supermarkets offer quite a big selection, although I have not tried a lot of those products yet.

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Soy milk drink selection at a supermarket

All in all, grocery shopping for the basic foods in the Tokyo/Yokohama area is possible, just make sure to always check the ingredient lists.

For foreigners who cannot read kanji very well, I made a short, very basic list of what to avoid:

肉 niku – meat
牛 gyu – beef
豚 buta – pork
鳥 tori – poultry
牛乳 gyu-nyu – milk
魚 sakana – fish, also avoid every kanji that involves the sakana-hen, the left part being the sakana sign (for example like 鰹 katsuo = bonito), as these kanji usually are names of specific fishes.

Hope this helps vegans when travelling in Japan. All in all it is possible to eat delicious food, also traditional dishes, if taking a little care and if in doubt – asking. (You might get some funny looks, as vegetarian or vegan lifestyle is not as common as in western countries yet, but they’ll probably forgive anyone that looks foreign :)).

Have a happy new year and lots of delicious food in 2016! 🙂

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