Vegetarian Travel to Japan
I'm leaving in 3 days for Japan (Tokyo and Kyoto), for 2 weeks! I'm a vegetarian (lacto-ovo, no meat, poultry or FISH), but otherwise, not a picky eater. Any ideas of what I just have to try while I'm there? Anything I should avoid because of hidden non-veg ingredients?
As I've been reading this thread I have been trying to think of veg options. I think Ochazuke might be a good choice. Rice with tea poured on top and various toppings. Many of the toppings are seafood based, but there are plenty of pickled vegetable and ume (plum) shiso (perilla) variations. Other toppings are seaweed and little rice krispy things. The only danger is getting broth (instead of tea) and ordering toppings that are fish based. Perhaps you can do some internet research, but I've really only ever been to one ochazuke shop, so I can't remember the names for the toppings that are veg. Please do report back about the degree to which you were or were not "screwed" as this topic comes up more often than you would think in food converstaion :)
I realize this is an older thread, but I just returned (Nov. 2007) from 8 days in Kyoto with my wife--we're both strict vegetarians. We did our homework beforehand and found great places to eat. You *can* have amazing vegetarian meals in Japan and especially in Kyoto. Because some of this information is a bit hard to find, we created a TravelBlog to share our experiences.
Ditto on the "yakitori" restaurants: sit at the bar and you can see all the choices in the glass case in front of you. Grilled tofu is common there, too.
Windows. Walk down any restaurant street and a high percentage of the restaurants will have their food displayed as plastic models in a glass case facing the street. Simply walk in, motion to a person to come outside, and point to your choice. They will take it from there.
Ditto on the dashi. If you eat ecclectically, you may well end up crossing paths with some "hidden" dashi. But then, it is simply a colloidal extract of animal source protein, as is milk.
Department stores ("de-paah-to"): visit any department store, (often close to subway stops) and the bottom floor (basement) will be an open market, where you can view all ingredients and build your lunch by the gram. These can be amazing places, perhaps the best bang for your timebuck to view the diversity of the cuisine. I would recommend them over the smaller convenience stores or "su-paah"markets because at the depaato you will see more of the perfect presentation of each item, and the place hums.
Cheese: Japan is not the place to expect artisanal living cheeses. However, good processed cheeses rule, and work well for the hoofing-it tourist. Just ask for "chee-ee-zu" and they'll get you there; they will also look for your camera as the word is used more there for group photos even than in the U.S.
Eggs: Sunny side up, fried quick: "Tamago medama". Usually accompanied by a thick slice of dense white WonderBread that makes Texas Toast look like a crepe.
Breakfast: be sure to experience Zen Mai: fern shoots (fiddleheads). A common component of ryokan breakfast.
Hope you have a good trip. A report is anticipated.
This is all very helpful advice. I'd just like to comment on a few of the minor details.
Yakitori: I don't think grilled tofu is very common in yakitori restaurants. Typical vegetarian fare is leeks and quail eggs, and the ones mentioned above by Silverjay. And ask for "shio" (salt), since you don't know what ingredients are used in the "tare" (sauce) option.
Windows: While you may still see them, especially in older department stores, display windows full of plastic food models really aren't as popular as they were ten or twenty years ago in Tokyo.
Dashi: You don't have to kill cows to make milk, so it's not really an exact analogy. A lot of dashi is made with flakes of dried bonito fillet. Of course if you don't care about being a "strict" vegetarian things are a lot easier, but I thought we were trying to give advice on what to avoid if one wanted to stay strict.
Cheese: Yes, indeed one can often find processed cheese in convenience stores, and better cheese in supermarkets. Hard-boiled eggs too - another quick and convenient protein source.
Eggs: You may occasionally run into sunny side up eggs on menus at coffee shops, but it's the kind of thing that's hard to find if you're actually wandering around looking for it - it's not all that common. And traditional, old-fashioned coffee shops (the kind that serve the huge toast) are gradually being crowded out by more sophisticated cafes and also chains like Doutor and Starbucks.
Zenmai: These are indeed wonderful, especially in the springtime when they're in season.
It's actually easy to be a strict vegetarian in a big city like Tokyo (or Kyoto) and find healthy, well-rounded meals - all you have to do is stick to Indian restaurants.
The hard part is trying to "experience Japanese cuisine" when one has already chosen to regard 98% of Japanese cuisine as off-limits (i.e. anything with bonito flakes, pork broth, etc.).
If you stick with Indian and specialty vegetarian Japanese restaurants (rather than hunting for the one "safe" item at a soba shop or sushi counter or tofu restaurant), I imagine everything will be less stressful.
I'm going to Shizuoka, Izu, & Fuji in two weeks when I'm visiting with my girlfriend to her home town of Hamamatsu. I've been to Japan three times and believe it will be very hard for a strict vegie. They simply don't get it. To them if it's minced pork, beef/chicken/fish broth, hidden lard in the bread, etc, it doesn't count as "meat".
As my GF would say, you are "secu-rude"!
Can't wait for the persimmons.
Wow, I didn't expect this to be so complicated! I've been veg for over 10 years, and am fairly well traveled. I rarly have problems. I learn how to say vegetarian, I have the words for meat and fish written out in the local language (especially for asian languages that I'm sure to screw up)... I can't guarentee that I've never eaten something with a fish sauce in it, but I run that risk in a japanese restaurant in the US too... or ANY restaurant for that matter, judging from the looks I get to even a native English speaker when I ask "is that made with a meat base?".
I'm not willing to go there and knowingly give up on not eating fish, and I know going into it that I will have to be more careful but I refuse to think I am screwed. I will not enjoy myself if I am in constant fear of what I am eating. Thank you all for your tips - I will definetly check out some of those places, and I now know to look out for dashi! Even though I choose to restrict what I eat, part of the fun of traveling is eating local foods and in some places I do feel like I am missing out. The more I travel, the more I learn to
be adventurous, but there is ALWAYS some local dish that becomes almost a staple because of how good, how clearly vegetarian, and how available it is. So if I can learn those menu options, I know there is something for me to eat wherever I go when the other options are questionable or non existant.
One question that remains is, what if I was allergic to fish, and not just choosing not to eat it? If I accidentally eat something, I probably won't even know it, but some people out there can get deathly ill if they eat it - so there must be a way to completely avoid it! I'm sure there are people out there with fish allergies who like to travel.
Anyway... finishing packing... thanks again...
I just remembered a rather nice little vegatarian place owned by Australians- I believe. It's called "Good Honest Grub". It's located in Ebisu, which is on the main Yamanote train line in Tokyo. It's a good lunch spot (never been there for dinner) and you can probably get good advice from them as well. Very friendly staff.
You're not screwed and you shouldn't have to concede your preferences too much or do your dining from convenience stores. Language is the major hurdle and if you're well traveled and adventurous, you can certainly overcome it and enjoy the food. I've gone on vegetarian kicks before when I lived in Japan and had no problem whatsoever...And Oct/Nov is my absolute favortie season for fruits and vegatables. Definitely try the persimmons!
...Never heard of someone allergic to fish.
Good Honest Grub closed its Ebisu location five or six months ago.
Only one location now, in Harajuku, next to Fujimamas. It's not vegetarian per se but there is more than the usual selection of salads and vegetable-only entrees.
BTW I have two friends who are allergic to fish and they've both lived in Japan for considerable stints (one has been here 22 years). They have to be careful and cook at home a good bit, but they do get by. Just have to know how to ask the right questions at restaurants.
there is a japanese word for vegetarian, "saishokushugi" however it is more common for japanese to use "beijitarian" (from english "vegetarian") and i dare say this word preference very strongly hints at the fact that vegetarianism is a foreign concept to them.
i think your attitude to be somewhat cautious and knowledgeable of what you will be getting into, but also open and adaptable to new situations is the best way to enjoy your trip. have fun!
My little sister is a vegan and she stayed (w/ vegan guypal)in Tokyo at a friend's gaijin hovel. They cooked a lot at home, but because they could not read labels, were in constant terror of eating yogurt with gelatin or snack food with some kind of hidden meat product. They spent a lot of time sampling soft cream cones though and when they weren't being afraid of the food seemed to be enjoying themselves.
Food writer and Chowhound regular Yukari Pratt recommended the following vegatarian spot near Meguro in Tokyo-
Sen – Na Kaiseki, Vegetarian Kaiseki
Setagaya-ku, Shimouma 5-35-5-2F
While wholly vegetarian restaurants are a bit rare in Japan, you'll find plenty of dishes to satisfy you. You are not "screwed". Tofu should be a mainstay for you while traveling in Japan. Freshly made and seasoned with salt or tea powder is very good. Fried tofu can also be tasty. There are all sort of Japanese pickles that you'll want to try as well. There was a thread on this recently. You may also want to try natto, sticky rice, different types of bean paste- some sweet, some salty. Konnyaku, a unique type of solid gelatin. Lotus root and burdock salads are also common. Kinpira gobo for example. Sweet potatos are also really good in Japan. Soba, udon, and somen noodles are also vegatarian options, though you'll want to be careful with the broths they are served with as they are usually fish-based.
At Japanese grilled chicken shops, called yaki-tori-ya, you can get all sorts of delicous veggie options- grilled garlic, grilled green onions, ginko nuts, freshly sliced and salted tomato, grilled shitake mushrooms.
There are also westernized options like potato croquet and great bakeries. There's even a bakery in Shimokitazawa neighborhood south of Shinjuku that makes tasty bread rolls with miso as an ingredient.
Keep an eye out when you're there for persimmon fruit and pumpkin, both in season. Sweet potato season is kicking in. It's the end of the pear season as well.
You should probably memorize some Japanese expressions to let people know what you can't eat. But there are still plenty of options for you.
I'm not a vegetarian but I do have a lot of friends who are. And while this a place where you could get served ham, even if you say you don't eat meat, I've discovered a lot of veggie-safe options at izakaya, particularly the more modern ones with a wide menu (often called 'dining izakaya' perhaps because there's more emphasis on getting a proper meal than nibbles to complement alcohol).
Here's a short list of links for specific restaurants. I can vouch for the quailty of most of them (but I've never been to the shoji ryori place). Most of them have English menus.
From Robbie Swinnerton's Food File (you'll have to register to access them)
--A shoji ryoji restaurant:
--If you want to splurge, Gesshinkyo:
Sora no Niwa (tofu chain; nice ambience):
Pure Cafe (map at the bottom of the page):
Yuuan (a favorite; the one in Shinagawa is a bit classier; I think they have an English menu
Hope you enjoy your stay.
(Sorry, I meant to reply to the original post, not Silverjay's. Not sure how to cancel it.)
i still say your "screwed" ;) while trying natto, bean paste, soba without broth, grilled ginnan or a roasted sweet potato from a street vendor may be tasty options, i can't imagine these items being full meals with a sufficient amount of nutrients to sustain you for a 2 week trip. also, most fried tofu dishes come with dashi-based sauce and lots of miso pastes have dashi already mixed in, so be very careful.
i still think doing research beforehand and supplementing grilled green onions on a stick meals with fresh fruit, yogurt, snacks and onigiri is the easiest way to go.
nalega, please let us know your level of screwedness when you come back. i'm quite curious ;)
Here are the vegetarian listings at Bento.com:
There are several restaurants that serve vegetarian temple cuisine (shojin ryori) in Kyoto, although most are open only for lunch. It's definitely worth trying at least once.
i would have to agree with ben. you are pretty much screwed. japan loves meat.
my suggestion would be to maybe give in to at least fish or fish stock (dashi) as pretty much any "vegetarian dish" will have bonito flakes or dashi in it. all seemingly vegetarian noodle dishes or ramen have meat or fish-based broth. you probably will need to buy your own food like fruits, yogurt and snacks from markets or convenience stores. a cheap and filling meal are onigiri that you can find in any convenience store. onigiri are rice balls wrapped in seaweed with different fillings. some vegetarian fillings i like are preserved plum or seaweed. but if you don't read japanese always ask first as many onigiri have fish in them. and when you eat out tofu/edamame for protein... but again tofu dishes probably will have dashi in the sauce.
you can also hit up some buddhist temples to stay in. they always serve vegetarian meals to their guests. this style of vegetarian buddhist cooking is calle shojin ryori. you have to actually stay at the temples though and partake of their services. i don't think they just feed anyone. but there may be restaurants that serve this style.
you should also do some research on vegetarian restaurants ahead of time because from my experience traveling with a vegetarian most japanese restaurants are not very accomodating when it comes to vegetarians and special requests.