Being Vegetarian in Japan

A brief guide for vegetarians coming to live in or visit Japan

A lot of people imagine that Japan must be a great country for vegetarians. After all, this is the country that made tofu famous, and they're Buddhists, aren't they? Well yes, but my first piece of advice to vegetarians coming to Japan is this: think carefully - do you really, really want to come here? Is the lure of that job, this culture, those almond-eyed girls or boys, that great? Are you sure you don't want to go to Thailand instead? Okay, so you're determined to come. Let's be positive. Here is a brief, personal guide to surviving as a vegetarian in Japan, specifically Tokyo, with a list of restaurants and some useful links. I've been here for just over ten months, and haven't gone hungry, so it is possible. And by the way, I'm talking proper vegetarian here - that means no fish - but I'm not vegan, so dairy products are okay.

There are very few vegetarians in Japan. At one point last year, out of 15 teachers at the language school where I work, there were 6 vegetarians, from England, Australia, the US and Canada. Out of 2000 Japanese students there are only 2 vegetarians, and one of them eats fish so isn't really veggie, and the other one will eat meat if the social pressure is great enough (ie when she visits her in-laws) and both of them used to live in London, an interesting coincidence that suggests that an English love of cute animals must have rubbed off on them. Most people in Japan think that vegetarians are weird - it's something that only gaijin do - and they take pride in their indifference to animal welfare. Loads of Japanese people will happily wear fur. I asked a woman about this once and she said, 'I don't care - I'm Japanese.' The word for vegetarian here is bejetarian, taken from English, like other unsavoury words such as furigan (hooligan) and rapu (rape).

Handy phrases
Firstly, you should try to learn as much food vocab as possible. Niku is meat, sakana is fish, hamu is ham, toriniku is chicken, yasai is vegetable, as in 'yasai pizza' (not a hard one to remember). Cheese is another of those imported words - chisu - and egg is tamago. You can get other food words from any Japanese phrasebook (I recommend the Lonely Planet one). Here are some handy sentences:

Niku wa tabemasen = I don't eat meat
Niku to sakana to hamu to toriniku wa tabemasen = I don't eat meat or fish or hamu or chicken
Watashi wa bejitarian desu = I'm a vegetarian
Saishokushugi desu = I'm a vegetarian
Bejitarian no ryori ga arimasu ka = Do you have any vegetarian dishes?
Kono ryori ni niku ga haitte imasu ka = Does this dish contain meat?

Vegetarian Restaurants - Tokyo
This is not an exhaustive list. These are places I have been to, and are ranked in order of my personal preference. Just to make life harder, the address system in Japan is a surrealist's dream - there are few street names and restaurants can be hidden in basements or high-up, in residential areas, in the backs of shops, etc... I strongly recommend that you buy the bilingual Tokyo City Atlas. It's very difficult to find anything without it, and when you're a veggie in Japan you need every bit of help you can get.

Cafe 8
Omotesando: 4-27-15, Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku, Tel: 03-5464-320. There's a map on the Cafe 8 website. It's on the third floor, above a funky furniture shop.
Cafe 8 is a very trendy, laid-back restaurant with friendly staff, who speak some English, great food (half western, half Japanese), though the portions aren't huge, and an English menu. It's not cheap—expect to pay about 3000-4000 yen each for dinner, if you don't drink lots. The food is 100% veggie, a lot of it vegan, and they also sell bread and soya products to take away. It's closed Wednesdays, but opens the last Wednesday of every month for a party with music and cheap-ish drinks. Very highly recommended.

Down to Earth
Daikanyama: 2-5, Sarugaku-cho, Shibuya-ku, Tel: 03-3461-5872. Quite a stinker to find—you basically have to follow the train tracks between Shibuya and Ebisu.
Down to Earth is another place that sells a mixture of western and Japanese food, including some great veggie-burgers. English menu and the staff speak some English; reasonable prices—about 2000-3000 yen each for dinner. Nice atmosphere too.

Two branches: Ogikubo: 5-29-11, Ogikubo, Suginami-ku, Tel:03-3398-5108; and Aoyama (Gaien Mae): 2-22-19 B1, Minami Aoyama, Minato-ku, Tel: 03-5474-0510. Both in the basement. Plus it looks like they've opened a branch in Ginza—see their website for more details, though it's all in Japanese.
These are 100% vegetarian Indian restaurants, with English menus. The curries are excellent, though the staff in the Gaien Mae branch are less friendly.

Nakano: 5-17-10, Nakano, Nakano-ku, Tel: 03-3387-8998. Another stinker to find. A tiny restaurant (3 small tables) which is run by a Hare Krishna couple. Very cheap, great food, no alcohol! The first time we went we received a long lecture about Hare Krishna, but on subsequent visits we've been able to eat in peace. They sell take-away lunch boxes and cakes too.

Good Honest Grub
Ebisu: 1-11-11 Minami-Ebisu, Tel: 03-3710-0400. Pretty easy to find—see their website for a map.
A very western restaurant/cafe, run by Newfoundlanders, with various veggie options on the menu, including burgers. Very easy to get to, but a little over-priced for what you get. Nice staff though, and their Christmas dinner was excellent, though very expensive.

There are longer lists elsewhere on the net—links below—but apart from the above, there are lots of Italian and Indian restaurants everywhere, and they usually have at least one veggie option. You can also find branches of Shakey's Pizza, Pizza Hut and Pizza Express (there's one, in Harajuku, next to Gap). I hate to say it, but we also often have lunch at Subway, because it's cheap and there are branches all over the place. It's the only fast-food place that has any veggie options. There are no veggie-burgers in the Japanese branches of McDonalds! There are also a number of Shojin Ryori restaurants around, often found near temples. These are vegan and serve traditional Buddhist cuisine. Be warned—they are VERY expensive, but worth experiencing at least once. It's also possible to get veggie okonomiyaki, a kind of pancake/omelette dish which originated in Kansai and can be delicious.

Everyday Life
Number one tip—if you're coming to Japan to live, make sure you bring a good vegetarian cookbook with you, and remember that you're very unlikely to have an oven—just a hob and a toaster oven. It's easy to buy fresh fruit and veg in supermarkets, which is of excellent quality, though undoubtedly GM'd to the max. You can also buy tofu, noodles, rice, soy sauce, bread, etc, etc. Forget convenience food—it's all got meat or fish in it. In England, I was always very strict about buying vegetarian cheese, free-range eggs and organic milk, but I've had to make sacrifices in Japan because otherwise I wouldn't be able to eat dairy products at all.

The times when I feel most frustrated about living in Japan are when I just want lunch or a snack. Go to the supermarket, convenience store or bakery and you can guarantee that every bento (lunch box) will have meat in it, as will every sandwich. The only non-meat sandwich you can get in Japan is an egg sandwich. Believe me, after two weeks in Japan you'll never want to eat another egg sandwich. I take sandwiches to work, and if I need more food during the day I either have to buy cakes or bread, or get a salad from Lawsons or 7-11. You can also buy rice balls—onigiri—and these little, brown sweet rice things which I've never learned the name of! (Very helpful, I know.) Believe me, a trip to a convenience store in Japan will make you want to go back to whichever country you came from. The Cup Noodles aren't veggie either, like they are in the UK. However, there is a lot of excellent vegetarian food in Japan, and although they might think you're odd, the staff in restaurants will usually do all they can to help you. Below are some links to useful websites, most of which have much better lists of restaurants and shops than this page.

Tokyo Vegetarian Guide
Vegetarian Journal
Japan Vegetarian Society
Happy Cow
Tokyo-Yokohama Veggie
Digital City—Veggie Restaurants Kyoto
Metropolis Guide to Veggie Restaurants

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