Some might say it is nearly impossible to live or travel as a vegan in Japan, but is it? Rachael Lucas volunteers for Is it vegan? (Japan) and is a founding member of Vegan Consumer Japan. She tackles for our readers the three biggest challenges as a vegan in Japan, and gives you some advice to help the cause.
Are you enjoying a vegan lifestyle? Maybe you live overseas, and you’ve heard that it’s totally impossible to be vegan in Japan, and that if you move or travel here, you’ll have no choice but to give up and start eating meat or fish again. Don’t let that stop you from living your vegan lifestyle or coming to Japan!
Luckily, with some knowledge and preparation, it’s possible not only to survive as a vegan in Japan but to get some terrific food as well. There are people who have been vegan here for decades or even since childhood. Let’s look at some challenges for vegans in Japan and discuss some great resources that’ll help you enjoy your best life here.
Challenge #1: Japanese cuisine heavily relies on fish for flavor.
Although there are various types of dashi (stock/broth)—including kombu dashi, a kelp stock made of seaweed—in practice the word dashi tends to refer to animal-based items like katsuo dashi, a skipjack tuna-based stock.
Savory homemade, prepackaged and restaurant foods often rely on this base and as a general rule, things like miso soup are fish-based. Tofu, which one might assume would be totally vegan-friendly, may arrive at the table with fish flakes on top. Even some restaurants which state they serve shojin ryori food and shukubo temple lodgings—which are often recommended to vegans in Japan—sometimes use fish powder in their food.
What to do?
Get some tools
The website and app HappyCow lists vegan, vegetarian, and vegan-friendly restaurants all over the world. It has over 300 vegan restaurants listed in Japan, as well as close to 1,400 more vegetarian and vegan-friendly establishments. HappyCow also has an excellent top ten list of vegan and vegetarian restaurants in Tokyo.
If you’re traveling here, consider using it to plan your trip and basing yourself in cities that are friendlier to vegans like Tokyo and Kyoto. And don’t forget to leave a review of the places you visit! There’s also a local website, with no app, called Vegewel, that lists veg*n (vegan and vegetarian) friendly establishments in English and Japanese.
Preparation is key
If you’re planning to visit the countryside, where those types of restaurants can be in short supply, consider asking vegan-friendly restaurants in the larger cities to prepare bento lunch boxes for you to bring along.
Since Tokyo is massive, you can pick an area with a good concentration of vegan-friendly restaurants. This article by the blog of the Tokyo Vegan/Vegetarian Friends Club on Facebook has some great suggestions for what parts of Tokyo to actually stay in. If you’ll be here for a long time, make sure that wherever you stay has kitchen facilities.
Challenge #2: It’s hard to read Japanese labels
Japanese ingredient lists are all in Japanese, and if there’s an English ingredient list on imported foods, it’s often covered up by the Japanese label.
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