We all love Japanese food, but sometimes it’s nice to have a change, and I don’t mean a trip to Carl's Jr. When I want to eat something reassuringly healthy, nourishing and tasty, I head to Sojo Esperanto-Vegana Kafejo, a small vegan restaurant in Waseda which also happens to be a hub for the city’s tiny community of Esperanto speakers.
Sojo is very much a one-man band, so the owner-chef has a limited menu, which changes day to day. All meals come with a small salad, brown rice and soup, and there’s also a short a la carte menu. Brown rice is quite a rarity in Tokyo and makes a welcome change, as it’s both tastier and more filling than standard-issue white rice.
The chickpea curry comes highly recommended, as does the house wine, a robust organic red wine from Spain, which will set you back a very reasonable ¥1,800 for a bottle.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that vegetarian cuisine is an exotic import, but in fact, it has a long history in Japan. Shojin ryori 精進料理 is the traditional diet of Japan’s Buddhist monks and grew in popularity after the arrival of Zen Buddhism in the 13th century. A typical shojin ryori meal is based around food made from soybeans, like tofu, along with seasonal vegetables and wild mountain plants. Sojo’s menu shows the chef to be thinking along similar lines.
The menu is in Esperanto, but don’t worry, it’s also in English and Japanese. The chef is an Esperanto speaker and quiet advocate. On the restaurant's walls are reproduction prints celebrating Esperanto congresses around the world dating back to the turn of the 20th century. Even the instructions on how to flush the toilet are in Esperanto.
Esperanto is a fascinating language. It was created by an idealistic Polish eye doctor called L. L. Zamenhof in 1887, long before English became the world’s de facto second language. The word translates into English as “one who hopes.” Alas, the hope that Esperanto would one day become a universal second language has come to naught. Having said that, with two million speakers around the world, studying Esperanto is not quite as obscurantist an undertaking as you might think.
Sojo has a calming, homely ambiance, which is partly down to the owner’s friendly, unfussy service. The prices are incredibly reasonable – the set meal, which will keep you going for a week, is just ¥900.
You’ll find it just down the road from Waseda University, which lends the place an academic vibe. There is a small library of books about veganism, vegetarianism, and Esperanto, which you’re welcome to borrow.
Sojo Esperanto-Vegana Kafejo keeps limited hours. It’s not open on Monday or Tuesday, and during the rest of the week it’s only open between 5 pm and 9 pm, though it opens at 3 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.
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