food

Vegetarian dining options increasing in Japan

17 Comments
By Steve McClure for EURObiZ Japan

Not too long ago, dining choices for vegetarians in Japan were few and far between. If your brand of vegetarianism allowed you to eat fish, you could get by. But it was a lot tougher for those who eschewed meat and fish — not to mention for hardcore vegans.

Even humble and seemingly vegetarian-friendly soba noodles presented a dilemma for purists because they are made with dashi stock; and one of the ingredients of dashi is dried bonito flakes.

But in the last few years, there has been a huge increase in dining options for vegetarians in Japan. From high-end traditional Japanese fare to humble curry joints, there’s something for just about every taste. And more and more restaurants that aren’t exclusively vegetarian now offer a wider range of menu items for vegetarians.

If you don’t mind a dash of dashi in your dishes, then Yasai Kaiseki Nagamine (http://r.gnavi.co.jp/c00zdade0000/) in Tokyo’s Ginza district is a good place to get a taste of some beautifully prepared Japanese vegetarian cuisine. Kaiseki is Japan’s traditional haute cuisine, and menus always reflect the seasons. Nagamine is operated by a vegetable wholesaler, and its menu features interesting local products from all over Japan, such as tonburi seeds from Akita in the north. The seeds look like caviar, and are featured in Nagamine’s highly original vegetable sushi platter.

Macrobiotics, which holds that a healthy diet should balance the yin and yang elements of food, has long had many adherents in Japan. So it’s no surprise that major cities offer various macrobiotic dining choices. One of the most popular in Tokyo is Chaya Macrobiotics (www.chayam.co.jp/restaurant/), which has four locations in the metropolitan area. Although some dishes include meat, there are several vegan options. A typical set menu consists of a pomegranate, smoked nut, and kale salad, vegan soup and organic brown rice. Or how about a hot vegetable sandwich? Dessert options include strawberry short cake, baked soy cheesecake and vegan sesame ice cream.

Health-conscious fashionistas are the core clientele at Elle Café (http://ellecafe.jp) in Tokyo’s Roppongi Hills retail complex. A part of French fashion magazine Elle’s brand family, the café’s leitmotifs are “cleanse, ingredients, prevention and delight” to achieve health and beauty. In keeping with that philosophy, Elle Café offers “cleanse programs” designed to purify the body with intriguingly named juices, such as “greens,” “youth carrot” and “super berry”. Also on offer are cleansing soups, including “rice pumpkin,” “kombu (kelp) broth” and “roots ginger”.

“We always discover new healthy trends by travelling around the world,” says an Elle Café spokesperson. She explains how menu items are then developed using fresh, organic Japanese ingredients. Women in their thirties make up close to 90% of the café’s customers. They have a delivery service for customers in central Tokyo, and an online store.

Indian restaurants have always been a reliable standby for vegetarians in Japan. While many dishes on their menus are vegetarian-friendly, few Indian restaurants have catered exclusively to those who do not eat meat and fish. One that does is Nirvanam, which has three branches in Tokyo. Nirvanam specialises in South Indian cuisine, in which vegetable dishes feature more prominently than other regional Indian cuisines. “Japanese people are becoming more interested in vegetarian food,” says a representative of Nirvanam. “Many of our customers have been to India, or want to visit there.” He says most of the restaurant’s lunchtime customers are women, with more men in the evening.

Women also make up the bulk of the clientele at Shamaim (www.shamaimtokyo.com), an Israeli restaurant in a western Tokyo suburb. “They’re more into healthy food, like vegetables you can’t get in regular Japanese restaurants,” says a spokesperson for Shamaim, citing the various bean-based Middle Eastern dishes the restaurant offers. “We don’t see a lot of men here — unless they’re coming on a date,” he says with a laugh. Shamaim isn’t a purely vegetarian restaurant — the menu features regional favourites such as lamb and chicken shish kabobs. But dishes like humus and falafel make vegetarians feel right at home.

You can see this trend growing all across Japan, as more people become aware of healthy dining options.

© Japan Today

©2019 GPlusMedia Inc.


17 Comments
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I've always thought it is very difficultin Japan compared to the UK (for example) to be a strict vegetarian, especially when eating out or checking food labels. Ironic given that Japanese culture is (was) essentially a vegetarian based one.

2 ( +4 / -2 )

Its not difficult for a pure vegan to survive in Japan if he/she knows how to cook food yourself. Its been 10 years in Japan with family and we never faced any difficulties in finding pure vegan food. Now we know which dish (including Japanese, Indian, Chinese, Thai, Mexican, Italian....) comes under pure vegan dish.

A good experience in Japan.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

I hope that in future more of vegan restaurant will open all throughout in Japan. Our vegan practicism do not even consume onion, garlic, scallion and leek.

-4 ( +3 / -7 )

Every so called vegetarian dish in Japan I have tasted had some sort of fish in it....and especially hidden secret pork.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Vegetarian food? I've met some "Oh I don't eat meat" gaijin in Japan. All of em were obese.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Funny how people (proselytists) often associate being vegetarian with being healthy.

Out of respect for vegans and vegetarians (after all, each to their own) i would not say they aren't 'healthy' yet i find it a bit rich when they take the moral high ground. Eating meat and/or fish doesn't mean being unhealthy or less healthy.

3 ( +5 / -2 )

It's nearly impossible to be a strict vegetarian in this nation, as many 'vegetarian' dishes use bonito soup stock or condiments that feature it, or else have beef/chicken/pork/shrimp extract or other stuff in it that makes it not vegetarian at all.

It's always amused me how unfriendly the nation is towards vegetarians (or fearful, when they hear their homestay student is one) given that the whole nation was more or less vegetarian (not vegan, of course) a couple of hundred years ago and anyone dealing with meat was considered a sub-class.

So, if the options are increasing, then great! Even if you're not a vegetarian, it can't hurt to have the choice of food that does not contain meat or fish once in a while, and if Japan truly wants to welcome more tourists before and during the 2020 Olympics they really need to up their game, as well as continue to increase Halal options, and learn to check and explain clearly what is in what (and get rid of MSGs!). I think it'll be far harder for anyone who wants to eat gluten free products.

0 ( +3 / -3 )

Out of respect for vegans and vegetarians (after all, each to their own) i would not say they aren't 'healthy' yet i find it a bit rich when they take the moral high ground. Eating meat and/or fish doesn't mean being unhealthy or less healthy

On the contrary, a lot of people who tell me how I shouldn't be a vegetarian or vegan are either overweight or have some other modern-day disease. No, I don't take the moral high ground - I just want the choice to have vegetarian food. I honestly don't care what you eat.

This country is still not that vegetarian-friendly, which isn't too surprising, considering how clueless most people are here. We have a large salad bar at my workplace - I have no idea why they call it that since 75% of the dishes are loaded with meats and fish. I have very little problem when I got to UK or US. In fact the best salad bar I ever tried was in a US governmental building cafeteria.

given that the whole nation was more or less vegetarian (not vegan, of course) a couple of hundred years ago

I'd say it was more vegan than vegetarian because dairy was NEVER a traditional staple of most of East Asia. Unfortunately the propaganda from the dairy industry is pushing milk on everyone. Just watch rates of osteoporosis and obesity go through the roof in China (I think it's already happening).

And a piece of advice to restaurant owners in Japan. Vegetarianism doesn't have to mean expensive. And please, for god's sake, offer a bit more vegetarian stuff than kombu onigiri at Narita airport. Absolutely terrible. It seems Japan is more familiar with halal food than vegetarian.

1 ( +4 / -3 )

Eating out vegetarian has become a lot easier the past few years. In addition to Indian restaurants where people understand what 'vegetarian' means (unlike the curry house places that will try to convince you that chicken curry is vegetarian), Italian restaurants are usually quite happy to point out which menu items are vegetarian, and even which can be made vegetarian. Japanese cuisine is nearly all dashi-based, which makes it inedible from the vegetarian point of view. One exception is veggie tempura, which most places are happy to serve with salt and lemon juice instead of the dashi-based tentsuyu.

And gotta agree with Pukey2, Narita is rubbish when it comes to trying to get a vegetarian meal.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

A lot of people believe that a vegetarian diet is a life-changing solution that will benefit their overall heath. For some this may be true but for others, this type of vegan diet may lead to their demise. Everyone has a unique biochemical and genetic individuality so their is no perfect food plan that will work for everyone. As a cleansing diet vegetarianism is probably a good choice but it's best to stick with the tried and true when it comes to good nutrition. In the end the most important thing is to remember to listen to you're body and evaluate its response. If you're present diet gives you high energy and fitness and you don't feel too hungry or crave sweets then you're consuming the right nutritional type of food. On the other hand if you follow a diet that limits animal protein and you feel the negative impact then you should consider changing your diet to include some animal protein.

0 ( +3 / -3 )

if you follow a diet that limits animal protein and you feel the negative impact then you should consider changing your diet to include some animal protein.

And the opposite is also true? If you follow a diet rich in animal protein and the fats that come with it and you feel the negative impact in terms of an increased waistline, added weight, high blood cholesterol, high blood pressure, constipation and general let's-just-sit-in-front-of-the-telly-and-do-nowt slothfulness, then you should consider changing your diet to include less (preferably no) animal protein. I have way more energy than most of my animal-eating friends.

Most vegetarians aren't vegetarians for the sake of their health (though we are healthy), but for the sake of the animals' health and wellbeing. I don't want a meal that contains bits of dead bodies.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

They might really have to start catering more to the vegetarian vegan halal people if they want more tourism here. And with the Olympics around the corner, food options for people with special needs will be in the spotlight.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

Reminds me of the struggle making my friends understand that fish and shrimps are not "swimming vegetables"... sighs ...

Gave up strict vegetarian diet after four years trying and losing much weight and muscle tissue, but cut down on dead animal body bits to less than two pounds per month.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

@smithinjapan

It's always amused me how unfriendly the nation is towards vegetarians (or fearful, when they hear their homestay student is one) given that the whole nation was more or less vegetarian (not vegan, of course) a couple of hundred years ago and anyone dealing with meat was considered a sub-class.

There were prohibitions on eating meat, but the definition of what did and didn't count as meat would not make a modern vegetarian happy, even a non-vegan one.

Also people readily ate fish and products derived from fish, so the shrimp extract and bonito soup you mention are not at odds with the Japanese diet of earlier centuries.

That aside, two centuries is a very long time in the development of any nation's diet, especially as for all people living today, it spans the pre- and post-industrial age. Eating habits will have changed pretty drastically everywhere around the world, as most populations have shifted from working the land to living in cities, and have been able to raise themselves out of subsistence living and dire poverty.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Touristic places really have to catch up and cater to special diets.

It's always amused me how unfriendly the nation is towards vegetarians (or fearful, when they hear their homestay student is one)

The hosts are not short-order chefs, if you can't eat the family's diet -whatever reason- homestay is not for you, take housing where you can do self-catering. Then no, I have not seen in Japan 1% of the hostility you get in Europe when you eat differently. People won't help you find veg food, but they let you in peace.

Now we know which dish (including Japanese, Indian, Chinese, Thai, Mexican, Italian....) comes under pure vegan dish.

So you're aware that besides the veggie salad and the tofu, there is not much on the regular menu. If you are perfectly fluent in Japanese and live nearby, you can order in advance and explain your diet in detail. 99% of visitors can't do that.

Funny how people (proselytists) often associate being vegetarian with being healthy.

The topic is "vegetarian eateries" not "vegetarian people". Many people look for the veg' options for health reasons. Among J-people, it's mostly egg allergy but some have seafood allergy.

the whole nation was more or less vegetarian (not vegan, of course) a couple of hundred years ago

Not that woud change anything if they had been cannibals, but they never were hippy style vegetarians. Eggs were a rarity until 20th century. Dairies were unknown to most before the war. They've eaten seafood from prehistory.

Reminds me of the struggle making my friends understand that fish and shrimps are not "swimming vegetables"..

Never met such ignorants. But many people imagine cheese is vegetarian (even among those that call themselves 'vegetarians'). They don't get that rennet is obtained by killing baby cows, well they are not even aware that most cheese are made with rennet. Kimchi is also often thought as pure veg.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Japan is still going through the cycle of ‘Westernization’ that it seems every country inevitably has to go through (like many individuals?) before more and more ‘return’ to the values and unique facets of their own culture. This Westernization is both positive and negative; note the changes that are happening both in the West and here in regards to gender rights, acceptance of immigrants and mixed marriages, to name a few. ‘The grass is always greener on the other side’ is an obvious axiom here, evident in the comment about vegetarian restaurants being so common in Britain now. Finding such restaurants 20-30 years ago was almost impossible, as was finding decent beer; does anyone remember the days of Double Diamond, Watneys Red Barrel and Budweiser? Even now, 20 years after the U.S., decent craft beer is only now becoming available in Britain as it is here in Japan and the same is true for vegetarian restaurants, Fair Trade products and organic vegetables—all of which were almost unheard of when I was growing up in Britain in the 1970’s. Comparisons of countries are always a subjective exercise. We only have to look at the efficient train system, the relative cleanliness of the cities and the fact that I can leave my door unlocked here in Japan to make another subjective comparison between Japan and the West. Change is always slower when a ‘value’ was imposed on or transferred to a country than in a country where the change evolved due to a political or popular movement. Note how due to democratic demands, drug laws and gay marriage rights are finally throwing off the shackles of the conservative 1950’s in the West, while the laws that were imposed by the US on Asia, not demanded by the populace itself at that time, are still strongly in place. All we can do is to live and teach those values we believe to be sustainable, free of cruelty and beneficial for the planet and the change will happen-in its own time, and often all too slowly!!

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Finding such restaurants 20-30 years ago was almost impossible, as was finding decent beer; does anyone remember the days of Double Diamond, Watneys Red Barrel and Budweiser?

No.

I remember that 20 years ago was 1996, and 30 years ago was 1986. It was perfectly easy to get real ale in all parts of the country where I went drinking. There's much more of it now, but thanks to CAMRA, the revival was already well under way in the 80s after the depredations of the 1960s and 1970s. There was real ale from large companies, and also from quite small independent breweries. I have never actually drunk in an English pub any of the beers you name above, because other, better beers have always been available.

Even now, 20 years after the U.S., decent craft beer is only now becoming available in Britain.

It's quite difficult to transpose a US-focused beer culture of recent origin onto the British market, where there is already a well established beer and pub culture (just as Italy and Austria haven't exactly swooned over North American/Antipodean barista culture). But "craft beer" is simply an Americanism; in the UK we already had microbreweries and brewpubs, which started appearing at the end of the 1970s.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

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