Being a vegetarian or vegan in Japan can be a little bit challenging because the country is traditionally known for its seafood and meat-based dishes. Plant-based diets are not as common in Japan, but the trend has been changing over time. More food and beverage companies offer vegetarian foods and cater to their needs.
Here are some tips to help you make the most of your vegetarian journey in Japan:
Research and Plan Ahead
Before coming to Japan, use online resources and apps to find vegetarian-friendly restaurants in the areas you plan to visit. Websites like HappyCow, TripAdvisor, and Google Maps can be helpful in this regard. Major cities like Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka offer some restaurants that specialize in vegetarian and vegan cuisine. Suburban areas are less common, but you can research vegetarian or vegan-friendly menus instead.
Researching Japanese dishes will help you learn what ingredients to avoid to meet your dietary preferences. For example, many traditional Japanese foods use fish stock (dashi) such as miso soup, udon, soba, and ramen. Okonomiyaki and takoyaki are commonly topped by bonito flakes (katsuobushi). If you plan to have this food in Japan, you may need to ask the staff to remove or change the ingredients.
Communicate Your Preferences
While many restaurants in tourist areas may have English menus, it's still helpful to know a few basic Japanese phrases related to vegetarianism. Don't hesitate to let the restaurant staff know about your dietary preferences and restrictions. They may be able to make substitutions or recommend suitable dishes.
Here are some useful sentences and phrases for vegetarians:
私はベジタリアンです (Watashi wa bejitarian desu)
I am a vegetarian.
私はヴィーガンです (Watashi wa vegan desu)
I am vegan.
私は肉と魚を食べません (Watashi wa niku to sakana wo tabemasen).
I don't eat meat or fish.
私は野菜だけ食べます (Watashi wa yasai dake tabemasu)
I only eat vegetables.
卵は大丈夫です (Tamago wa daijoubu desu)
Eggs are okay.
肉のない料理をお願いします (Niku no nai ryori o onegaishimasu)
Please give me a dish without meat.
魚のない料理がありますか？(Sakana no nai ryori ga arimasu ka?)
Do you have dishes without fish?
これは肉と魚が入っていますか？(Kore wa niku to sakana ga haitteimasu ka?)
Does this contain meat and fish?
これは野菜だけですか？ (Kore wa yasai dake desu ka?)
Is this just vegetables?
これは野菜醤油ラーメンですか？(Kore wa yasai shoyu ramen desu ka?)
Is this vegetable soy sauce ramen?
These phrases should help you communicate your dietary preferences while dining in Japan, making your experience as a vegetarian traveler more enjoyable. If you’re unsure of your Japanese speaking skills, you can write the sentence on paper or print it out, then simply show it to the staff when ordering.
Ask for Modifications
Many dishes can be made vegetarian by simply asking for the removal of meat or fish-based ingredients. For example, you can order ramen without the meat or fish-based broth.
お願いします、鰹節なしでお願いします (katsuobushi nashi de onegaishimasu)
Without bonito flakes, please.
昆布だしでお願いします (Kombu dashi de onegaishimasu)
Please use kombu dashi (broth made of kelp).
肉を抜きにできますか？(Niku o nuki ni dekimasu ka?)
Can you leave out the meat?
Remember to be polite and respectful when making your requests. Japanese restaurant staff are generally accommodating and will do their best to meet your dietary needs, especially in tourist areas.
Japanese Vegetarian Staples
Japanese cuisine has many vegetarian-friendly options, such as these dishes.
Vegetable Tempura: Tempura is a popular dish where vegetables (and sometimes tofu) are coated in a light batter and deep-fried until crispy. It's often served with a dipping sauce.
Yasai Sushi: Sushi restaurants in Japan often offer vegetable sushi options like cucumber rolls, avocado rolls, or inari sushi (rice in sweet tofu pockets).
Yudofu: Yudofu is a simple but flavorful dish made of tofu simmered in a light kombu (kelp) dashi broth. It's often served with dipping sauces and condiments.
Agedashi Tofu: Agedashi tofu is deep-fried tofu served in a flavorful dashi-based sauce, usually garnished with grated daikon radish and green onions.
Vegetable Gyoza: Gyoza are Japanese dumplings that can be filled with various vegetables and seasonings, making them a great vegetarian option.
Nasu Dengaku: Nasu dengaku is a dish featuring eggplant halves brushed with a sweet miso glaze and broiled until tender and caramelized.
Convenience Stores and Supermarkets
Although limited, Japan's convenience stores and supermarkets offer a variety of vegetarian options. You can buy plant-based foods such as natto, edamame, and many vegetarian snacks. If you like onigiri, you can choose umeboshi (pickled plum) onigiri or plain ones (without fillings). There are also pre-packaged salads with various dressings and vegetable sushi rolls. This is a convenient and affordable option for quick meals.
Visit Buddhist Temples
If you're seeking a new unique experience that unquestionably involves vegetarian cuisine, you must try to do a temple stay or shukubo (宿坊). Guests are typically served shojin ryori, which is a type of vegetarian cuisine that originated in Buddhist monasteries. Shojin ryori is known for its use of seasonal ingredients and simple preparation techniques.
Staying at a temple allows guests to experience daily Buddhist rituals and practices, such as morning and evening meditation sessions, sutra chanting, and participation in ceremonies. Some temples also offer cultural activities such as calligraphy lessons, tea ceremonies, and guided tours of the temple grounds and gardens. Often located in serene natural settings, temple stays provide a peaceful environment for meditation and contemplation.
It's worth noting that while some temple lodgings welcome international visitors, others may have limited English language support, so it's helpful to have a basic understanding of Japanese etiquette and customs. Some popular temple lodging destinations in Japan are Koyasan in Wakayama Prefecture and Mount Haguro in Yamagata Prefecture.
Be aware that vegetarianism is not as common in Japan as in some other countries, so some people may not fully understand the concept. Be patient and respectful when explaining your dietary choices. You can also carry some snacks or packaged meals with you, especially if you plan to visit rural or less touristy areas. If you stay at hotel with meals included, you can email or phone them in advance.
Being less strict with vegetarian restrictions can be a practical approach when traveling in Japan. While maintaining a strict vegan diet is commendable, it may be challenging due to the limited availability of plant-based choices. In such situations, being more flexible and open to vegetarian options that may contain small amounts of dairy or eggs can expand your dining possibilities. Some vegetarians also prefer to consume dashi because it's a common ingredient in many Japanese meals.
Being vegetarian in Japan can be delightful if you are prepared. By following these tips and being open to exploring the diverse and flavorful vegetarian options available in Japan, you can have a memorable and enjoyable culinary experience.