By Truong Cong Yen Nhu
Tokyo is known as a multicultural city, with many people with different nationalities and religions. Since Japan is famous for tofu, and Buddhism is one of the two main religions here, this country may seem to be vegetarian-friendly to most. Yet, when you tell a Japanese person that you are a vegetarian, their first question will be, “So what do you eat?” Although around 40% of Japanese people consider themselves Buddhists, most of them go to temples less than twice a year and – different from Buddhists in other countries – do not follow a vegetarian diet. Vegetarianism is not a widespread or well understood concept in Japan. Despite the fact that Tokyo is a paradise of food, it is quite difficult to find a real vegetarian restaurant (which does not use meat or fish broth in their dishes). In other Buddhist countries such as Vietnam and Thailand, regular restaurants will more often than not serve some vegetarian dishes, but this is not the case in Japan. Now, imagine yourself a vegetarian, deciding to live in Tokyo despite the difficulties in finding vegetarian restaurants. It is difficult, but not impossible. Here are several ways for vegetarians to survive in Tokyo.
The easiest way is, arguably, to cook yourself. Although Japan is not a paradise for vegetarian cuisine, it is the paradise for vegetarian ingredients. With various kinds of vegetables, beans, seaweed and tofu, you can create your own healthy daily meal. Every supermarket has these kinds of products. Moreover, in Tokyo, there are many weekly or monthly farmer’s markets where you can buy fresh, good quality and fairly cheap vegetables directly from farmers. By chance, I have found this blog japanfarmersmarkets.com, with up to date info on these events. There are quite a few websites on which you can look for vegetarian recipes such as http://www.vegetariantimes.com/recipe/ or http://www.godairyfree.org/dairy-free-recipes. Also, you can add variety to your diet with bread. At both convenience stores and bakeries, you can easily find a wide range of bread with different fillings and flavours. For vegans, buying dairy-free bread may pose as a challenge, though it is not entirely impossible. However, to be sure about what you eat, read the ingredient label carefully or clarify with the salesmen.
What about when you want to eat out with friends? First, it is necessary to learn some key survival words in Japanese! ‘Watashi wa begetarian desu’ for ‘I’m a vegetarian’, ‘Watashi wa o‐niku to sakana ga taberaremasen’ for ‘I don’t eat meat and fish’, ‘Niku’ / ‘bekon’ / ‘toriniku’ / ‘sakana’ / ‘ebi’ for ‘meat’ / ‘bacon’ / ‘chicken’ / ‘fish’ / ‘shrimp’.
If you want to eat vegetarian with other non-vegetarian friends, Italian cuisine may be a good option. It is easier to order vegetarian food such as non-animal -product salad, pasta or pizza compared to other cuisines. In any case, my advice is to check the restaurant’s website or call them beforehand to confirm about your case. Although it seems to be a nuisance, being careful is never excessive: you will feel even more frustrated when you go into a restaurant, feeling starving and then discover that there is nothing for you to eat!
Another idea is going to a café or an ice cream shop and of course, with this choice, everything you can choose is sweet. Do not worry about the lack of variety, for the world of sweets in Tokyo is truly amazing! Tokyo chefs have created all kinds of sweets you can imagine in this entire world: parfaits, puddings, crepes, and hundreds of ice cream flavors, not to mention seasonal sweets and more.
If you would like to introduce the healthiness and enjoyment of true vegetarian cuisine to your friends, these websites may be of help: http://vegetariantokyo.com/tag/ginza/ or http://www.vegguide.org/region/37. I have tried a restaurant called Nataraj in Ginza after consulting the vegguide site. It is quite expensive but the food is worth its price. This restaurant has a menu for vegetarian, a menu for vegan and a menu with non-garlic and non-onion dishes. Regardless of your dietary requirements, I believe that you will be able to find a meal that satisfies you at this restaurant.
In conclusion, being a vegetarian in Tokyo, and Japan in general, may require you to put a lot of effort into maintaining your way of life. Regardless, in doing so, go forth and enjoy the wonderful food that Japan has to offer. Good luck with your vegetarian cuisine journey!
Truong Cong Yen Nhu is a first-year PEAK student at the University of Tokyo.