Before you read on, let’s verbalise a single word with a single clap of the hands.
“Itadakimasu; let’s eat.”
I’ve been in Japan a month and I can finally say that I’m totally settled and well on my way to living my best Japanese life – indoor shoes, fans, futons, tofu and all.
The past month has been a collage of inspiration and emotion amidst hidden temples, misty mountains, origami-like kimono, kawaii characters, colourful kanji, fluorescent lights and foreign flavours. I’ll be writing a bit more about the journey soon.
The transition hasn’t been nearly as tough as I had expected and tbh my biggest concern (isolation and language barriers aside because yay for being an only child and using google translate) was the food. I’ve been vegetarian for 14 years and prior to my move I had been told many a time that Japanese people don’t often take to the concept of vegetarianism. It’s just not a thing.
*Stop trying to make vegeterianism happen. It’s not going to happen.*
Rolls eyes. Jokes. I mean; bows with deep respect. It’s become apparent to me that a potential reason why vegetarianism isn’t really a thing here is because of the deep respect that Japanese people have for all living things. Yes, all living things. One thing does not live more than another. Carrots included.
Vegetarian in Japan? Challenge accepted.
Most Japanese restaurants that I have been to offer a predominantly meat-based, carb-baased and seafood based menu. Meat? No. Seafood? Sorry. Carbs? I mean maybe? Rye bread, quinoa, sweet potatoes and rice-in-sushi are where I draw the line, until recently. It’s a real struggle to find brown bread; noodles are plentiful and rice is served at breakfast, lunch and supper – literally. Salads consist of thin slices of cabbage, fish flakes, a handful of baby tomatoes and a couple of blocks of cold tofu. Not quite the green salad served on Western style menu.
So, since most Japanese restaurants and convenience stores have a limited menu of Vegetarian food I’ve taken to exploring the supermarket and preparing my own food at home. My version of cooking, pre-Japan, comprised of a bowl of microwaved peas, an avo, a tin of chickpeas and some sriracha sauce. It’s been a definite learning curve to say the least but I’m loving every minute of it so far, partly because food prep used to feel more mundane than brushing my teeth whilst grocery shopping now turns into a scavenger hunt with every trip. I’ve put together a small “map” of my favourite veg-friendly foods that can be found in a local Japanese supermarket.
Tofu is super reasonable here and is available at supermarkets ready-prepared. My favourite style is the marinaded and slightly grilled option pictured here. But cold options and lightly fried options are available too.
Soba noodles are made from buckwheat flour and contain less calories, more protein and more fibre than traditional pasta. They aren’t super rich in additional nutrients but make for a great gluten-free option. Soba noodles are affordable, easy to cook and they’re guaranteed to be sold alongside a dipping sauce at your local convenience store.
Nato is considered a superfood and is really high in nutrition and protein. At first glance you might think they’re lentils but a closer look will show that they are intact fermented soybeans. They have an acquired taste and a very pungent smell. I’m still trying to figure out how to eat them, aside from served with rice, and I’m ready to hold my nose in favor of nutrition.
Like tofu, these are everywhere, pretty reasonably price and really easy to cook. They’re also almost a guaranteed side dish on most menus in Japan.
If you’re not the guest fan of rice and noodles, quinoa is a great second option. I’ve managed to find it in most supermarkets and if you’re a veggie reading this I’m sure you understand how great the nutritional value of this superfood is! Top score.
Japan’s selection of mushrooms is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. There are atleast 10 to 15 different types of mushroom in every single supermarket that I have been to. They’re unbelievably reasonable and if cooked correctly, they make for an beautifully tender meat replacement option.
Fresh green leaves and micro greens
Like the mushroom situation, greens are plentiful here. Microgreens, spinach, lettuce and leaves I don’t yet know the name of are abundant and again, really reasonably priced.
Inari sushi is potentially my favorite style of sushi available here. Inari sushi is rice wrapped in in deep-fried tofu. It’s the perfect blend of sweet and savory and can be found at conveyor belt sushi, the local konbini (7eleven etc) and in supermarkets.
Tempura vegetables (not pictured here unfortunately)
These are pretty commonly found in restaurants, in the hot food section of a supermarket and in bento boxes occasionally. I’ve recently taken to tempura pumpkin and sweet potato as my favourites.
Fresh produce is seen as pretty pricey in Japan so if you aren’t up for filling a deep freeze with Costco microwave meals you might have to budget a tad more for fresh food. I can say with absolute confidence that it is worth it. Pre-Japan shopping often involved purchasing a 1kg bag of tomatoes containing 2 or 3 unripened, or rotten inside. fruit and vegetables are sold without a single imperfection here and in some cases appear double the size of the fruits and vegetables which I’ve become accustomed to. But that said, I haven’t managed to find certain things like milk alternatives and chickpeas too readily available here but that’s okay (daijoubu) since Amazon.jp stocks it all and deliveries are often inexpensive (or free), efficient and fast. If all else fails, install the HappyCow app on your phone and head over to a listed local restaurant that serves vegetarian/vegan options – a great investment of 3.99 dollars when you find yourself eating a meal ordered from a full vegetarian menu in a town you hadn’t heard of 3 months before.
Vegetarianism and veganism are totally doable in Japan and I’m fairly certain that the trend towards internationalization here will see a rise in the recognition of vegetarianism as a lifestyle choice. Please drop me an email or comment below if you’ve got any questions or thoughts on the topic? I’d love to hear from you! Otherwise, say moshi moshi to me on instagram @daleannescogings to follow my daily activities and aesthetic obsessions.
Arigato gozaimasu (thank you very much).