I’m writing this from Jeju Island where I’ve just arrived. Seoul has been manic so I haven’t had the chance to blog for a few days (apologies for that). This entry in itself was one I wrote a while ago in Hakone but I was having massive doubts about whether to upload it or not. In the end, because of how difficult the Vegetarian situation was in Japan, I decided to upload this but please note that it is a personal view- I may have just been unlucky and Japan in itself is wonderful in so many other ways. I found people to be amazingly polite, transport to be incredibly efficient, unbelievable cleanliness in most places and fascinating culture. But here is what I found to be Japan’s biggest flaw…
When you travel, you need fuel. You are running around like crazy and, for me, food is a form of comfort. I don’t want to be running around with those awful, aching hunger pangs or feeling weak from a lack of calories. In Japan, for the first time ever, I find myself really flagging. In a country where Buddhism is a main religion (and granted, there are some temples you can eat at, though these are few and far between and costly), this lacto-ovo vegetarian (who eats both dairy and eggs) cannot find “safe” food in a vast majority of places.
And I guess this highlighted to me a huge cultural difference- you go to a restaurant in the UK, any restaurant, and there’s at least one vegetarian option. Even in a fish and chip shop or steakhouse (not standard places for a vegetarian to visit) often you’ll see veggie safe cheesy chips or a veggie kebab, or a grilled pepper, halloumi burger or risotto as vegetarian options in a steakhouse. Not so in Japan.
Vegans would not cope out here unless they never ate out (this is in the Ikebukuro region of Tokyo, a commercialised area with every other shop front being a restaurant). Vegans would also struggle in Osaka. And perhaps if they ventured to other regions of Tokyo, they’d cope on raw, microbiotic food marketed to the masses as healthy. Not tasty food. Just calorie-orientated. Just safe.
And for Vegetarians, food-wise it is close to a personal hell. Why should I have to plan my schedule around being able to obtain something vegetarian?
What if my religious beliefs forbade me from eating pork or seafood or milk and meat together? (they don’t, but hypothetically speaking).
And what if I was gluten-free or allergic to nuts or lactose intolerant?
It feels like, unless you eat everything (and by everything, I mean a lot of meat and fish), Japan punishes you for choosing a different diet. And I’ve chosen and maintained vegetarianism for 17 years (none of my family are vegetarian- just me- just a personal choice).
I wouldn’t dream of telling people that they should become vegetarian and will happily watch friends tuck into roast lamb and goose-fat cooked potatoes without feeling anything (except maybe amusement if they really love their food or have little quirks when they eat).
The crux of the matter is that food is a form of happiness for many. And the struggle to find safe noodles, any form of potato or pasta (that doesn’t have meat or seafood in it), a legitimately “safe” form of bread (hotdogs are common, or ham in bread, or chicken…) leaves you feeling so despondent. You’re not meant to tip in Japan, but one day in Tokyo I was so grateful a restaurant removed all their animal product from one dish on their vast menu (the only one that actually looked vegetarian), that I had to leave extra and insist the lovely waitress take my money.
There was also a piece of chicken in what was meant to be a mixed vegetable dish (only one piece, and my friend who is not vegetarian confirmed my suspicions and thought it fell into my dish by accident) but this was after we were assured that my meal was vegetarian (and we used a Japanese phrasebook for this). This still left me paying for a meal I then refused to eat (thanks watami).
Where I stayed one night in Hakone had six restaurants in the reception/ground floor area. Six. Yet no vegetarian options bar a steamed tofu side and seaweed soup at the Japanese restaurant (this with sticky rice was an incredibly insubstantial amount of food and very overpriced). And the irony is that vegetarian food is not hard to make. You don’t have to add meat to everything- a restaurant could offer vegetarian food by using a vegetarian stock base and then separating half the mixture into one bowl and adding whatever meat or seafood they wish to the other half of the mixture. And this would incur no extra cost but still allow for a vegetarian option to exist.
Japan: I love your people, vibrancy, politeness and efficiency and the huge amount to do in Tokyo. Also, some credit needs to be given to Kyoto for having a couple more vegan restaurants than Tokyo or Osaka (though to be fair, that was really not difficult considering the lack of veggie-friendly places in both of the latter cities). But Vegetarians be warned- the struggle to find things to eat has caused me a lot of undue stress and genuine frustration and disappointment.
If you want to see Japan (it has a lot to offer), Veggies or Vegans check out Happy Cow, an excellent vegetarian app which is applicable worldwide, and maybe Trip Advisor as well.
But don’t expect too much.
And don’t expect it to accommodate for you in the same way that Hong Kong can and China (I’ve been told by many people) will.
Because there’s only so much gorging on sugary “safe” baked goods in Starbucks a girl can take. And incidentally, I still lost weight in Japan because of the food situation- despite eating unhealthily as a form of sustenance.
Amongst a lot of the bad, Japan does have a few hidden gems to eat at (especially in Kyoto) should your diet vary from the Japanese norm. If you want me to do a post about them, please comment or give this post a like. Otherwise my next entry will be about my favourite part of Japan- Kyoto- and it’s subsequent attractions.
Thank you very much for reading!
4 thoughts on “The struggle is real: attempting to survive as a Vegetarian in Japan”
This is so true! I went in Japan in May (Tokyo & Osaka) and even though I was there two years ago, too, this time I had much more difficulties in finding something to eat. I don’t eat any pork nor beef and just little chicken meat. As for fish, after the Fukushima thing I’m growing more and more worried abt eating it. Plus, I don’t eat wheat products (mainly b/c of the gluten)… The only option left is eating rice everyday, which I think wouldn’t be all that healthy in the long run ;(
I’m really surprised you found it more difficult now than two years ago- I always thought the food situation would become more rather than less diverse as time went on. I can imagine the gluten situation also makes it very difficult… Thank you so much for taking the time to comment 🙂 it was interesting to read that someone else has gone through a similar thing.
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That means a lot 🙂 thank you very much!