Before departing for Japan I had been blissfully and determinedly maintaining my ignorance on the country’s recognition of vegetarianism. I didn’t want to consider a scenario in which I would not be spending three weeks solid consuming all the ramen, gyoza, and katsu my belly could contain.
After two days stumbling through the restaurants of Hiroshima, taking my chances and consequentially not eating very well at all, a quick Google of ‘vegetarian Japan’ lead me to a rake of disheartening and downright negative articles explaining how uncommon vegetarianism is in the country. If the internet was to be believed I would be surviving on bread for the rest of my trip, the horror! However, I blog bearing good news. You shall go to Japan and you shall feast on excellent vegetarian cuisine including ramen, gyoza, and katsu, because I did just that.
Below I have shared some of my experiences and tips, links to restaurants that I would recommend, and links to websites I found useful. I hope it will help you on your travels. If you have any experiences or recommendations of your own please share them in the comments, I’d love to hear about them 🙂
Many of the sites you may come across will recommend the simplest solution to surviving as a vegetarian in Japan; learn some Japanese:
‘Watashi wa bejitarian desu‘ – I am a vegetarian (silent ‘u’)
‘Watashi wa niku toh sakana wo taberarimasen’ – I don’t eat meat or fish
However, this solution didn’t allow for my abominable Japanese accent and I often went misunderstood. Several (extremely lovely) servers nodded politely at my feeble pronouncement before bringing me tomato pasta with hidden ham and a hearty sprinkling of bonito (fish flakes). Instead I began to attempt single words and hand signals with a little more succes:
Bejitarian* – Vegetarian (pronounced beh-ji-tah-ri-ahn – does not sound like ‘vegetarian’ in English)
Sakana – Fish
Niku – Meat
Nyu seihin – Dairy products
Tamago – Egg
Yasai – Vegetable
_________ wa taberemasen – I can’t eat _________
*IMPORTANT: In Japan vegetarianism is regularly understood as a diet that does not include meat but does include fish. When using the word ‘bejitarian’ if you do not eat fish, make it clear!
I found that pointing to myself and saying ‘bejitarian’, then saying ‘sakana no, niku no‘ while shaking my head as politely as I could manage was clearer than my original mumbled phrase. In most scenarios their English is a lot better than your (my) Japanese. Plus I often gained some bonus/sympathy points for attempting a few Japanese words.
Kudasai – Please
Arigato gozaimasu – Thank you very much (silent ‘u’)
Oishii! – Delicious!
From what I understand, adjusting your meal is not the ‘done thing’ in Japan. In fact it probably comes across as being quite rude and ungrateful. Ultimately, though, you have to eat. In my opinion having some niceties (above) up your sleeve, alongside your most apologetic smile, is a appreciative gesture. It must also be said that foreigners are given plenty of room for error and I have never met more kind and obliging people than the Japanese so don’t worry about causing some sort of international incident 😉
Find a more extensive list of vegetarian and vegan food terms at ‘Japan’ – Circle of Our Earth
Check out my area specific posts including:
And coming soon:
Veggie in… Fuji
I’m reliably informed that non-veggies might find them tasty too!
(Before anyone asks, unfortunately there will be no ‘Veggie in… Hiroshima’ as I, unlike you, had not done my research at that point in my travels and nobody wants to follow my haphazard, hungry path through that region!)
^ You’ll find these sweet little dudes near most of the tourist sites you visit in Japan. These little rice dumplings are similar to mochi, most commonly vegetarian, served with green tea, and covered in a sweet syrup made from soy sauce – Kyoto
‘On Being a Vegetarian in Japan’ – This Japanese Life
This is one of the hard-truth blog posts I first encountered. While it is more pessimistic than I think is fair, it is very enlightening as far as Japanese culture goes and weeds out many of the odd places meat might be hiding (jelly in coffee… what!?). More importantly you need to know the culture you are dealing with in order to be able to work around it so I found this article exceptionally helpful.
‘Vegetarian Japan: Vegetarian Survival Guide to Japan’ – Never Ending Voyage
These guys are so much more adventurous than I could ever hope to be. Here you’ll find an extensive guide to all the authentic Japanese food a veggie could eat.
Printable Dietary Restriction Cards – Just Hungry
I didn’t try these myself but they could come in handy!
‘Tokyo’s Top Vegetarian Restaurants’ – Time Out
This was our most used point of reference beyond our Lonely Planet guide book. You’ll find plenty of gems here.
^ I know we said we wouldn’t talk about the possibility of being forced to survive on bread but should the situation arise you will come across plenty of awesome bakeries. They are also a good place for a cheapo breakfast or lunch if you’re on a budget. Just remember to use your veggie words, you never know what could be lurking in your soft roll… – Boulangerie Marche, Arashiyama, Kyoto
Airplane Meal Woes
If you are flying Japan Airlines it is possible to book various types of vegetarian and vegan meals in advance* and I have to say the food was pretty great for an airplane meal, they even included a little Toblerone on my tray. I practically have no complaints…
…except for one. I have a bad case of food envy at the best of times. After enjoying a tasty meal followed by cheese and crackers I was feeling pretty satisfied. Then the flight attendants passed through the cabin handing everyone lovely little tubs of Haagen-Dazs ice cream. Everyone that is, except me. I was stumped. My meal hadn’t been vegan? I thought I’d simply been forgotten and was mentally rehearsing the least awkward way to ask the air hostess for my wee tub of ice cream when she beat me to it. ‘I am so sorry, I almost forgot your dessert’ she apologised, offering me a plastic bag of Granny Smith’s. The disappointment on my face must have been fairly apparent judging by her sympathetic look and hasty retreat.
Almost exactly the same scenario happened on the return flight (only this time it was Cookies & Cream instead of Belgian Chocolate, the cruelty!). Being a lacto-ovo vegetarian there are no problematic ingredients in Haagen-Dazs to my knowledge. If anyone has any info to the contrary please leave it in the comments. Moral of the story? Be prepared to be the only kid at the party who doesn’t get any ice cream. Lactose Intolerants I finally feel a smidge of your pain.
* I’d recommend booking your meal by phone with the airline or your booking agent. I had some difficulty trying to do it via the Japan Airlines website but it was very straight forward over the phone.
Check out the rest of my posts on Japan here.
See all my Japan photos in my Flickr album.
I hope you found that helpful. If you have any queries feel free to post in the comments. Enjoy your trip to Japan x