What should a tourist know about vegetarianism in Japan?

Japan is home to many foods such as tofu and miso that are well known around the world, especially among vegetarians. However, in reality, Japan is far from being a vegetarian-friendly country.

Although Japan has been vegetable-oriented in the past, Westernization has completely changed its food style. Now meat is ubiquitous, and many people find that having meat, fish, and dairy is very good for their health. Thus, being a vegetarian in Japan is not easy. In a society where the consumption of animal products is highly recommended, people tend to be biased towards a vegetarian way of eating.

However, we will be able to find a wide variety of soy products in stores. Tofu lovers will be delighted to see shelves stocked with various types of tofu and unique traditional soy products fermented from soybeans with a strong smell and taste. Bean curd is obtained from the foam of soy milk, which is formed when it is heated.

These foods are often served with fish and seaweed in restaurants and are called “dashi”. But when you cook them yourself, you can do without the fish. In fact, these foods are delicious when you only use salt or soy sauce as seasoning. If you are staying at a Ryokan (Japanese traditional tatami and futon hotel) or a cooking facility, you can also try making Japanese noodles without dashi. You can season it with soy sauce.

Since many Japanese dishes are made with dashi or some kind of animal products (mainly fish and seafood), it is actually very difficult to find vegetarian options in Japanese restaurants. However, they are. You can order a bowl of rice, the everyday food of the Japanese. For side dishes, try vegetable pickles, fried tofu, grated radish, vegetable tempura, fried noodles, or okonomiyaki without meat and sauce. Okonomiyaki usually contains eggs, but you can ask them to cook them without eggs. In addition, it is necessary to abandon the sauce, which usually contains animal products.

It can be difficult to explain to the Japanese exactly what you don’t want on your plate, because the concept of “vegetarianism” is not widely used by them and can be confusing. For example, if you say you don’t want meat, they may offer you beef or chicken soup without the actual meat. If you want to avoid meat or fish ingredients, you must be very careful, especially beware of dashi. 

Miso soup served in Japanese restaurants almost always contains fish and seafood ingredients. The same goes for Japanese noodles such as udon and soba. Unfortunately, it is not possible to ask restaurants to cook these Japanese dishes without dashi, because dashi is what forms the basis of Japanese cuisine. Since the sauces for noodles and some other dishes are already prepared (because it takes time, sometimes several days), it is difficult to achieve individualized cooking. You will have to come to terms with the fact that many dishes offered in Japanese restaurants contain ingredients of animal origin, even if it is not obvious.

If you want to avoid dashi, you can visit a Japanese-Italian restaurant where you can find pizza and pasta. You will be able to offer some vegetarian options and probably make pizza without cheese as, unlike Japanese restaurants, they usually cook after the order is received.

If you don’t mind snacking surrounded by fish and seafood, sushi restaurants might be an option too. It won’t be hard to ask for a special sushi, because the sushi has to be made in front of the customer.

Also, bakeries are another place to go. Bakeries in Japan are a little different from what we are used to in the US or Europe. They offer a variety of breads with various snacks, including jam, fruit, corn, peas, mushrooms, curries, noodles, tea, coffee and more. They usually have bread without eggs, butter and milk, which is suitable for vegans.

Alternatively, you can visit a vegetarian or macrobiotic restaurant. You can feel a lot of relief here, at least the people here understand vegetarians and you shouldn’t go overboard to avoid animal products in your meal. Macrobiotics have been all the rage for the past few years, especially among young women who are concerned about their figure and health. The number of vegetarian restaurants is also gradually increasing.

The website below will help you find a vegetarian restaurant.

Compared to the US or Europe, the idea of ​​vegetarianism is not yet as well known in Japan, so it can be said that Japan is a difficult country for vegetarians to live or travel to. It is similar to the US as it was 30 years ago.

It is possible to continue being a vegetarian while you are traveling in Japan, but be very careful. You don’t have to carry heavy luggage filled with products from your country, try the local products – vegetarian, fresh and healthy. Please don’t be afraid to go to Japan just because it’s not the most vegetarian-friendly country.

Many Japanese don’t know much about vegetarianism. It makes sense to memorize two sentences in Japanese that mean “I don’t eat meat and fish” and “I don’t eat dashi”, this will help you eat deliciously and calmly. I hope you enjoy Japanese food and enjoy your trip to Japan.  

Yuko Tamura  


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