If you’re a vegetarian heading to Japan, you won’t be going for the Kobe beef or sashimi. But the food can still be just as much a highlight, says author Lydia Ruffles. Here's how...
While the word bejitarian (vegetarian) has a more flexible definition in Japanese than in some other languages, you might be surprised by the naturally vegetarian specialities on offer.
If you’re staying at shukubo (temple lodgings), be sure to try shojin ryori. This is traditional Buddhist cooking, prepared without any animal products. Dishes tend to be simple, seasonal – and delicious.
Look out for regional delicacies too. Ōwakudani, a volcanic valley in Hakone, offers both stunning views and the chance to try kuro-tamago. These black eggs are hard-boiled in hot springs and get their colour from the sulphur-rich water. It’s also said that eating one adds seven years to your life.
Further south in Osaka, ‘Japan’s kitchen’, try okonomiyaki. These cabbage-based pancakes are made to order so just ask for no meat or fish. Try things you wouldn’t at home; I was so taken with cooked maple leaves that they ended up in the novel I was there to research. For a caffeine kick, drink matcha – made from powdered green tea.
In addition to the celebrated springtime sakura (cherry blossom) and autumn koyo (colourful leaves), summer and winter also bring their special associations. And as the seasons change, so does the cuisine.
Try edamame or bitter melon in summer, shitake mushroom in autumn, daikon radish in winter, and bamboo shoots in spring. Note that the cost of fruit varies dramatically in Japan. It’s a popular gift and carefully cultivated fruit is sold as a luxury product. A pair of Yubari melons reportedly sold for ¥3 million (about £20,000) - an extreme example but check prices before committing.
Seasonal variations on snacks are popular. Previous limited edition treats include butter and cherry blossom inspired crisps to welcome spring and a carrot-flavoured Easter Kit-Kat. They won’t please everyone’s palette but they’re fun to try.
Many restaurants don’t have vegetarian options (meat-free is do-able, fish-free is far less typical). Additionally, requesting alterations to dishes is not common practice and will likely be met with confusion. There are also practical things that could get in the way of communicating, ranging from possible language barriers to the fact that in some ramen places your order will be taken by a machine.
Printing a translation of what you can’t eat is invaluable if you don’t speak Japanese. Make sure your request is specific and polite, and ask before you’re seated just in case they can’t cater for you.
A little research goes a long way. Apps such as 'Happy Cow' identify vegetarian and vegan restaurants in your area, some of which offer incredible meals. In Tokyo, I went back to Brown Rice more than once for the seasonal set menu.
If you prefer spontaneity, look for curry houses which offer stew-like vegetable dishes or try kushiage (fried things, including vegetables, on skewers) at an izakaya spot. Perhaps surprisingly, some sushi restaurants cater for vegetarians – try conveyer belt places where you can get a good look before ordering.
The other great news is that there’s a wealth of deserts and sweets to try, including mochi ice cream.
Many veggie-seeming Japanese dishes are made with fish stock, known as dashi, and fish flakes called bonito. Some vegetarians make exceptions when travelling and being flexible will make things easier. If, like me, you’re a strict vegetarian, or you’re allergic or intolerant, be sure to specify that you can’t eat dashi or bonito as part of your polite requests.
It’s also not unusual for a vegetarian dish to come with a tentacle or two as garnish, which can be a bit of a shock if you’re unaccustomed.
And don’t be like some tourists and mistake the intricate plastic food displays made to entice diners into restaurants as edible products.
Konbini – convenience stores – are on almost every corner in Japanese cities. Look out for Daily Yamazaki, 7-Eleven and Lawson to find your local one.
From boiled eggs and trays of veg to Japanese string cheese and rice balls, konbini offer good value and quick options.
They’re also a great place to pick up confectionary to bring home – wasabi-infused chocolates, anyone?