An Herbivore Abroad: Vegan in Japan



You may be able to guess a few reasons as to why a fella like me would get a few strange looks when traveling through Japan. While my skin color might be my most obvious differentiating trait, I was part of an even bigger minority: the vegans. In a country obsessed with fish and eggs, you might think that a vegan would starve to death, but lucky for you, I survived to tell the tale.

Japan is truly one of the most pleasant, clean, and organized countries I’ve ever visited, which brought some real pleasure to my inner Monica. Public waste disposal (trash cans, recycling, etc.) is a thing of the past and people are responsible for collecting their own trash and taking it home with them at the end of the day. Great for the environment, mildly annoying for travelers.

So, how does one navigate this beautiful, historic land of seafood and unagi (eel) pies while maintaining a vegan diet or limiting their intake of animal products? Why, I’m so glad you asked!

Homestay mom or paparazzi? You decide.
Don’t be afraid of rice

Savor the simplest, most delicious, and stickiest rice you’ll ever have. Sure, you might be constipated for the first week of your trip as a result, but trust me, after you get over that hump, your digestion will be the most regular it’s ever been.

Embrace your inner soy fiend

I know that people have lots of different opinions about soy and its estrogen content. (Pro tip: it won’t change your voice or make you spontaneously begin lactating.) Soy comes in so many different varieties that one thing you certainly won’t be is bored. We’re talking tofu, edamame, soy sauce/tamari, tempeh, miso soup, natto, and the list could go on. I never thought I’d enjoy or even look forward to eating a block of plain tofu for a meal, but with the right texture and toppings, you’ll definitely be asking for seconds.

Nothing like surprising homestay fam with a little home-cooked meal
Beware the fish!

Fish sauce (or dashi) is e v e r y w h e r e. The Japanese really can’t get enough of this stuff, but I guess I can’t blame them. When you’re on an island, you’ve got to make use of the resources around you! But there are absolutely ways to avoid fish if that’s how you roll. Red flags include unknown sauces/broths, mysterious crunchy bits on top of your food (usually fish flakes), and pretty much all crackers.

Don’t ask for a fork!

Chopsticks are the shit and you’ll be so proud of yourself for taking the time to learn how to use them properly. Not to mention, your friends are totally going to love how much you show them off once you return home. Chopsticks force you to eat slowly and mindfully to avoid the tummy upset that comes with shoveling food into your mouth to cure the hangry.

Adorable Japanese Starbucks being adorable
Save room for dessert

Japanese desserts are incredibly simple and satisfying, and many are vegan-friendly! My personal favs include flavored shave ice (matcha is the best) and anything made with red bean paste (don’t knock it till you try it).

Emphasis on the "save room"
Perfect Japanese cake being perfect
Get creative!

As with any place on Earth, not every restaurant or grocery store will be the most veggie-friendly. When you find yourself out with friends who insist on not checking to see how the menu will suit you, try taking a tapas approach! Order lots of small side dishes, which are usually much easier to come by, and try some fun flavor/food group combination. Also, interestingly enough, Indian food is super popular in Japan. So, if it’s ever up to you to decide on a restaurant, Indian food is incredibly accessible to people with varied diets!

Slurp that soup, honey!

Udon & soba noodles are the bomb, and paired with a nice vegetable broth, you really can’t go wrong. One of my favorite things about Japanese culture is that soup-slurping is completely embraced, unlike most places where it’s considered straight up rude. This definitely took some getting used to, but once you let out your inner child, there is nothing more freeing than making a scene with some noodles. Just mind your manners upon returning home.

My friend Jacalyn had the amazing idea to make little cards in Japanese that outline all of her dietary restrictions! I highly recommend doing this, and there are even some pre-made templates floating around the Internet.
Stock up on snacks at the convenience store

You might be a little sketched out by this idea, but convenience stores in Japan are actually pretty dope. They’re full of little goodies and takeaway meals, many of which are made fresh daily. Look out for some onigiri (rice balls), inari (rice wrapped in baked tofu), and dried fruit or edamame. Keep your eyes peeled for your local Lawson, FamilyMart, or 7/11 throughout your travels and be sure to get more than you think you need, just in case! (Hint hint: 7/11 has really good free WiFi.)

I know this isn't about food, but Japan has the most beautiful theaters on the face of the Earth, end of story.

There is a reason why it’s not uncommon to lose a few pounds while traveling through Japan. The food there is beautifully simple and incredibly filling without much nonsense added.

If you’ve ever been, please leave some of your own experiences and suggestions in the comments!

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