The Urban Housewife
24Nov/09

Vegan in Japan; a Survival Guide!

As I proved in my last three posts, it's a myth that it's impossible to be vegan in Japan. It seems like it's a rumor that's been going around for ages & while things have certainly gotten easier with the booming macrobiotic scene, Buddhist cuisine, or Shojin Ryori is animal free cooking that has been going for thousands of years. It's not a foreign concept that foods would be vegan in a culture where dairy is rarely used, although the word vegan is still very much unknown in Japan. Subway ThugSo, while it's certainly possible to be vegan in Japan, it's not like in other countries where you can let them know you're vegan & they'll whip something up.

Common mistakes vegetarians make in Japan are with things that are normally veg-friendly, but in Japan are not. Soups contain fish stock, potato chips can have chicken or beef powder on them, soy sauce can contain fish, soy milk contains animal derived calcium, & bonito (fish) flakes run rampant & show up on things as simple as white rice. My recommendation is to seek out places that are aware of veganism, but honestly, this can add up financially. Still, there are many options out there, so here's a guide to tricks & treats in Japan.

Getting around! First of all, you NEED a Tokyo City Atlas. These guides not only help you navigate the confusing & nonsequencial addressing system in Japan, but it also has maps of the railways & transit options. Another thing I strongly suggest is a Japan Rail Pass, which may seem expensive, but will cover all of your travel from to & from the airport, rides all over the country on the Shinkansen, & travel within Tokyo. Rose Hip & Ebisu Pumpkin from Doughnut Plant NYC in Tokyo!It pays for itself quickly if you visit places outside Tokyo. Next, I recommend picking up the Japan Vegan Restaurant Pocketguide. We bought ours in the Shinjuku Kinokuniya bookstore, but you may want to purchase yours in advance. While we had a lot of mishaps with this guide, like unclear hours of operation & places no longer existing, ultimately, it was a useful. Another item you may want is the Vegan Passport, which can be used to explain veganism all around the world. Now, on to the food!

Soy Milk Bun from Doughnut Plant NYC in Tokyo!An amazing thing we found out from the Wandering Vegans that made us jump for joy was Japan has Vegan Doughnuts! New York City staple Doughnut Plant NYC has been making egg-free doughnuts 1994, using a 1910 recipe from the owner's Grandfather, but unfortunately, their doughnuts in the States are not vegan. At their Japanese branches however, many of which are located in train stations, the special of the season was Soy Milk Doughnuts! The options available to us were Rose Hip & Ebisu Pumpkin. Both were slightly chewier & heartier than traditional doughnuts, but still fluffy & fabulous! The Rose Hip was covered in sweet, pink frosting that reminded me of a Simpsons pink doughnut, while the Pumpkin was well spiced & our favorite of the two. We had also heard there was a Soy Milk Cinnamon Bun & on our last day, we tracked it down! Thick & chewy with not only a thin glaze, but a thick sugary coating as well, this bready bun was lightly spiced with walnuts & raisins rolled up in to it. Now if only we can get the NYC locations to carry the soy milk options! Letter writing powers, activate!Onigiri & a Natto Roll

Convenience Stores or "konbini" are everywhere in Japan; 7 Eleven, AM PM, Family Mart, Lawson, they're on every corner. The good thing is they have a fair amount of options for vegans. One such option is sushi, with the most common variety being the rice filled tofu pockets called Inari. You'll find these at every konbini, as well as a small selection of other rolls like Natto (fermented soybean) rolls & cucumber rolls. Beware, the soy sauce packets could contain fish, so you may want to buy your own soy sauce to be sure. Another common option is Onigiri, a triangle or oval of white rice with a filling, wrapped in nori. Many onigiri contain fish, but there are also options like Umeboshi & Kombu. Once again, these can contain "katsuobushi" or bonito fish flakes, but my photos contain a type I know is safe, do your research or attempt to ask a clerk about other brands.

Senbei Crackers & Calbee Veggie ChipsOn the crunchy side of things, there's a few snacks vegans can partake in, but buyer beware, most chips have animal based ingredients in them! Calbee produces two options, their plain potato chips being the only vegan potato chips in Japan, & their Veggie flavored chips. Tohato has "Potato Ring Snack", which are little rings of potato, but make sure you get the white bag, as the others contain chicken. Rice Crackers or Senbei are another option which you'll find many places, but many contain fish! Oh, it never ends, right? Please check out my photos to see the actual bags of these items, so you know what they look like. We carried print outs or digital versions on our phones of items we knew were safe. Trust me, you won't be reading packages!Chestnut & Sweet Potato Soy Milk

To quench your thirst, there's refreshing green tea or beer from the many vending machines, of course, but there's also soy milk available in shops! Some soy milk contains oyster calcium, so stick to the brand pictured for a tasty range of flavors. I believe we tried all of the flavors, which were Vanilla, Chocolate, Banana, Strawberry, Matcha, & seasonal options; Sweet Potato & Chestnut! We enjoyed them all, especially the seasonal flavors, plus the strawberry & banana tasted like Quik mix or other powdered drinks from your childhood. These little soy milk boxes are readily available in most shops, so drink up!Kracie Soy Ice Cream

Typically, when it comes to sweets, not many options are available in a corner mart, but you'll find a few to enjoy in Japan! My favorite treat was actually from Seiyu Supermarket, but supposedly it's available in some corner stores as well (although none I went in). Kracie makes an amazingly creamy & delicious soy ice cream that comes in Vanilla, Chocolate, Strawberry, & Matcha (Green Tea). Gari Gari Kun PopsiclesIt reminded me of those little cups of vanilla ice cream with chocolate swirl that you would eat in elementary school on special occasions! Another option is a Yuzu Lemon Sorbet that is available in some Family Mart locations, a bit icy, but still tangy & lovely. You must look for the specific brand pictured, as most sorbets in Japan have milk in them. Finally, we found ourselves hooked on these crazy Gari Gari Kun popsicles that are available in every convenience mart! They come in a few flavors like Soda, Cola, Orange, & Muscat grape, & seem to have a hard outer layer with an icy center. The blue icy pop, "Soda" was by far our favorite & I even bought myself a Gari Gari Kun pen at Tokyu Hands to pledge my love for the man with the giant mouth on the outside of the wrapper!

Chestnut DaifukuOne more treat you'll find all over Japan is Daifuku, or Mochi. Sweets shop around tourist areas & markets, or even convenience marts will have these glutenous rice balls filled with various sweetened smooth fillings. The most common flavor we saw was Azuki, aka red bean paste, but we were also happy to find Chestnut paste filled. We tried one with whole red beans in it & I have to say, I don't recommend it! The beans were slightly firm & chalky, distracting from the smooth paste in the center. Kittee told me to look for Ichigo Daifuku, which has a strawberry in the middle, but they must have been out of season by the time we were there.Kinpira Burger from Mos Burger

Finally, there is a fast & easy option you can find all over Japan when you're in a pinch or if you just want to eat on the cheap, MOS Burger. A fast food burger joint, like those in America, MOS Burger has an English menu with photos & one standard vegan option, a Kinpira Burger. Bascially, the Kinpira burger is two rice patty buns, filled with a sheet of nori, plus pickled burdock & carrot pieces with sesame seeds. It's small, tasty, & will hit the spot! Those with big appetites, may want to order two. We ate at MOS Burger in Nara, when we found out the other two veg-friendly options in town were closed for the day. It's great to have an option when Plan A isn't available!

We adored Japan & while we had a few moment of frustration when it came to food, We love Kinkaku-ji!it was typically because a restaurant we had planned to eat at was closed, not because we lacked options in moment of hunger. With a bit of planning, veganism in Japan is not difficult, so get out there & explore! Don't forget to to go my Flickr account for a complete visual guide to Japanese Vegan food. I leave you with a photo of Ryan & I at Kinkaku-ji in Kyoto. When we went to Japan for our honeymoon in 2004, I was struck by how amazing the Golden Pavilion was, & when I started working on my tattoo sleeve, I knew Kinkaku-ji had to be included. While it's not yet finished, in the photo you can see my Golden Pavilion tattoo on my upper arm, right next to the actual place! I think it's pretty clear, I love Japan!

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Comments (811) Trackbacks (36)
  1. Hey, good post. :) I’m a vegan in Japan and have today found the Doughnut Plant Soy Things (thus my google search through which I stumbled over your site).
    One thing that you might need to know though, is that the rice burger at Mos Burger, unfortunately is not vegan :( According to a reply from Mos Burger that I found on a blog, they use both fish extract as well as Oyster Sauce in them. I’m not sure if it’s 100% reliable, but it is very likely that it’s not vegan ;; I was very sad to find out too, since it’s hard to find fast food places here that my friends go to where I can join them. The Happy Cow guide has lots of great vegan places though! Are you sure that the senbei on your picture don’t contain animal extract of some sort? I think those are on my not good list (the ones in the green bag, vegetable taste, don’t contain any though, I know that for sure, as they are on my fav list :) !
    Sad to see your guest book spammed up btw ; ;

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  25. This is great. But it really only considers how easy it is to be vegan in the big cities of Japan. I have been living in Japan for 1 year. But I am far from any big city. My town is “famous” for being the furthest traveling distance from Tokyo and I am 3.5 hours away from the big city. We call this the いなか Inaka (countryside). Rural Japan is nothing like rural America or pretty much rural anywhere. It’s a scary opposite to the life lead in those bigger cities. It’s hard to believe that the two exist in the same country or even century. In the inaka, there are no luxuries afford vegans and the chain stores are inconsistent. So you can go to the kobini and hope they haven’t sold out of the inari but chances are they have. Peanuts are the next best option because most of the rice balls, yes even the plain ones contain fish. But regardless of that white rice has no nutritional content what so ever, you’ll get more out of a dough nut. Basically, what I am saying is IT”S REALLY FU(KING HARD TO LIVE and NOT JUST TRAVEL JAPAN AS A VEGAN. But it’s not impossible. I’ve made it work. You order a sht ton of products offline. And you go into the city and stock up on whatever you can find in whatever hidden gem or foreign food store there might be. Yes, it’s 3.5 hours away, who cares? On the weekend you just want to get the hell out of here anyways! My point is that vegan in the big cities of Japan is EASY. WAY easy. And this misconception needs to stop. But living here, baking bread unconventionally because there are no ovens takes time to figure out. Life is lived off of cooking from scratch. I’ve learned a lot. Cooking has become a way to fill some of the boring countryside time. It can be exhausting and it’s always expensive. But everything, even my butter is made at home. Although, I will say I just found a product in the big city (score)! After living here for six months, I was finally able to find a vegan friendly restaurant. It took much work and a lot of help from friends with fluent Japanese. Information on Japan is just not easy to find in english online. I am so glad someone else is trying to debunk the myths. It is no where near easy to be vegan in Japan (of the products you have listed only the soy milk exists in my town/neighboring towns). If I can live in the inaka of Japan for 1 year (possibly 2) as a vegan and not break (I would rather go home, my beliefs are my beliefs), then anyone can travel this country and eat well here. I’ll post this to my blog in a few hours. :)


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