Japan is an island country in East Asia. Japanese cuisine is based on combining staple foods, typically Japanese rice or noodles, with a soup and okazu — dishes made from fish, vegetable, tofu and the like – to add flavor to the staple food. In the early modern era ingredients such as red meats or dairy that had previously not been widely used in Japan were introduced. Japanese cuisine is known for its emphasis on seasonality of food, quality of ingredients and presentation. Japanese cuisine offers a vast array of regional specialties that use traditional recipes and local ingredients.
Strictly vegetarian food is rare since even vegetable dishes are flavored with the ubiquitous dashi stock, usually made with katsuo (dried skipjack tuna), and are therefore pescetarian more often than carnivorous. An exception is shōjin-ryōri (精進料理), vegetarian dishes developed by Buddhist monks. However, the advertised shōjin-ryōri at public eating places may include some non-vegetarian elements.
In general, veganism does not have a large following in Japan, and many people do not know its exact meaning. When ordering food in a non-vegan place one has to make sure to clearly explain what ingredients should not be used. Simply asking for vegan or strictly vegetarian food can often lead to misunderstandings.
It is relatively easy to find vegan places in big cities, such as Tokyo, Osaka or Kyoto (check each city's page for a list of restaurants). Non-vegan restaurants (with the exception of Indian ones) usually have very poor selection of vegan dishes. It is almost impossible to find vegan food in cheap Japanese fast-food places that serve curry or ramen because curry has meat or lard in it, and ramen is made with fish stock. However, one can always try negotiating with the staff. Sometimes they take "vegan challenge" and agree to veganize some dishes.
Most Japanese supermarkets have a variety of basic staple foods suitable for vegans, such as beans, rice, fruits, vegetables, nuts, etc. One can also find whole sections dedicated to tofu, soy milk and natto (fermented soy beans). At least basic ability of reading Japanese is needed in order to buy something with an ingredient list and to be sure it is vegan. There are many cases when even simple rice crackers have fish sauce or something else non-vegan in them.
There is a chain of health food shops in many large cities called Natural House that sell organic products.
Things to try
Please double-check ingredients before buying things listed here. Some of them may have non-vegan variations.
- If you're looking for a quick snack, try Japanese "sandwich" onigiri (a ball of rice with a filling wrapped in a sheet of wakame seaweed). It can be bought in any convenience store. There are usually two versions of onigiri that have vegan filling – with konbu (a type of seaweed, look for こんぶ or 昆布), and with ume (pickled plums, written as うめ or 梅). There are also vegan onigiri made out of rice mixed with red azuki beans (no filling and no seaweed wrapping). If you want something more peculiar, try natto maki (look for 納豆) – a type of sushi that has natto (fermented beans) as its filling. They are usually sold near onigiri.
- Many supermarkets and convenience stores have ice cream made out of azuki beans or frozen juices. During the summer time street vendors also sell shaved ice kakigori flavoured with syrup. Finding soy ice cream is more difficult but some supermarkets have it in green tea, chocolate or vanilla flavour.
- Soy milk (tonyu, 豆乳) is very popular in Japan and comes in many different flavours (the most unusual ones are green tea, azuki beans, sesame seeds or sweet potato). The most popular brand is Kibun (紀文) that makes soy milk packed in convenient 200 ml tetra-paks.
Things to keep in mind
- Words "meat" or "fish" are often understood in Japan as big peaces of meat or fish. Therefore it is suggested to ask more specific questions, such as "do you use fish/meat stock", etc. when ordering food.
- Almost all miso soup contains fish stock or other animal products. Fish stock can be substituted by mushroom or seaweed stock, and some restaurants can do that when asked.
- Udon (wheat noodle) and soba (buckwheat noodle) places are ubiquitous and appear hopeful but the stock (dashi) almost always contains animal products. It is possible to request just plain noodles and add your own ginger, soy sauce, etc.
- Almost all tempura is fried in the same oil as animal products. Tempura batter may also contain egg.
- Traditional Japanese sweets are largely vegan, especially those made with mochi (sticky) rice and azuki beans paste. Also included are warabe mochi, made from a fern root, and kanten (a jelly made from seaweed gelatin). However, some sweets contain milt (the seminal fluid of fish) which is called shirako ir Japanese.
Japanese use Chinese characters (kanji) and their own two "kana" alphabets for writing. It can be very useful to learn at least the most common kanji that indicate non-vegan ingredients. For example, kanji for "meat" is 肉 and comes in combination with other kanji when indicating specific type of meat – 豚肉 for pork, 牛肉 for beef, etc. The tricky part is that sometimes kanji are written in kana. For example, word "katsuo" (the name of fish added to many foods) can be written as 鰹, かつお or カツオ. In general it's useful to learn katakana as it's used for transcribing foreign, mostly English, words. Once you know its 47 characters you'll understand most of the words written with them (e.g. gelatine – ゼラチン (zerachin), lard – ラード (rado), yoghurt – ヨーグルト (yoguruto), etc.)
buta niku or poku
gyu niku or byfu
tori niku or chikin
豚肉（ぶたにく） or ポーク
牛肉（ぎゅうにく） or ビーフ
Dried fish flakes
鰹だし（かつおだし or カツオだし)
|Shrimp, prawn||ebi||えび or エビ|
vei or hoei
ウェイ or ホエイ
- watashi wa veegan/bejitarian desu. ––– I'm vegan/vegetarian.
- _____ o taberaremasen. ––– I don't eat ______.
- kore wa veegan desu ka? ––– Is it vegan?
- kore wa ____ ga haitemasu ka? ––– Does it include _____ (e.g. meat, milk, etc.)?
- ____ ga arimasu ka? ––– Do you have ______?
- ____ nuki de dekimasu ka? ––– Can you make it without _____?
- Vegan Society of Japan
- List of vegan and vegetarian restaurants in Japan on Happycow
- Tokyo Vegetarian Guide
- Vegan Tokyo Meetup
- Vegan Japan Info
- Vege-navi restaurant guide
- Tokyo on Vegetarian-Restaurants.com