Vegetarian Survival Guide to Japan

October 23, 2017 - Comment

The One Bag Traveler recommends Gear, Destinations and Adventures. Being a vegetarian in Japan can be difficult, but with some effort and pre-planning it can also be very rewarding. Although we despaired at times of finding a veggie-friendly meal, we also had some of the most unusual and delicious meals we have ever eaten. We

The One Bag Traveler recommends Gear, Destinations and Adventures.

Vegetarian ramen at Afuri, Tokyo

Being a vegetarian in Japan can be difficult, but with some effort and pre-planning it can also be very rewarding. Although we despaired at times of finding a veggie-friendly meal, we also had some of the most unusual and delicious meals we have ever eaten. We loved the foodie culture in Japan and found the food to be high quality, beautifully presented, and healthy.

In 2017 we returned to Japan and found that the situation for vegetarians has improved since 2011. There are now more vegetarian restaurants as well as traditional Japanese restaurants offering vegetarian options (with handy English menus). I have updated this guide (originally published in January 2012) based on our experiences.  

Here are our tips for surviving Japan as a vegetarian:

Contents

Tips for Vegetarians in Japan

Learn Some Japanese

Simon translating a Japanese menu

Simon trying to translate a Japanese menu in 2011. Now we have Google Translate—so much easier.

Not many Japanese people speak English (although this is improving) and learning a few phrases is essential to making your needs as a vegetarian understood. Don’t be too worried though – although learning to read Kanji takes a lot of time, the spoken language is easier to pick up that I expected. I used the Pimsleur Japanese audio course

You could try telling people that you are vegetarian (“Watashi wa bejitarian des”) but they probably won’t understand exactly what this means. It is better to be clearer and instead say “watashi wa niku toh sakana wo taberarimasen” which means I don’t eat meat or fish. We found this phrase very useful and successfully used it in restaurants to get a vegetarian meal.“Taberarimasen” means “I don’t eat” so you can add any word in front of that.

A few other useful words and phrases:

yasai – vegetables
tamago – egg
katsuobushi nashi de onegai shimas – without bonito (fish) flakes please
…arimas ka? – do you have…?
nan des ka? – what is it?
oishikatta des – that was delicious. This always made people smile.
arigato gozaimas – thank you
sumimasen – excuse me

Print a Vegetarian or Vegan Card

On our second visit to Japan we found it was much easier to explain what we couldn’t eat by showing restaurant staff a card we’d printed from Just Hungry—they have options for a variety of dietary requirements. We used the vegetarian card that said we couldn’t eat meat, fish or dashi (fish stock) and it saved us from dashi a number of times (this was always the hardest thing to explain verbally). 

Vegetarian ryokan dinner at Hotel Musashiya, Hakone

Our vegetarian feast at Hotel Musashiya in Hakone. Ryokans are often great places for veggie meals if you explain your requirements.

Buy a Japanese Data SIM Card

I highly recommend taking an unlocked phone to Japan and buying a data SIM card when you arrive. We bought one from the Umobile vending machine at Tokyo Narita airport. Being connected will make it easier to find vegetarian restaurants using Google Maps and Happy Cow and it also allows you to use Google Translate.

Use Google Translate

Packaging in convenience stores is almost entirely written in Japanese so it’s difficult to know the ingredients of a snack or rice ball. We used Google Translate’s image feature to translate ingredient lists on packaging just by pointing our phone’s camera lens at it and pressing the camera icon in the app.

The instant translate view doesn’t always work, so for a more accurate translation take a photo of the packet and highlight with your finger the text you want to be translated. This works for restaurant menus too, although we found most places we visited had English menus. 

Be Flexible

It is often possible to find meals without meat or fish in them, or at least the restaurants are willing to adapt meals for you, but the biggest problem is that fish stock or dashi is used in many dishes. Soups and noodles in broth in non-vegetarian restaurants will definitely contain it, and you’ll need to decide whether this bothers you or not.

We tried to avoid dashi as much as possible but there were times when we didn’t have much choice so decided to be flexible about it. I have heard that it is possible to ask for noodles or soup to be made with just miso instead, but we found communicating this to be difficult.

If you want to completely avoid fish stock, it’s best to eat in only vegetarian restaurants but this will limit the destinations you can visit in Japan. In Kyoto or Tokyo this isn’t a problem, but in smaller towns it will be much more difficult.

Plan Ahead

Vegetarian hoba miso at Sukuya in Takayama

Vegetarian version of local speciality hoba miso at Sukuya in Takayama

Although you could use the recommended phrase or vegetarian card above and turn up in any Japanese restaurant and hope you get a meal, we found it much more enjoyable to eat stress (and dashi) free at vegetarian restaurants or Japanese places with vegetarian menus. So do some…

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