Vegetarian Touring Exploits: Japan

by Russell Lissack



I have the good fortune to live a life that allows me to travel around the world, attempting to entertain people.  I travel with three other people in the same line of work, and then a larger group of people who help behind the scenes to make sure that, amongst other things, guitars are plugged in and people are where they should be, when they should be, which is, sadly, a lot harder than it sounds.  Of all of these various people, I’m the only vegetarian in the group.  And when it comes to meal time, I am often left to fend for myself.

Depending on where I happen to be in the world, this has resulted in the discovery of some wonderful solo culinary experiences.  Or, more often than not, an empty belly.  I feel fortunate to live in the age of the internet, so as long as I have access to that, I usually have some measure of help.  But as useful as Googlemaps and its cohorts are, they can only get me to a vegetarian destination.  There are other barriers to overcome.  One is language. Another is culture. Here are two barriers already, and probably some others will come to me as I continue.  Especially because the first place I am taking you to, is Japan.

Japan is probably my favourite place in the world, thus far, and I have been lucky enough to travel there several times.  The only problem I  initially faced was eating, but what began as the most difficult place for me to find vegetarian supplies actually became my favourite destination for eating.

Language is obviously a big issue for most Western travelers in Japan, so I highly recommend a translation dictionary and some basic revision before arriving.  The majority of Japanese people are reluctant to speak English even if they have some knowledge of it, so learning a few keys phrases will get you a long way. The written language is another kettle of fish, and a lost cause for the average visitor (myself included) but, fortunately, most restaurants offer menus that have photographs of what’s available.  Some Tokyo City-Centre places also have English menus translated—to various degrees of comprehensibility.

One major problem, which I haven’t really solved yet, is that a lot of Japanese dishes involve soup, of which the stock is indeterminate.  More often than not they are fish based, so depending on your level of strictness, this may be a sacrifice you are, or are not, willing to make for a hot meal.

Sushi is obviously a famous, yet simple solution. Avocado, cucumber, egg, plus many other national varieties are available, and as its usually freshly made in front of you, you know exactly what you are getting here.

Convenience stores offer another good solution.  Here you can find, not only snacks such as sushi, but also a wide variety of instant noodle dishes that can be very helpful for a quick snack when you wish to avoid yet another confusing restaurant situation. The downside of these is that your purchase is based solely on the photograph on the packet. The upside, is you can see what you are about to eat once you open it (and you can remove the stocks if so desired), so you won’t get a fishy surprise at the bottom of your bowl!  I recommend the packet with the beancurd square on the front, but either way they are very cheap, so you can afford to gamble on a few at a time.

There are a few classic Western chains around too: McDonalds, Pizza Express, and Subway, for example, so if you are getting desperate, there’s always fast food to the rescue!  Although, this is not to say that I necessarily condone fast food.

To truly experience the amazing Japanese culinary experience I recommend: a guide.  Sorry, I know it’s cheating, but it really is the best way.  If you have any contacts, than this is the time to use them!  Due to the crazy nature of Japanese cities’ architecture and development, many, if not most restaurant locations are usually either underground or several stories up.  And the only way to know this is by reading the street signs, which of course you probably won’t be able to do.  So if a friend, or a friend of a friend, or any other tenuously linked acquaintance, is willing to join you for a meal: seize this opportunity!  Experiencing a traditional Japanese meal with a dining partner who can translate your needs is unparalleled.  

However you get around to them, there are some amazing vegetarian dishes available in Japan.  Some of the best in the world, I’d say, and I speak from experience.  You just may need a little help uncovering them.  And if you’re in need of a seasoned guide, just send me over a plane ticket and I’m on my way.

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