Today is World Vegetarian Day, so if you are not one for biting on burgers, chewing on a kebab or stuffing down the sushi, what are the options for vegetarians in Japan?
Well, the picture is mixed, but overall with the boom in health food stores and organic food over the last few years, things have improved considerably for the dedicated herbivore.
First of all let"s define our terms, there are all sorts of "vegetarians", just as there are all sorts of "meat-eaters". Food fads are changing all the time. I knew a guy in London who changed from strict vegetarianism to eating only offal, you know the stuff: the hearts, kidneys, eyes, brains, testicles and livers of a variety of dead animals. He claimed he'd never felt better. Another "meat-eater" of my acquaintance won't touch beef (BSE mad cow risk) or lamb (scrapie) but has no quarms at all in scoffing down raw chicken (Bird Flu, anyone?).
So, if you are "demi-veg", that is, do eat diary products, fish, eggs but no meat then Japan is a cornucopia of food choices and you can pass on all that nasty evil-smelling ramen ラーメン and yaki-niku 焼肉.
There are some slight pitfalls, however, as in Japan, ham is considered a vegetable and no amount of 私は菜食主義者です (watashi wa saishokushugisha desu, I am a vegetarian) will convince the waitress in a small-town coffee shop to take back your vegetable sandwich with some lovely boiled ham in it. Ham is a vegetable, okay? Just take a deep breath, take it out of your 野菜サンド（yasai sando, vegetable sandwich), put it at the side of your plate and get on with it.
Now, if you consider yourself a "real vegetarian" problems can start to stack up. For a start you are denied all that lovely sushi and even the things that look vegetarian, like miso soup, udon and soba buckwheat noodles, with lashings of seaweed, chopped onions and fried tofu, turn out to be minefields for your conscience as they contain a key-ingredient of Japanese cooking - dashi or fish stock. There is a vegetarian alternative, in dashi made from konbu (seaweed), but its rare except in vegetarian restaurants. You're in a pickle, quite literally, as the side dish of tsukemono (salted pickles) is all you can nosh.
So if you are eating out, what to do? One of the fathers of modern vegetarianism, Mahatma Gandhi nearly died of starvation in his first weeks of student life in London, as all his landlady offered him was bread and dripping. Staggering, emaciated through the streets of London he eventually came upon an Indian restaurant near Holborn.
Finding Indian restaurants and indeed specialist vegetarian and macrobiotic restaurants in the major Japanese cities is now not such a difficult task as the young Gandhi faced in Britain over a 100 years ago. But hey, you can't eat out every night unless you're a Tokyo stockbroker - so you are going to have to eat at home and learn to cook. The mantra is "Cooking is reading" - get some good vegetarian cookery books, a few utensils and you're sorted.
However, you will get the odd invitation to dine out and then you have to "come out" and tell all your friends or language students that you are a "vegetarian" - and like to chow down on carrots, cabbage and cauliflower as well as your new found Japanese food friends tofu, renkon (lotus root) and gobo (burdock). They will look at you with sorrowful eyes as if you have some sort of disease and encourage you to tuck in to the shabu-shabu and try the ham salad. Of course, you end up getting completely drunk during the meal as you have nothing to line your stomach as you feebly pick at the nabe stew, pulling out only the occasional tiny mushroom to chew on.
All is not lost though, Japan does have a long tradition of vegetarian cuisine, however, called 精進料理 (shojin ryori) brought to Japan from 'more enlightened' India and China to Buddhist temples. Kyoto is a noted center of vegetarian Buddhist grub both in restaurants near temples, temples themselves and restaurants set up in temple grounds. The Zen temples of Daitokuji and Nanzenji are the places to head for 普茶料理 (fucharyori) - a multi-course meal which traditionally followed the tea ceremony and contains a lot of yuba (dried soya curd) and fu (wheat gluten). shojin ryouri and fucharyori can also be found in Tokyo, it's expensive but well-worth the outlay.
Finally on to vegans, the shock troops of the "Meat is Murder" campaign (they're right, it is!), who will have to stay off the cheese, milk and other diary products. Well, cheese is expensive in Japan and there is a good substitute for cow's milk in 豆乳 (tounyu soya milk), which you can buy at the supermarket or sometimes collect from a traditional tofu maker if you take along a bottle.
Another reason for avoiding cow's milk, besides the fact that it contains 10% pus from the ulcerating udders of diary cows, is that it can actually kill you. Snow Brand, Japan's biggest diary producer, had to recall millions of gallons of its milk after a food-poisoning scandal in 2000. Yukijirushi milk was subsequently rebranded as Megmilk - avoid it - as the company has not learned its lesson and two years later was caught altering the expiry dates on its butter.
Anyway, back to the planet Vegan, whose inhabitants can take heart from the history of macrobiotics which grew up in Japan from the end of the 19th century following the work of Sagen Ishizuka, a Japanese army doctor in Tokyo, and his disciple George Ohsawa in Kyoto. The movement, which promoted a diet of mostly locally-grown cooked whole grains and seasonal vegetables as daily staples has gained more followers abroad than in its country of origin but it shows the spirit of food faddism and dietary regimen is no mere morsel in the food consciousness of Japan.
Books on Japanese Food
The Enlightened Kitchen - Buy this book from Amazon
Other useful links for vegetarians in Japan
Tokyo Vegetarian Restaurant Listing
Know a good vegetarian restaurant, let us know
Saturday, October 01, 2005