In a nation where Buddhism is one of the major religions, you would think that eating vegetarian, or even vegan, would be easy. It can be done, but not as easily as you think.
Buddhism and Meat
Buddhism itself does not require vegetarianism, and the Buddha himself ate meat.
The First Precept of Buddhism does not allow for the direct taking of life, and many Buddhists interpret that to disallow killing animals to eat, while others believe unless you slaughter the animal yourself, you are only indirectly responsible for the loss of life.
The meaning for us here is not wrapped in arguments of Buddhist philosophy, only practicality: simply assuming you’ll find food in Japan in line with your vegetarian, vegan or other beliefs is not necessarily a simple matter. Add in variations, such as “I eat eggs but not chicken,” and things get complicated quickly.
Shojin Ryori: Devotional Cooking
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There is in fact no Japanese word for “vegetarian” as we use it in the West; young people in Japan who adopt the Western concept simply use their own pronunciation of the English word. The most equivalent word in Japanese is shojin ryori, translated as “devotional cooking.” Shojin ryori is a set of dietary restrictions thought to help disciplines better understand the core teachings of Buddha.
The basics are that certain things, such as meat, are left out not because eating them is bad, but because you want to eat them and by denying yourself, you learn self-control. You don’t eat meat because you want to eat meat.
Strict shojin ryori doesn’t even kill plants. The food is almost entirely soy, tofu, seeds, fruits or leaf vegetables, using parts of plants harvested without killing the stem. This bans potatoes, onions, and carrots just as strictly as it does raw horse liver or spicy chicken wings. Foods which stimulate the senses unduly, such as certain spices, garlic, and booze are also left out.
The “Sort-of” Vegetarian Food In Japan
That’s the good news for most vegetarians and vegans. The bad news is that outside of temples in Kyoto and some specialized restaurants, pure shojin ryori just is not available. Get a specialized guidebook, and plan on finding most acceptable places in Kyoto. They tend not to be cheap eats, either.
Many temples take in overnight guests, and include a meal. Few, but some, will serve meals only. These are small operations, so reservations and/or flexibility are required. Having a Japanese friend make arrangements is a huge help. Most are in Kyoto, and are reasonably priced.
The Japanese Diet: The Conspiracy Of Fish
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What in the West are known as “vegetarian restaurants” are growing in popularity, so again a good guidebook is essential. Keep in mind that for many Japanese, “vegetarian” typically means no meat, which typically means no beef or pork and only sometimes means no chicken.
Trying to eat in Japan without fish is very, very difficult. Even if you bypass the obvious critters with fins and gills, many Japanese dishes use dashi, a kind of fish stock. It will appear in the sauces on tofu, in the broth under those soba noodles, in ramen, and so many other places. With anything liquid, soup or sauce, it is safe to assume dashi is probably in there.
Dashi is a conspiracy of fish. Sorry to say, but asking for “no dashi” is near-impossible. It is part of many dishes. Your best hope is asking for kombu dashi, a stock made from dried kelp or seaweed. But most places will not substitute one stock for the other; they either cook with one, or they cook with the other. You’ll have to ask.
Batters, such as for tempura or okonomiyaki, are made with eggs, if not also with dashi!
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How Can I Stay Vegetarian In Japan? (Part I)
Your first line of defense in an “ordinary” restaurant is to not ask for vegetarian food per se, but to mention what you do not eat and hope the server can point out menu items that fit. You can immediately see how language skills are going to play into that process, but, at least as a starting point, here are some basics:
How To Order Vegetarian Dishes In a Japanese Restaurant:
You might as well start with Watashi wa bejitarian desu (I am a vegetarian) and hope for the best.
You can then move on to _____ o tabemasen (I don’t eat _____)
Then stir into the _____ space gyuu-niku (beef), buta-niku (pork), tori-niku (chicken), sakana (fish), tamago (egg)
Katsuobushi nashi (Without the fish flakes common on tofu and salads)
Yasai dake (Vegetables only)
How Can I Stay A Vegetarian In Japan? (Part II)
It will make ordering harder, or you may need to order a set meal and pick and choose what to eat, but certain things are almost certain to have no meat and likely no fish in them. Examples include:
Easy To Find Veggie Food In Japan:
Pure, white, plain, tofu (no sauces)
Yasai Tempura (Vegetable tempura; meat is rarely a part of tempura and while shrimp is, it is easy to pick out)
Plain soba noodles. The sauce, which will contain dashi, comes on the side 99 percent of the time
At the sushi bar, the little cylinders with cucumber inside are just rice and the vegetable. The egg sushi is made with dashi
In the larger cities you will find Indian restaurants that serve vegetarian curries. The staff is likely quite attuned to people asking for no meat
Simple cheese pizza can also be found most places
Please, How Can I Stay A Vegetarian In Japan! (Panic Mode)
In any convenience store in Japan (but not most restaurants) you can find egg sandwiches on white bread. You can also find umeboshi no onigiri, simple rice balls with only a dried plum in the center. Sekihan no onigiri are bright pink rice balls and have no meat in them. Less common but still available is inarizushi, made with dashi, but nothing else except vinegared rice and vegetables in a little fried tofu pouch.
All are filling, of some nutritional value, cheap, and readily available when you can’t find better options.
Last Tip: If You Tolerate Dashi, Things Will Get Easier
If everything else fails, then you should submit to the conspiracy of fish. If you can tolerate dashi in your diet, then eating vegetarian in Japan is pretty easy, as well as tasty. The more specific your dietary choices, and the lower your language ability, the harder things get. Persons for whom a strict vegan diet is essential would do well to stick to Kyoto, and even then plan, plan, plan ahead!