Being a keen traveller and vegan for 10 years now, I’ve heard it said many a time that one of the most difficult places to travel vegan is Japan. The general consensus has been that Japan is something of a vegan wasteland, notoriously difficult to find anything to eat, expensive, and you’ll pretty much starve and have a miserable ol’ time. I’m glad I didn’t listen.
Like Australia, Japan has also had a surge of plant-based options in recent years. But also like home, it’s the big cities that have most of the options while rural towns are slower to catch up. Obviously, if you’re fluent in the language and confident in talking to people, you’re going to have a much easier time in sourcing vegan food at non-vegan places. Be warned though, veganism is still a relatively new concept and the definition of vegetarian seems to include fish in most places (dashi, a fish broth, is in many “vegetarian” savoury foods).
Crispy chick’n burger, cheeseburger and cheese fries from Ripple in Shinjuku, Tokyo.
I’m more reserved when it comes to going to non-vegan places and asking what can be made vegan, especially in a foreign country with a language I have little knowledge of. I know a lot of ballsy vegans that will happily waltz into any restaurant and define what vegan is and ask what they can offer, but I’m a wuss when it comes to these things. I met a couple of vegan travellers who were asked (nicely) to leave certain places because they refused to cater for them. Hence this list is written from my perspective of “terrified of eating non-vegan, also terrified of confrontation and rejection, bad at Japanese”. Enjoy!
1. Download the Happycow app
If I only had one tip to give, it would be this one. I thought that we’d be right just using the Happycow website and picking restaurants before we headed out, but the app really is great. It uses your location and sorts vegan or veg-friendly restaurants, cafes and stores by proximity. If you’re not familiar with the website, users can leave ratings and reviews of restaurants, and it’s very handy to read what other patrons have to say before you go. Totally worth the price of $5.99! It is available for both iPhone via iTunes and for Android via Google play.
After a long day walking around and ending up somewhere we didn’t expect, it was great to use it to quickly find places to eat nearby. Or realise there was nothing nearby and hightail it out of there. It does need an internet connection to work, which brings me to my next point.
2. Have access to wifi
Many cafes and subway stations have free wifi, as well as you can sign up with the free Travel Japan app to gain access to wifi hotspots at locations all around the country. You can also organise to have a Japanese sim card sent to your hotel before your arrival or buy one while there (though you’d probably want to be pretty confident in your language skills if you were going to try swing this option).
The best option for consistent wifi, which is useful for the above Happycow app and googling ingredients and translations, is to stay somewhere which has free portable wifi. All the airbnbs we picked had free “pocket” wifi, a rechargeable and portable wifi modem you can take with you wherever you go. I’d say having it or not is the deal breaker if picking between two places.
3. Stay in Airbnbs
Airbnbs are great for everyone as they are generally cheaper, more homely and more characteristic but for the vegan travelling in Japan they really are the best option. As above, having pocket wifi (which many airbnbs in Japan have) is invaluable to find vegan options nearby but also having a kitchen is so handy. Eating out three meals a day if you’re trying to navigate to vegan-friendly places gets expensive and eats up precious time in your day. Not many places are open for breakfast, so I’d recommend stocking up at a grocery store and trying to at least have breakfast at homebase.
If you’re going to treat yourself to a hotel, I’d probably do it in one of the big cities, e.g. Kyoto or Tokyo, where there are more vegan options available. I’d definitely stay at airbnbs with kitchen access if possible in smaller cities and towns.
4. Make up a food kit
If you’re staying in several places with kitchen access, hit the supermarket in your first couple of stays and stock up on mini bottles of soy sauce, sesame oil, olive oil, salt, pepper and garlic. There is no english labelling in your typical supermarket but these key ingredients for any decent stirfry are pretty easy to identify. This might seem like a weird tip but being able to quickly pop to the convenience store, buy a couple of veggies and toss together a stirfry was a lifesaver more than once when we were staying in smaller towns.
5. Bring snacks
This one is more applicable if you’re only travelling for a couple of weeks but if that applies to you: bring enough clif/granola/muesli/nut/trail bars for one a day per person! My boyfriend thought I was a little mental packing 30+ muesli bars of various types in the bag before we left, but they really don’t take up much space and vegan-friendly supermarket snacks are a bit tricky to find. Packets of plain roasted nuts are pretty common in Japanese convenience stores, but sometimes you need something a little extra.
6. Translate ingredient lists
Don’t get by assuming because a product is always vegan at home, it’s vegan in Japan. I translated the ingredients of a whole bunch of innocent-looking products only to find things like pork lard (plain salted crisps), anchovy paste (steamed pumpkin), crab extract (sesame dressing) and the seemingly ever-lurking dashi/bonito (almost everything ever). Get an app that translates Japanese from a photo, like the free Google translate. The future is here!
7. Learn the language basics
It goes without saying, but learning some useful phrases in the language will be so helpful, your usual hello/goodbye/thank you but also how to order food and some key food words. Growing up in the region, I’ve ticked off almost every country in South-east and I found Japan to be the country where the least English is spoken. Which is great, but also means it’s harder to get away with being a lazy traveller. Also great. And rather than just communicating which foods I can and can’t eat, I wish I had learned more Japanese before going because so many people were so friendly and I would have loved to have conversed with them further. Free language apps are common, we used Learn Japanese which had some good basic phrases.
8. Take “I am vegan” cards
For those travelling with non-vegans especially (who might get sick of going the extra mile to a vegan-friendly joint) a nicely laminated card with written Japanese of what you don’t eat to present to the restaurant host will come in very handy. Learning how to say all the ingredients you avoid is great as well, but if you’re not confident in Japanese this is handy for the host to take into the kitchen if anyone back there needs clarification of what you’re on about. Free cards can be printed from this handy website here (scroll down for vegan card).
9. Do your research
If you’re super food obsessed like me, find the popular vegan hub in the area and stay nearby! If you’re jumping around to lots of different cities, make sure you get a Japan Rail Pass before you go as it’s only available outside of Japan. Become familiar with all the many online resources for vegans in Japan – vegan groceries, vegan restaurants and join the Facebook groups like Tokyo Vegan/vegetarian friends.
10. Be vocal in your support for vegan options at non-vegan places
This is sort of a pay-it-forward for future vegan travellers. I operate in the same mindset at home, if you’ve gone to an omnivorous restaurant that offers vegan options, let them know they got your money because of the choices available! Letting restaurants know that veganism is quickly catching on and your choice wasn’t coincidence shows there’s a demand and makes it clear it’s a good business move to cater for vegans.