Friday, 19 July 2013

Vegan Survival in Japan

Updated March, 2020, amid the COVID-19 outbreak.


It's becoming easier and easier to be vegan in Japan, but sometimes a vegan meal cannot be found, especially outside the main city centres. Here's a guide to how to survive in Japan when there are no vegan restaurants around or you just don't can't make it to one.

Convenience Stores

Since they can be found all over Japan, I'll start with convenience stores. I'll cover some common options and common traps, but this site on vegan products in Japan is much more comprehensive than what I have here. If you would like to know if a product is vegan, please feel free to post a photo to the IsitVeganJapan Facebook group.

Macrobiotic Cookies

These macrobiotic snacks at many convenience stores all over Japan. In my experience, Lawsons are the most reliable for finding them. I like the chocolate brownie the most, and it's also the most commonly available, and is even sold at some small convenience stores inside train stations. Flavours change from time to time, but they have been available for several years and have always been vegan, so I don't expect that to change, especially with the rapidly growing vegan market. 

The whole range of these macrobiotic cookies are all vegan.


Other Vegan Options Available at Most Convenience Stores


As good as it usually gets from a konbini (convenience store): a black coffee, soymilk (mix for a latte), a plain rice ball and edamame (soybeans).

Edamame (triangular packet above) are just whole soybeans (in their pods) cooked in vegetable oil, with added salt. Black coffee is of course vegan, and the soymilk shown above is vegan, and can be mixed to make a latte. You'll find better coffee at Starbucks and Tully's, but this is as good as it usually gets in the inaka (countryside) when it comes to coffee. The plain rice onigiri (rice ball, shown in the photo above) is vegan because it just contains rice and salt.

Soyjoy Crispy bars are vegan, however the regular (not crispy) ones contain egg.

Only the Crispy Series are vegan. Others contain egg. 

Convenience Store Items Which are Usually Not Vegan but Look Like They Are

There is currently talk of a new labelling system will be introduced to Japan ahead of the Tokyo Olympics (if they still happen with the COVID-19 outbreak) which will encourage manufacturers to specify whether or not their products are vegan. But unfortunately virtually all products at convenience stores contain animal products or ingredients which may or may not be from animals. The worst offender is amino acids, which are probably just synthetic flavourings (most likely MSG) but they could also be derived from fish. I suggest never assuming something is vegan unless you can read and translate all the ingredients.


Many vegans mistakenly assume inari sushi (rice in tofu pockets, shown immediately below) are vegan; however, most contain fish stock or other animal-derived ingredients in the rice mixture, and some even contain tiny pieces of meat. As of March 2020 I am unaware of any vegan inari sushi available at convenience stores in Japan.

These Inari Sushi are safely vegan, because they're from Taiwan. But most in Japan probably aren't, despite popular belief to the contrary. Some contain meat and most contain stocks or suspect amino acids.

Sometimes vegan onigiri (triangular rice pockets) come and go, but most contain fish derivatives or unknown amino acids (which may be derived from fish -- see above).

Breads from convenience stores always contain dairy and/or egg.

Most convenience stores sell bags of nuts, but watch out for small fish in them (I'm not joking). Some are cooked in butter oil (shown below); to further complicate it, some "butter peanuts" are actually cooked in vegetable oil, with the 'butter' just being a name.

Never Be Too Careful: it didn't occur to me to check the ingredients of these peanuts, which are cooked in butter oil (バターオイル)  and even have a red warning that they contain dairy products.


Tofu

Tofu is usually but not always vegan. If it's set with nigari (にがり, traditional, vegan) it should be vegan, but some (usually cheaper) tofu is set with glycerine (グリセリン), which may be animal-derived.

Fried Potatoes (Chips, French Fries)

Chips (French Fries), known as 'Fried Potato' in Japan, are sold all over the country, including in many convenience stores. Most ones for sale in supermarkets don't contain any animal ingredients (they are generally just potato and a cheap oil) and, according to their allergen charts, 7-11 ones do not contain beef, chicken, pork, fish, dairy or egg, so they should be vegan. At other restaurants there are always concerns over what seasonings may be used (and it's never possible to really find out) but they are a possibility. Of course, they are cooked in the same deep fryer as meat and other animal products.

Family Mart Vegan Meals

Family Mart Promotional photo. 

On March 13, 2020, Family Mart has announced that from March 17th they will stock a vegan soy patty burger bowl for ¥500 in 2,400 branches in Tokyo. This will be the best-value convenience stores meal in the country when it comes available. 

7-Eleven Vegan Meals

In late 2019 the 7-Eleven chain announced that they would sell vegan meals in a selected number of convenience stores, mostly around Ueno (the suburb of Ueno with a large Indian community). Unfortunately, at the time of writing (March 2020) these stores are all in areas in which there are much better vegan options; however, they are clearly labelled 'vegan' in English, so if you find one I recommend trying it. 

Chain and other Non-Veg Restaurants

Coco Ichibanya

Cocos Ichibaniya curry. The eggplant is an optional extra, and the rice has been upgraded to a larger serving for an additional ¥200.

This famous Japanese curry chain has hundreds of branches across the country, usually in or near train stations and night life areas. Many stay open for most of the night. They are easily recognisable by their name (written in English) and logo, which consists of a curry and rice meal on a yellow background. If you can’t find a specific store, just show anyone the heading above, the photo of the curry, or the menu below, and they’ll point you in the right direction. 

Some branches serve vegan curries for a little under ¥1,000. These come on a separate vegetarian menu booklet (see photo below); however, the “vegetable” curry on the regular menu (which is available at all stores) contains meat. Also, the eggplant shown here is cooked in the same deep fryer as meat, but the curries which don’t have eggplant (easily identifiable from the photos on the menu) should be cooked in separate pots to the regular (meat) curries, but of course there is always possible contamination from utensils (see Deep Fryers). 

When the vegan curries were introduced the company ran a trial during which all branches were required to serve them, and after that branches were allowed to choose whether or not to continue to serve them. Unfortunately the branches which sold a lot and continue offering it are mostly ones in areas popular with foreign tourists, most of which are also places with real vegan restaurants. Thus Cocos is usually an option when you don’t need it and not an option when you do. But they are sometimes a good last resort when all the nearby vegan restaurants are all closed during the evening. 

Japanese curries are very different to Indian and Thai curries and are more like a sauce to accompany rice than a meal in themselves; however, it’s possible to have extra vegetables added to the curry, and to ask for a larger amount of rice. Both additions can be seen in the photo above.  Customers also choose a level of spiciness from 1 to 10, with the higher levels costing a tiny bit more. The spiciness tastes as if it comes from pepper more than from chili peppers. As someone who enjoys Indian food made by and for Indians, I find Level 4 mild, level 5 a comfortable degree of spiciness, and level 6 uncomfortably hot. Unfortunately, vegans can’t make it less spicy than the default option because a sweet sauce which contains honey is added. 

In March 2020 some branches have just introduced a soy meat cutlet, to replace a popular animal-based alternative with Japanese curries. It is only available in a few branches, but if you find it on the menu I suggest trying it, because it gets great reviews. 

Only these curries are vegan. The regular "vegetable" curries contain meat. 

Soup Stock Tokyo




Soup Stock Tokyo, whose empire now expands well beyond their namesake capital, have been the most vegan-friendly food chain in Japan for many years, perhaps equal now with Cocos Ichibanya.

Soup Stock Tokyo have announced that every branch will always have one "veg" option available. These contain no meat, dairy or egg products, but they may contain honey. All stores offers bilingual lists of ingredients (which are generally wholesome and healthy) for all of their products, and most branches employ at least one English-speaking staff member who is usually happy to help a hungry vegan foreigner check what they can eat; however, they will probably not understand veganism, so it’s important to check the ingredients list yourself. This has become easier since they recently posted their menu (and allergen chart) online. Fortunately the soups don’t contain any food additives, which makes it easy to determine whether or not they vegan.

Stores also sell frozen soup mixes, which are great if you are staying in a hostel or apartment with a kitchen available. Occasionally, during off-peak hours, staff may kindly offer to cook up a vegan soup if there isn’t one on offer that day; however, this should never be asked for or expected. Rice is of course vegan, and their focaccia bread usually is too, but I recommend asking if you can check the ingredients of anything you order.

Chabuton

Chabuton are a chain ramen restaurant, which offer two vegan dishes: ramen and gyoza (dumplings). The ramen aren't bad at all, and it's good to show demand for a vegan dish, but of course it's no substitute for T's Tantan in Tokyo Station, the all-vegan ramen and curry restaurant in Tokyo Station.

A bowl of vegan ramen from Chabuton (Yokohama branch)

While the staff should know how to cook the ramen by the ("100% vegetable") recipe, don't expect them to know or understand anything about veganism (or most likely speak much English) so assume that any condiments supplied aren't vegan.

Other Non-Veg Restaurants

There are many chain stores such as Jonathons which serve simple Japanese-style food. Most will serve chips (fried potato, which may or may not be vegan) and white rice, and an all-you-can-drink (non-alcoholic) "drinks bar". Jonathon's also serve baked potatoes, so it's possible to order one without the butter or meat filling. These places may be a last resort at times, but that's all they should be.

Don't Go To Subway
For a long time I ate at subway restaurants, assuming that the bread followed international recipes. I have since learned though that the breads all contain dairy products. Also, another 'surprise' many years ago was that the red wine vinaigrette contains microscopic pieces of bacon (yes, really) and the 'chili-tomato' sauce also contains meat. So an 'oil-vinegar-salt-pepper' salad might be okay, but my suggestion is to stay away from Subway restaurants.

Don't Eat at 'Normal' Restaurants

People often join Facebook groups about Japan and ask how they can order vegan (or vegetarian) food at 'normal' Japanese restaurants. And the answer is: you don't. On the first page of my Vegan Travel Guide to Taiwan I have a few sentences in Chinese which readers can show to staff at a regular restaurant to order vegan noodles. I don't have this in my Vegan Travel Guide to Japan because it's simply not possible, even for Japanese or native speakers.

The owner/cook at this pension (traditional rural accommodation) took great care to prepare me a vegan breakfast. Unfortunately, she inadvertently added dashi (fish) flakes to the soy sauce with the tofu (not visible in this photo). Even if arranged in advance as this was, it's rare to successfully order vegan food at non-vegan establishments. And for non-Japanese speakers who haven't given advanced notice, it's virtually impossible. 

Especially Stay Away from Tofu and "Vegetable" Restaurants
Japan has many restaurants dedicated to tofu, and these are often the first suggestions to vegans looking for food (especially by foreigners). Unfortunately, however, these are actually the worst restaurants to go to, as the stocks used (virtually) all contain fish products.

Coffee Shops

Starbucks and Tully's coffee stores offer soymilk. For more information, please see my post on vegan options at coffee shops in Japan.

Final Tip for Survival in Japan 

Carry Bread

Virtually all breads, including those sold at convenience stores, contains milk and/or egg products. There are a few exceptions, generally specialty European bakeries (which will sell you the most expensive bread you'll buy in your life) and a few supermarkets, which often label whether their breads contain milk or egg products (for people with allergies).

Buy a loaf of bread from an organic shop (or order it online from Alishan Organics / Tengu Natural Food) and carry it with you (most bread in Japan isn't vegan). Please beware that many bakeries label allergens (including milk and egg) but may not include lard, so be sure to ask or buy imported bread from an organic shop with ingredients labelled in English (or German, as many breads here are). It will last anything from a few days (Tokyo in summer) to a week or longer (Hokkaido in winter). Hotel breakfasts (which usually only have white rice, salad and fresh or tinned fruit) often have a toaster oven and breads, so it's possible to carry in a few slices in a Ziplock bag and cook it in the oven yourself. They often even have jam to eat it with. A few slices of toast with jam goes a long way if you need to wait for cafes to open for lunch. This post is about survival, after all.

6 comments:

  1. Hullo =)
    Glad I found your blog.
    I thought dashi is stock/broth (fish dashi / konbu dashi etc).
    Fish flakes are called katsuobushi, aren't they? 鰹節 (bonito flakes).
    -Rin

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    1. Hello
      Yes that's correct. Dashi is usually (by default) from fish, and most Japanese won't think of it as being not vegetarian, even experienced chefs. Yes I think that's correct about katsuobushi. But really anything which could contain either of these probably does, so is probably not vegan.

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  2. My husband and I are both Vegan and will be travelling to Japan next week. This is our second trip and I found this blog SO useful, thank you so much!!

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    Replies
    1. You're most welcome! I'm trying to keep it up to date. Please let me know if I can help with anything. I hope you had a good time in Japan!

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  3. Hello
    Your website is really useful as I am going to Tokyo and Kyoto in September. Do you still update this site? Are these items still suitable for vegans? thank you

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hello. Thanks for the comment.
      I'm trying to keep my website up-to-date, and as far as I can tell this page is. There is now another flavour of the macrobiotic cookies out, and a new "plain" Soyjoy bar which is vegan, so I'll add these soon.
      Please feel free to email me and let me know if I can help with anything. Tokyo and especially Kyoto are your best options for vegans by far, so it sounds like you have should find plenty of food and not need these items anyway - hopefully!

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