Macrobiotic Food in Japan

Macrobiotic Food

The macrobiotic diet and philosophy combine elements of Zen Buddhism with Taoist philosophy from China. It aims to balance the Yin and Yang properties of food by using locally grown, in-season whole-grain rice, vegetables and plant-based proteins, mostly tofu and other foods made from legumes. About half of all calories come from whole-grain rice. The diet is deeply entrenched in Japanese culture as a way of healthy eating, if not the healthy way to eat.

Macrobiotic food is, by definition, free of land animals, dairy products and eggs, so while most macrobiotic restaurants in Japan serve fish, many are vegan, and of those which aren’t many make one vegan set meal each day. If not, staff should at least understand veganism and be willing to serve something to vegans, if communication is possible. Most macrobiotic restaurants in Japan serve a set meal which includes a grain-based burger patty (often without the bread which defines a burger in Western cuisine), rice, soup, a basic salad and usually some small side dishes.

a typical macrobiotic meal

The macrobiotic diet was founded by Dr Ishizuka Sagen (石塚左玄, 1850-1909), a doctor from the Imperial Japanese Army who was one of the first Japanese to investigate the nutritional value of whole grains (most Japanese prefer white rice), sea vegetables and arrowroot. He became convinced that the traditional Japanese diet of mostly rice, vegetables and soybeans balanced the body, and that food introduced to Japan after it was forced to open to the West in the late nineteenth century (especially red meat) were a cause of disease for many of his patients; one has to wonder what he would think of the Japanese diet today, which became even more Westernised after World War II.

After he retired, Dr Ishizuka opened a free clinic in Tokyo, where he became so popular that he often needed to limit his service to one hundred patients a day. He also became so popular that he began receiving letters addressed to “Dr Vegetables, Tokyo” and became affectionately known as “Dr
Daikon”, as he often ‘prescribed’ his patients daikon (a Japanese radish). 

These restaurants can be a lifesaver for vegans and vegetarians in Japanese towns and small cities, and they do a great job of promoting veganism in Japan to everyone. Most of their owners, however,  have no interest in animal rights or other ethical issues connected with veganism, so it's not uncommon to see leather or other animal-derived furniture or decorations in the stores. From my experience at least half of all macrobiotic restaurants in Japan are run by people who have had a health scare (often cancer), turned to macrobiotic food, recovered from their illness, and then chosen to open a restaurant to promote their newfound diet to others.

While a little out of the way and, in my opinion, overpriced, the (all vegan) Veggie Cafe in Kyoto probably serves Japan's most unique macrobiotic food.

While macrobiotic food can be delicious, for many tourists it has a 'sameness' about it, so I recommend it for when there is little else available, which is often the case in smaller Japanese cities. So I suggest trying the different cuisines on offer in the larger cities, especially Tokyo and Kyoto; however, Padma in Kyoto does offer excellent food, perhaps the best macrobiotic food in Japan, and relative to its quality and the size of its meals it's surprisingly inexpensive. Also, while I now consider it overpriced for what it serves, and it's inconvenient to get to, the Veggie Cafe in Kyoto offers are rare take on macrobiotic cuisine by applying its principles to Middle Eastern food.

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