The Vegetarian/Vegan Guide to Japan, Part 1: Convenience Stores and the Basics
While it is known for its vegetable-heavy diet, Japan is a surprisingly difficult place to live for vegetarians and vegans. See a few of our tips below for finding meat-free cuisine in Japan!
You can find convenience stores in Japan just about anywhere, and they are easy to find and cheap places to pick up a snack, breakfast, lunch, or dinner. However, like any other place selling food in Japan, be ready to accept that there will not be many vegetarian or vegan savory options available for your meal. Even if something does not look like it contains meat (肉), fish (魚), or other seafood (海産物), there will be a high chance that it will still contain a chicken (チキンエキス), seafood (海産物エキス) or pork extract (ポークエキス). If you cannot read Japanese, you can always ask the store staff. However, be aware that things considered `meat` in your country may not be considered meat in Japan. My Japanese friend once proudly stated that she would cook only vegetarian food for me when I came over to her house. When I finally did go to her house, she served me up a lovely salad, some miso soup, and a main – of sausages (and not the veggie fake-meat kind either). I appreciated her effort all the same, but this is a problem many vegetarians and vegans face in Japan. So if you do decide to ask convenience store staff if there is any meat in your selected snack, best specify – no meat, no fish, no seafood (seafood and fish are not considered `meat` in Japan, so watch out), no meat or seafood extract (and if you are a vegan, no egg, no dairy, etc.).
`Secret meat`, or meat that you cannot see or is not included on the ingredients list of a food item, is also something to watch out for. If you ask for some pasta at a restaurant in Japan, do not just ask if there is meat in it – make sure that you ask whether there is meat in the sauce as well (often because it is blended in the sauce it is not `counted` as meat). I have also had experiences (mostly with handmade food for sale) where I have checked the ingredients list of an item, and there is no meat written down, but when I have looked closer at the item title, it is something like `Chicken Curry` or `Meat Sauce Napolitan Pasta` - this is another thing to watch out for because the meat is covered in sauce or blended, you may not be able to see it.
Dashi (a type of fish stock) is another thing to watch out for. It is contained in just about every bowl of udon (and pork stock makes up the soup in ramen), as well as a huge range of other traditional Japanese meals. Bonito fish flakes are another ingredient to watch out for – these are often placed on top of okonomiyaki (savory pancakes), so make sure to ask for them to be left out (while okonomiyaki is usually made with one or two eggs, they can be made at home or even a few restaurants without the egg for vegans). Even then, please be aware that some flour mixes used to make okonomiyaki already include a small amount of dashi in them (I once tried to cook my boyfriend a chocolate cake using okonomiyaki flour because we didn`t have plain flour in the house, and it came out smelling like fish –needless to say I had to throw the whole thing out and Febreeze the house before he came back to avoid embarrassment).
For some yummy meat-free meals which you can buy at a convenience store, why not try the simplest of simple Japanese little meals – the konbu onigiri. This is a small amount of kombu (a type of soft seaweed) in a thin sauce enclosed in a rice ball, which is then half-wrapped in nori (a harder, dried seaweed). Even if you`re not sure about trying seaweed, it`s definitely something to experience once, and may be tastier than you expect! If you really do not want to try the seaweed option, why not opt for some inari zushi – rice enclosed in a flavored tofu pocket (this is a savory dish, but the flavoring of the tofu is very sweet, so you can also eat it as a dessert if you want). While the bread options for sale at convenience stores may look nice, these often include some form or meat extract, so make sure to check the ingredients list before you buy, or get someone to check the list for you.
Japan has a huge range of delicious foods to try, but lots have `secret meat` or meat/seafood extract in them. Try your best to navigate the convenience store for meat-free foods, but, if you`re still left looking for a quick meal at the end of it, there`s always Subway as a last resort!