Since the borders have opened, Japan seems to have become the IT place to be, everyone and their grandma wants to go to and I don’t blame them.
It’s a country known for its rich culture, beautiful nature and delicious food, though all of that has been closed to tourists for the last 3 years. With all that incredible cuisine you might be wondering how easy it is really to be vegan in Japan?
It’s definitely possible to have a great time in Japan as a vegan, there are so many options now, especially if you stick to the busier, more touristy areas.
However, that doesn’t mean it’s all plain sailing. In fact, quite the opposite! There are a few things you need to know if you’re vegan and are coming to Japan. Let’s get into it!
We have been in Japan for nearly two months now, and out of all the countries we could have moved to, Japan isn’t the most vegan-friendly country.
However, we have visited some lovely restaurants and cafes across Japan! ‘Vegan’ is still seen as a healthy diet instead of truly understanding the meaning behind it.
I would say in general, you can eat very cheaply in Japan if you don’t have any restrictions. However, the vegan meals we’ve had compared to the rest of the menu seem to have a ‘vegan tax’ (not a real thing) it’s just more expensive, although I say this, it’s actually still very reasonable!
Being a foodie, in the country where I had my childhood, surrounded by so much food that I used to love but can no longer eat has been quite difficult! (They do desserts and pastries so well here *cry*)
Note from future Nadia: I’ve since found some amazing vegan baked goods, like this place!
As you can imagine, researching is your best friend!
Certain foods become a rarity
Around the three-week mark of being in Japan, when we were (and still are) learning where the best places to find our alternative foods are we had a craving for two things.
Sugary sour pic & mix and bread! Luckily our very kind family members sent us some sweets and chocolate from home which was so appreciated!
We ate bread weekly, if not daily back home but, that changed when we moved to Japan. Most of the loaves in the supermarkets and bakeries that once were ok to eat as a vegan now contain milk and or egg here.
Just before we hit our one-month mark, we caved and bought a bread machine and it has been the greatest decision and investment we could have made – I can already feel we will be making our money back for the price per usage!
So if you’ve moved to Japan and really enjoy bread, get yourself a bread machine because you won’t be disappointed! I didn’t realise until we bought one that you can make so much more than bread in the machine! We are yet to make anything else, but I can’t wait to experiment with different recipes.
When you’re still figuring out what’s ok to eat in a new country that seems to like throwing animal products into EVERYTHING, it can feel like the world is against you. You may feel like there is nothing to eat and that can make you feel down.
I won’t lie to you, in my moments of weakness, I have often thought, about how much easier my life would be here in Japan if I was vegetarian, walking past all the bakeries and dessert shops with the delicious smells makes me feel like I’m missing out – but NO!
I promise you it gets easier!
Problems You’ll Face Being Vegan in Japan
1. The language barrier
I mean this in two ways. The actual language barrier for those of you who don’t know Japanese and secondly people in Japan not understanding the true meaning of “vegan” or “plant-based”.
1A. The Japanese Language
Let’s start with the first point, the Japanese language is a completely different language so it can be tricky to navigate. At supermarkets and konbinis, a lot of it sometimes comes down to guesswork which isn’t ideal for anyone, let alone vegans.
If you come to Japan, I’d recommend getting some sort of sim deal or pocket wifi as Google translate and the camera feature will be your best friend. I know it has been for me!
However just a heads up, although the app is brilliant, it may not always be 100% accurate. Even if you translate something and it looks ok, they don’t always list every ingredient on the back, so you may accidentally eat something without meaning to.
My philosophy when out and about is to go with the mindset of thinking NOTHING is vegan-friendly unless it clearly states so or you go to a vegan cafe.
They love putting gelatine, dashi (bonito flakes), and meat into things that you would normally think are ok.
For instance, salt-flavoured crips you would buy at the shops can suddenly have gelatine, dairy and meat in them. I think I’ve probably already eaten things accidentally without knowing.
When you come to a new country, especially a country where you don’t understand the language, you just have to be kind to yourself.
Mistakes will no doubt be made, but when you go with the intention of doing good you can’t beat yourself up about it. We’re trying our best after all!
A great website to look at is www.isitveganjapan.com they have so many helpful things on there. And for those of you who have Facebook, there is a Facebook group called “Vegan Japan ヴィーガン日本” which is a great resource for all the up-to-date information on new cafes or restaurants, supermarket finds and new foods you can eat.
1B. People not understanding what “plant-based” means
A lot of the time in Japan, the word “plant-based” is thrown out to items to make them sound healthier. So if you do see anything with the words “plant-based” I would take it with a pinch of salt unless you have done your research beforehand.
Their labelling isn’t guaranteed like it is back at home, they do like to slip in milk, eggs and even meat into those products.
For example, Bagel & Bagel brought out a plant-based meat burger, but unfortunately, according to the allergen chart it had egg, dairy and gelatin in the burger.
It’s such a shame, Japan is definitely taking a step in the right direction, it’s just much slower than other countries!
2. Eating out
Don’t get me wrong, it is 100% possible to be vegan in Japan. More and more cafes are popping up and some chain restaurants have started serving vegan options. Of course, it’s much easier and cheaper if you cook at home.
However, if you’re coming on holiday to visit Japan, you don’t necessarily want to be cooking all the time.
Being a foodie, I love discovering new places to eat out! My no.1 favourite thing is just that, – discovering good food and cute cafes in a new destination, I find it so exciting!
If you’re travelling with a group who have a mix of dietary requirements, it may be a little trickier to all eat at the same place.
Japan has an array of options when it comes to those who aren’t vegan, you could literally go anywhere and you’ll be fine for options of food. It’s so convenient. The konbinis are open 24/7, and restaurants and cafes are everywhere. If you don’t have any diet restrictions, it’s so easy!
However, the vegan options at a lot of Japanese restaurants and izakayas are very limited, if they serve anything we can eat in the first place that is.
An item that looks ok but isn’t
A common dish you may see and think will be ok is somen or udon (noodle dishes, you dip into tsuyu sauce, which may sometimes come with tempura vegetables).
The sauce will most certainly have katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes), and egg may be used in the tempura. If you can speak Japanese, you could order it with only soy sauce instead.
Sometimes you might just eat vegetable skewers
Hopefully, you are not a fussy eater as there may be occasions when you are left with a bowl of rice, tofu grilled vegetables or salad.
The point I’m trying to get across is that we can’t just pop into just any restaurant and eat off the menu. Even if you know Japanese well, they might not ‘get it” it can be tricky to navigate in these situations. So like I mentioned before researching is key!
If you’re someone whos super anxious and worried about accidentally eating something, I would suggest you stick to vegan restaurants and cafes – but not always possible depending on where you travel to.
Although I feel this would be a shame. It’s good to get out of your comfort zone and experience the ‘real Japan,’ (no I don’t mean eating non-vegan items), something you might not get the chance to do in a new and modern cafe.
Sometimes going into those slightly intimidating-looking small establishments is where you may have the most memorable time and meet the most interesting people.
As I say, it’s not impossible to get vegan items at restaurants, even if it’s just grilled vegetables and a bowl of rice.
Before I made the move, I researched a load of places and saved them all on google maps. I think this is something everyone should do, it has been so handy! If we ever feel peckish I just have a look at the map to see where we are, then we will just go to the closest place.
The Happy Cow App
Another great resource is the app ‘HappyCow’. Crack this bad boy out any time you’re feeling hungry and it’ll find you the closest vegan or vegan options place nearby.
Unfortunately, a lot of great places closed down over the past few years, so Happycow may not always be 100% accurate. The app very much relies on the users to keep it updated so please use it so we can continue supporting small and independent businesses!
We’ve also had a few cases where we have researched somewhere to go for dinner and it’s been closed, even though it says otherwise on google maps.
We were even unlucky one night when we walked quite a while to a restaurant and it was closed, walked to a second and CLOSED! Luckily the third place was open, not sure what would have happened if it wasn’t as we were HANGRY, 😂!
I would say a lot of what’s on google maps is accurate but just be aware of this, the opening dates and times of some restaurants and cafes aren’t always correct!
Some vegan restaurants and cafes:
Only open on Fridays and Saturdays 11:00 am – 6:00 pm
〒1-54 Kandajinbocho, Chiyoda, Tokyo, Japan, 101-0051
Loving Hut is an international vegan chain that came to Tokyo in 2008. It serves vegan versions of well-loved Asian food such as karaage, pork buns, gyoza, and even cake.
T’S TANTAN – Tokyo JR station
1 of 5 T’s restaurants, 10;00 am – 10:00 pm
〒1F JR Tokyo Station, Marunouchi 1-9-1, Chiyoda, Tokyo, Japan, 100-0005
Quick service and polite staff. The Tokyo station branch serves a selection of ramen, gyoza, soy meat dishes and rice. A great place to go if you’re passing through. You’ll leave very full and satisfied.
Monday – Sunday 11:30 am – 9:00 pm
〒152-0035 Tokyo, Meguro City, Jiyugaoka, 2 Chome−9−6 Luz自由が丘 B1F
They also have a restaurant that serves ramen, curry, salads, soup, pasta, pizza and a variety of desserts.
Check out the blog post on the Izakaya!
Monday – Sunday 12:00 pm – 3:00 pm / 5:00 pm- 10:00 pm
〒15-1 Udagawacho, Shibuya PARCO (at basement level), Tokyo, Japan
A completely vegan izakaya that has a variety of choices! Vegan karaage, soba, meatballs, gyoza, pickles, and lots of vegetable dishes.
For more information, have a look here!
Monday – Sunday 11:00 am – 8:00 pm
〒Udagawa 21-1 2F, Shibuya, Tokyo, Japan, 150-0042
5 different locations around Tokyo, 2Foods is a completely vegan cafe that serves curry, meal sets, omurice, sandwiches, doughnuts, desserts, as well as hot and cold drinks.
Tuesday – Saturday 3:00 pm – 9:00 pm
〒2 Chome-34-4 Minamiotsuka, Toshima City – 豊島区南大塚２丁目３４−４, Tokyo, Japan, 170-0005
A small vegan cafe with friendly staff and a nice atmosphere, serving curries, falafel bowls, cakes, and plant-based drinks.
Chains that have vegan options:
- Coco Ichibanya – Curry
- Starbucks – Plantbased sandwiches, cakes and alternative milk
- Ikea – veggie dogs, lasagne, Ice cream
- Ippudo – vegan ramen
- Kyushu Jangara Ramen – Ramen
- Mister Donut – vegan donuts
- Ramen Kagetsu Arashi – Ramen and gyoza
- Mos Burger – Plantbased burger
- Royal Host – “Vegetarian curry” suitable for vegans
- Baskin Robins (known as thirty-one) – vegan sorbets, the cone is not suitable
- Saizeriya – one pasta dish and some sides
- Soup Stock Tokyo – Vegan soups and curries are shown with the sign ‘VG’
- Yakiniku Like – Vegan meats you grill yourself “Next Kalbi” and “Next Harami” are both vegan meats sold. Not sold at all stores
- Floresta: vegan donut/s
Be aware that at any place that served animal products, there may be cross-contamination. I’m understanding of this but I suppose it’s up to each person and where you draw the line.
Konbini and Convenience Stores
If there is a Natural Lawson nearby, it’s worth popping in as it’s probably the best konbini for getting the most vegan items. Lawsons may carry some of its stock but not all.
When you go into any konbini, the plain salt, umeboshi (pickled plum), and some kombu onigiri (rice balls) should be ok.
Hashed potato and french fries are also ok (My boyfriend is addicted to the hashed potato haha). A lot of the convenience stores will have the allergen list on their hot foods so it’s quite good to recognise which foods you can and cannot eat.
A lot of sweets, and salty snacks are ok in the stores but not so many main dishes. Have a look at isitveganjapan.com fairly exhaustive list.
Luckily I know enough Japanese to recognise things and to get by, however for those that don’t it may feel quite overwhelming, so here are some useful words to know:
- Vegan – ヴィーガン
- Milk – 乳 nyū
- soy milk – 豆乳 tōnyū
- Cow’s milk – 牛乳 gyūnyū
- Egg – 卵 tamago
- Gelatine – gelatin ゼラチン zerachin
- Meat – 肉 niku / ミート mīto
- Chicken – 鶏肉 toriniku
- Beef – 牛肉 gyūniku
- Pork – 豚肉 butaniku
- Fish 魚 sakana
- Bonito – 鰹 katsuo
- Dried bonito – かつお節 katsuobushi
- Flaked bonito – 削り節 kezuribushi
- Fish stock – 魚のだし sakana no dashi
Sometimes, but not always, there will be an allergen chart on the back of food packaging. This could be a quick and easy to identify certain things. However, your best bet is still to look at the ingredient list just in case.
For this item, “Barbeque-Flavoured Snacks” from 7Eleven 小麦 (wheat) and 大豆 (soy) has been highlighted on the allergen chart. So at first glimpse, it looks as if it’s ok.
Underneath, there are two other things highlighted, 乳成分 (milk ingredients) and えび (shrimp). This is a sign warning you of possible contaminations.
(This product manufacturing factory manufactures products containing milk ingredients and shrimp)
Again, it’s up to you how you proceed in situations like this.
At any supermarket, you’ll find vegetables, fruit, tofu, noodles, rice, soy yoghurt, soy milk, pasta, etc, (I’ve even found vegan cheese) so you definitely won’t starve. Plus, you’ll know exactly what’s in your food without having to worry.
There is not one specific supermarket we go to, some are good for certain things and others for things you can’t get from the first shop.
You’ll be able to get the most basic things in any supermarket. For those moving to or living in Japan shopping online is very useful for those bits you can’t.
Shops that may be near you:
- Tobu Store
- Gyomu – a lot of imported things
Where to shop online:
- Rakuten Seiyu
- Bio c’ Bon
One of our repeat purchases is this curry from Daiso (a 100 yen store all over Japan), for ¥100 + tax and we get so many meals out of one pack. It’s good with rice and udon noodles, and you can pack as many or as few vegetables in it.
It’s a great item to take with you if you’re travelling around and staying in accommodations with a kitchen. It’s yummy, very quick and easy enough for anyone to make. I personally like to add onions, potatoes, carrots, mushrooms and tofu to my curry!
Health & General Wellbeing
Since moving to Japan, we’ve hardly had any processed foods. They were available everywhere back home (UK) but it’s definitely a lot harder to find similar things for vegans in Japan.
We’ve mainly been making food at home instead of eating out but have also gone out a few times as a treat, though we’re trying to be good and save our money.
We’ve been eating cereal or oats with a banana and soy milk for breakfast, onigiri for lunch and a mix of rice, noodles, miso soup, tofu and veggies for dinner.
I have definitely noticed that I no longer feel bloated after eating, I feel lighter. I’ve also realised how greedy and indulgent we were when we were back home—just buying and eating for the sake of doing so.
Don’t get me wrong I could devour a slice of cake, ice cream or pack of giant chocolate chip cookies right now but… I suppose I’m trying to say we shouldn’t have something all the time just because it’s there.
Now it’s become so much more of a special treat. We may go back to our old ways in the future but right now it feels nice that these indulgences have become something a bit more special.
So, is it easy to be vegan in Japan?
As I mentioned before, there are definitely more vegan and vegan-friendly places popping up all over the country, I’ve noticed that things are slowly changing like most places in the world, even from when we came to Japan 4 years ago.
Yes, the majority of Japan may still consider “vegan” as just a “healthy” diet which as we’ve discussed does mean they sometimes put fish and meat inside things, even with a plant-based label on it.
That said, it’s important to understand that a lot of people simply won’t understand the concept, and not through a lack of trying.
Do your research beforehand, but always remember, nothing is vegan unless it explicitly states it is.
I hope with these tips, you have an easier time travelling around Japan!