Is it impossible to find vegan food in Japan? If you are planning a trip to this awesome country then you are in the right place. Keep on reading this guide to find out how to travel as a vegan in Japan.
I had the opportunity to travel to Japan, a place I wanted to visit for a long time. I knew it was not going to be easy. However, all the planning beforehand helped me a lot and I ate like never before.
Just imagine that I didn’t have the chance to go to all the places I found. Furthermore, I even took a lesson to learn how to make Vegan Ramen from scratch! (click on the link to learn more)
However, I’m not gonna lie. Japan is not one of the easiest countries to find vegan food. Because of this, it can be kind of a complicated destination. But, don’t worry! That’s why I want to help you with this guide.
I will show you things to consider to find vegan food in Japan.
An intro to Japanese Cuisine: Is it vegan-friendly?
We all know Japanese cuisine for sushi, ramen, tempura, and other dishes. Fish and pork are often the stars of the meal.
Japanese food is artistic. There is a lot of attention to the details, the quality of the ingredients and the flavors.
Food is also integrated in a balanced way where everything is complemented in a harmony of colors, textures, and flavors.
Try to be aware of foods that can include hidden animal products, like miso soup, sauces, and dressings. The tempura may contain eggs. Also, if you find veggie ramen check that the noodles don’t have egg. Usually, Udon noodles are vegan.
Ingredients derived from milk or eggs can also be added to different foods. Sometimes it doesn’t make any logic to contain them.
Japan is an island. Because of this, sea products are widely used in their meals. Therefore, it’s common to find fish dashi (a fish-based broth) added almost any dish.
Dashi is so popular that you can find it in different foods. Things that seemed safe such as sauteed veggies can contain fish dashi.
Other foods to watch out are stuffed rice balls (onigiri) and any type of processed food really. Even the rice used for sushi can contain dashi.
There is a kind of dashi which is suitable for vegetarians. It’s made out of seaweed and/or mushrooms. You can check with the cook if they have this dashi available.
But don’t be frightened! Although Japan could be a bitcky for vegans, there are ingredients or products that you can count on.
What options do you have?
Macrobiotic food is popular and you can find it in various parts of Japan, they often follow holistic and Ying Yang principles on the cooking process.
Although this type of diet is not 100% vegan, it’s a good choice. They use many whole foods (variety of vegetables, legumes, soy products, and whole grains) so you may find vegan-friendly dishes.
If you find a place that offers macrobiotic food check what they have and you may be happily surprised.
Another amazing option is to find Japanese temple food, but we’ll get there in a bit. Just keep reading to find out soon.
Finally, preparing your own meals is a good way to make sure what you eat is vegan. Visiting the local supermarket is a good idea to find ingredients.
Now, let’s get down to business!
How to Survive as a Vegan in Japan?
Learning that Japan is not very vegan-friendly, here are some tips so you can act accordingly.
Plan before you go
I’ll never get tired of saying it. Research, research, research!
I may be a control freak control in reading and investigating, but it has helped me a lot.
There is a lot of information on Pinterest, YouTube, and blogs on how to be vegan in Japan.
I find that one of the most helpful things for me is to join local vegan groups on Facebook. This gives you the chance to get answers to any question you have. But browse first for previously discussed topics. There is a chance the answer is already there.
You should also research about where are the restaurants with vegan options. Of course, if you have the HappyCow app on your phone you’d be able to locate more easily if there are any vegan-friendly restaurants, or way better if there are full vegan restaurants nearby.
I checked all the restaurants I was interested in visiting and saved their location on my maps. Furthermore, I made sure they were near the sightseeings I was going to visit.
You can check out all the restaurants I visited in this post.
Bring some vegan food with you to Japan
In Japan, it’s a bit difficult to find certain things, or they may be super expensive.
I like to get supplies when I arrive at my destination, especially for breakfast. However, sometimes I don’t have enough time to make a trip to the nearest supermarket. So just in case, I bring a couple of things with me in the suitcase, like instant oats, for example. It’s a simple and quick thing to prepare for breakfast the next day. Especially if I was not able to do any shopping yet.
Get familiar with the language and important words in Japanese
If you don’t master the Japanese language, at least it’s important to become familiar with a few words. So if you go to the supermarket or a restaurant and there is no menu in English you may be able to identify some of the ingredients.
Some keywords are:
- Vegan: ビーガン
- Vegetarian: ベジタリアン
- Meat: 肉
- Chicken: 鶏肉
- Duck: 鴨
- Cow: 牛
- Steak: ステーキ
- Pig: 豚
- Pork: 豚肉
- Bacon: ベーコン
- Seafood: シーフード
- Fish: 魚
- Crab: カニ
- Mussels: ムール貝
- Oysters: カキ
- Shrimp: エビ
- Octopus: タコ
- Milk: 牛乳
- Cream: クリーム
- Yogurt: ヨーグルト
- Butter: バター
- Cheese: チーズ
- Eggs: 卵
- Honey: ハチミツ
Before going you can print or save some vegan cards in Japanese, such as the one below from Veganagogo.
I showed my card when I went to a non-vegan restaurant. Sometimes the attendants barely spoke English. They checked the card and tried as best as possible to guide me on the options they could offer me.
When I visited Nikko the restaurant lady indicated to me that the tempura they sold contained egg in the mix. In this case, she offered me a salad instead. Because of my printed cards, we could understand each other even though I do not speak Japanese and she didn’t speak English.
You can download an app on your cell like the ones I suggest in my post.
Try out Japanese Temple Food
In the big cities, I found it quite simple to always find a place to eat, especially near the tourist sites.
However, in smaller cities or towns things become a little bit more scarce.
The positive thing is that Japan has many Buddhist temples throughout the country and there is the possibility that the monks practice vegetarianism.
Shojin Ryori is the traditional Buddhist cuisine and is based on the concept of non-violence. It is mostly vegan/vegetarian because some monks can use fish dashi.
Several temples in Japan offer the opportunity to try this culinary experience. It consists of a meal that includes several courses with a variety of main and side dishes.
The monks use local ingredients and apply the same principle of the harmony of flavors, textures, and flavors.
This kind of tasting of the Buddhist cuisine in the temples is not the cheapest. But I suggest to try it at least once as it is an experience that you definitely should not miss. Especially because it’s a very good alternative if you find yourself in a small town and there are not many options. Maybe in some nearby temple, you can find something promising!
Be flexible on your expectations
Are you used to eating cereal or toast for breakfast? But you haven’t been able to find vegan bread in Japan or some cereal?
Then change your plans, improvise and evaluate the alternatives.
You have to take into account that the idea of breakfast in Asia is very different from Latin America or Europe, for example. If you go with an attitude that you want to eat the same things you always eat at home you may get a bit disappointed.
In the same way, if you are looking to find Italian, Mexican or Lebanese food in a small town in Japan, your only options may be a sushi restaurant.
It’s very important to be aware that the place where we are going is a totally different culture, also veganism is something that has not been explored or acknowledged enough.
My advice is not to close the doors to try new things, even if not the type of food you are used to.
If you want to prepare something you would really miss then it’s a good idea to bring some products with you that may be difficult to find there. But, there is nothing more enriching than venturing into totally new things and taste different food styles and ingredients.
It’s not a bad idea to look for accommodations with a kitchen so you can prepare your own meals.
Finding Vegan food in Convenience Stores and Supermarkets in Japan
To save some pennies you can get really cheap food by doing your own groceries. If you have a kitchen, you can even prepare your own meals. Supermarket and convenience stores are a good option to find food. But it may be tricky to find vegan things.
The problem is that the supply of products that can be vegan is extremely scarce. Finding something to eat can become quite complex. On the other hand, you have the language barrier with all the labeling is in Japanese. On top of that, many times not all the ingredients are detailed in the product!
You can read the list of ingredients and realize that it doesn’t contain any product of animal origin (yay, it seems vegan!). But, the manufacturer may have used dashi, some emulsifier or any other product in a previous process. They can use animal products to give flavor, color or texture to the product. The problem is that they are not obliged to declare it on the list of ingredients…
Exactly! For this reason, it’s difficult to rely on the processed products because even if at first glance everything seems fine it may contain something that is not even vegetarian.
To make your life easier in Japan, I suggest to better stick to foods that are not so processed, except for a few that have already been confirmed as suitable for vegans.
Use the Google Translate app to translate images and have a clearer idea of the ingredients (it’s not perfect, but it helps).
It’s possible to find certain vegan substitutes such as almond milk, dairy-free cheese, mayonnaise, etc., in some specialty shops or large supermarket chains.
Some stores where you can find vegan products are:
The prices in Japan are a little more expensive. For example, buying a banana in Latin America is cheaper. But they were not bad considering that I was in Japan.
I found some really expensive strawberries though. They were a special kind. But you won’t get those on a regular basis. They are more to try maybe only once or to give as a present.
Vegan food in Convenience Stores
Convenience stores or Konbinis are small shops that you can find almost, at every corner. They are super useful, especially because the prices are good and are open 24 hours.
Here are some vegan-friendly products you can get at convenience stores:
- Fruits (fresh or frozen)
- Vegetables to make stir fry
- Soba noodles (do not use the sauce because it is most likely not vegan)
- Sweet potato Snacks
- Onigiri. Plain from 7/11 it’s safe. Plum, seaweed and bean one may or not contain dashi or egg whites. It depends on the manufacturer and whether they change recipes.
- Nori seaweed
- Salads (without dressing)
- Soy milk
- Popsicles (adzuki beans and sometimes also fruit-based like Mango)
The Facebook group of Vegans in Japan have compiled some snacks that can be found in different convenience stores and are suitable for vegans, here I show you some.
*All photo credits by Vegans of Japan group
Vegan options at supermarkets in Japan
A visit to the supermarket is also a good idea, you will have many more options and it’s easy to find local and essential ingredients of Japanese cuisine.
All the products below are vegan. You can use them to make your own meals. Also, this helps to save costs during your trip.
- Glutinous rice and brown rice (they have many types and it’s super nutritious)
- Vegetables such as turnips, chives, sweet potatoes, spinach, eggplant, bamboo shoots,
- Mushrooms (including shiitake and oyster)
- Seaweed (nori, wakame, Kombu)
- Noodles (udon, soba, rice)
- Soy milk
- Adzuki Beans
- Soy sauce
- Fruits like, pears, apples, persimmon, plums.
In supermarkets, you can also find more variety of products such as bananas, strawberries, grapes, pineapple, watermelon, pasta, and even ingredients for Mexican food, cereals for breakfast, lentils, beans, etc.
But as I mentioned above, do not rely too much on the processed products especially if they appear to have been marinated or seasoned.
Most of the bread that is sold in supermarkets or konbinis is not vegan. If you want to get some bread, a good alternative is to go to a bakery. Bakeries usually have bread that doesn’t contain eggs, dairy or even lard; because it’s quite common to use lard in Japan.
A type of bread that can be a good option is the baguette type.
In bakeries or organic/natural products stores it’s also possible to find bread and other baked good suitable for vegans.
Traveling in a group with non-vegans
If you go to Japan alone or with other vegans you can decide where to eat, and if you want to go exclusively to vegan restaurants there will be no problem.
But traveling with other people, especially if they are not vegan, may involve having to compromise certain things.
It’s possible that your companions don’t really want to try any vegan food with you and that your only choice is to visit places with very few options and not the vegan restaurants that you really wanted to visit.
If you find yourself in the situation that they go to very Japanese places where the vegan food is pretty much absent it may be possible to set up a menu with certain things, although it will be something very simple it can help you to calm the hunger until you can have time to visit another place even if it is on your own.
Finding Food at not-so-vegan places in Japan
In restaurants/bars type izakaya you can find rice, edamame, salads (without dressing because it’s probably not vegan), some type of tofu (check that it doesn’t come with some sauce or fish flakes) and, fries.
In sushi restaurants, it’s also possible to find some rolls suitable for vegans such as stuffed cucumbers, natto or pickles.
About street food, you can find roasted sweet potatoes, roasted chestnuts, grilled rice balls or mochi, grilled bamboo shoots, Mitarashi Dango, and more. Mitarashi Dango are traditional rice-based balls covered in a sweet soy sauce glaze. They are roasted in a grill. The sauce is usually made of soy sauce, sugar, mirin, water, and cornstarch or potato starch.
For all these cases always check with the seller to confirm that they are not using fish dashi, honey, egg, dairy, lard, etc.
At coffee shops like Starbucks, you can find soy milk. They have everything prepared separately in order to avoid cross-contamination. In Osaka, I enjoyed a delicious Chai latte on a rainy night.
I recommend that you talk with your travel buddies before the trip and come to some sort of agreement, whether they can accompany you to some vegan place or find options where everyone can eat comfortably.
In case nobody wants to go with you to a vegan restaurant then why not to consider to go on your own? or why not try to make local vegan friends or some other vegan traveler who is in the same place as you?!
Although we still cannot say that Japan is a paradise for vegans or compared it with cities like Berlin, Tel Aviv or Los Angeles, it’s true that veganism is a lifestyle that is taking impulse. Little by little, but it’s there and that’s what’s important.
Traveling is about expanding our horizon, meeting new cultures and appreciating the world. If we do not put the food as the main goal we can have a good time despite the shortage in some places.
I hope nothing stops you from visiting a place for fear that things can go wrong, there are always options, you can always improvise and adjust your priorities.
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Leave your comments down below and let me know if you have visited Japan already? Or maybe if it’s on your bucket list!