Vegan in Japan, Part I: Tokyo
Last month I took an exciting first trip to Asia, more specifically Hong Kong and Tokyo. I’ve already written a little bit about my travels in Hong Kong: some great meals I had and tips for your own trip. While I had some amazing dishes in Hong Kong, Japan took vegan food to a whole new level. I had some of the best meals I’ve ever had, and definitely some of the best desserts.
However, I have to give credit where credit is due. Without the Urban Housewife’s Travel Guide my Japan trip would not have been the same. I am so grateful to Melisser for being my “virtual travel guide” and also answering a MILLION of my questions. In addition, as I mentioned in my previous posts, the Happy Cow iPhone app and Vegan Passport were essential.
One of Melisser’s suggestions that I think anyone going to Japan should consider, is purchasing a Japanese Rail Pass. While the pass is expensive (around $300 for 5 days). It is good on all JR lines around Tokyo, as well as trains running to cities like Osaka and Kyoto (which normally run at least $100 each way). By buying the pass before you leave the States, you save even more on the exchange rate. If you are not planning to make any trips out of the city, however, I don’t think it’s worth the price.
There were many differences between Hong Kong and Tokyo. Unlike HK, where most things were written in Chinese and English, in Japan there were almost no English translations — not on ingredient lists for example, so it is next to impossible to pick up a random product and know it is vegan without prior knowledge. Also there was much more of a language barrier than I expected, and even all the Japanese I met were super polite and helpful, it was definitely hard to communicate. In addition, it was extremely difficult to find things because a standard address system in Japan is basically non-existant. I actually found that a good map and the compass on my iPhone was the best way to get around.
While Japan was definitely more expensive than HK, it wasn’t as pricy as I was concerned it would be. I found that most of my meals came to $30 or less, and that included a drink, entree, dessert, and sometimes an appetizer. The first place I tried was the all-vegan ain soph, that was only a few blocks from my hotel (the Monterey La Soeur Ginza that I would definitely recommend). Still, it took me almost an hour to find and I was starving. The cafe was cute and welcoming, but none of the staff spoke English and the menu was in Japanese. Fortunately there were some sketches of the food and I picked, almost randomly, curry, brown rice and salad (approx. $15). It was very basic, but again, I was hungry and it was filling. For dessert I decided to try their chocolate brownie which was yummy, if a little dry. The whole meal cost under $20.
Cafe Ain Soph, near the Higashi Ginza Subway Station
I was determined to follow Melisser’s footsteps and eat at Pure Cafe, but wow was it hard to find. Believe it or not, I had planned to eat lunch there and it turned out to be dinner. I can’t even explain why it was so hard to find, but part of it had to do with me being given wrong directions not once, but twice, by well-meaning strangers. It was worth the trouble though as the restaurant (located next door to an Aveda salon) had a great atmosphere and delicious food. For all of $14, I got a dinner special that included vegetable soup, a green salad, an excellent grilled tempeh sandwich, and a fresh mango orange juice (all organic). I had a piece of mint chocolate tart with vanilla soy ice cream for dessert, and that cost a bit more, at almost $7. The place also had free Wifi, which was also a bonus.
My next two days were spent in wonderful Kyoto, which will be the subject of my next post. On my return, my last memorable meal in Tokyo was lunch at Eat More Greens, a “New York Style” cafe with outdoor seating that looks onto a little alley, very reminiscent of NYC. Although not completely vegan, items are clearly marked. For a $15 set meal price, my lunch consisted of a couscous salad with avocado, corn soup, and a bagel. It was pretty average, but as usual, dessert stole the show. Along with a soy milk hazelnut latte, I ordered an apple pie that is probably the best I’ve ever had. The crust couldn’t be more buttery, and the apples were fresh and sprinkled with cinnamon. The whole thing was served warm and totally hit the spot as it was starting to rain. Go figure that I’d find some of the best “American” apple pie in Japan…
On the night before I left, I finally stumbled upon the holy grail of daifuku (a ball of glutinous rice filled with a sweet paste, also called mochi)… Ichigo daifuku, mochi with a whole strawberry inside. I’d spent the whole week looking for these delicacies with no luck. Of course when I finally found them I realized my mistake. Ichigo daifuku is not something that you can find in a corner store or 7-11 (which usually carry at least one variety of mochi). It wasn’t until I happened upon a sweets shop and spied it in the window, did I realize this. I bought one and took it with me to try later. After it exceeded my taste expectations tenfold, I was kicking myself for not buying a whole box to take home. On my way to the airport the next morning I stopped by the shop again, but it hadn’t opened yet for the day. So all I was left with was my memory of one of the most amazing treats I have ever had!
Before I left I was also determined to sample a New York Donut Plant baked good. Although the company is based in NYC where they strangely enough don’t carry vegan items, the branches in Tokyo do. Out of everything, these kiosks were the hardest to find. I made several different attempts at different locations in train stations, with no luck. I started to feel stupid for spending hours looking for a donut, but I also stubbornly refused to give up. Before my last attempt, on the morning I was to fly home, I armed myself with additional information found on the Wandering Vegans site. I still think it was slight miracle I found the place in the crowded Tokyo station, and that resulted in me buying not one, but two, vegan donuts for breakfast (hey, I was on vacation). The only vegan option available was frosted cranberry, but it’s better than it sounds. The donut wound up being quite hearty, and also not too sweet as donuts tend to be. I ate both as I took the Narita Express back to the airport for my flight back to California.
Although eating at convenience stores is tougher than Hong Kong (because there are no ingredients written in English), it is not impossible. The Urban Housewife has a great guide to 7-11 eating HERE. The flavored soy milk she suggests was amazing! I never found the strawberry, but the banana flavor was so good. The dark brown carton (chestnut? coffee?) was my second favorite. I also enjoyed the round rice crackers in the clear and red bags.
All in all, Tokyo was a wonderful place to visit. The people were amazingly nice and there is great vegetarian food. Communication and getting around were definitely challenging, but totally worth it. If you have a chance to go to Japan don’t pass it up!
Vegan in Japan, Part II: Kyoto coming soon!