6 June 2024

Even on a weekday, there’s a queue at Tokyo’s vegan Izakaya Masaka, including many tourists eager to try meat-free versions of Japanese classics like fried chicken and juicy dumplings.

While millions of visitors have happily savoured Japan’s fish- and meat-heavy cuisine, options for vegetarians and vegans are harder to find.

Now, Tokyo and other cities are on a mission to show the country’s renowned gastronomy is not off-limits to those who don’t eat meat.

Tina Bui, a 36-year-old vegan from San Francisco, said she was very excited to order the signature “karaage” soy fried chicken at Izakaya Masaka.

She said plant-based options were limited in Japan compared to the United States, with just “enough for me to survive” a short trip.

Kkaraage” with tartar sauce, made from deep fried soy meat, all prepared and ready to be taken to customers as staff work in the kitchen at the Vegan Izakaya Masaka restaurant in Tokyo. (Photo by Richard A. Brooks / AFP)

Tokyo’s government has held seminars for restaurateurs and dispatched experts to help eateries develop new menu items, introducing alternatives to staple ingredients such as dried fish flakes or pork-bone broth.

Ninna Fujimoto from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government told AFP that the city wants to help accommodate tourists by widening the diversity of food options, including vegetarian cuisine.

The city publishes a specialist restaurant guide, offers subsidies to get businesses certified veggie-friendly, and has two vegetarian and vegan chefs among its “tourism ambassadors”.

One of them is Katsumi Kusumoto of Saido, a restaurant that serves vegan versions of common dishes, such as grilled eel made from tofu and vegetables.

“In Tokyo, there are lots of Michelin-starred restaurants, the most in the world. But compared to other cities, Tokyo has extremely few vegan and vegetarian restaurants,” he told AFP after a fully-booked lunch service.

“Gyoza”, a kind of Japanese fried dumpling, being prepared in the kitchen at the Vegan Izakaya Masaka restaurant in Tokyo. (Photo by Richard A. Brooks / AFP)

Ingredient swaps

Around half of the customers at Saido, which has topped global rankings on the vegan guide app Happy Cow in recent years, are foreign tourists.

It’s “sad” so many people are excluded from Tokyo’s fine dining scene, said Kusumoto, who posts on social media about vegan cooking and gives demonstrations in his volunteer ambassador role.

Haruko Kawano, founder of the non-profit VegeProject Japan, is also helping Tokyo in its push for a more inclusive cuisine.

“A lot of restaurants think making vegan dishes is very, very difficult,” she said.

“In Japan, there are few vegetarians or vegans, (so owners) don’t know about them, or what they really want.”

Some worry they will need a separate kitchen, or to follow strict rules as for halal or kosher food, Kawano added.

Others are reluctant to stop using core ingredients like dashi fish stock, often added to flavour otherwise vegetarian dishes.

“There are some very good dashi made without animal products,” Kawano said.

“If they try, and understand how good it is, they can maybe make very beautiful, delicious Japanese food.”

VegeProject was involved in a recent trial to turn the town of Ikaho in the Gunma region into a model for attracting veggie tourists.

Other cities making similar efforts include Sapporo, whose tourism promotion committee is publishing an online video series about vegetarian restaurants and cafes.

Vegan Izakaya Masaka restaurant in the Shibuya area of Tokyo. (Photo by Richard A. Brooks / AFP)

Buddhist traditions

Data on vegetarians and vegans in Japan is sparse, with small-scale surveys finding just a small percentage of the population following such diets.

But the concept is not new in the country, where Buddhist vegetarian cuisine, known as “shojin ryori”, has been eaten for hundreds of years.

These days it is served mainly at temples and specialist restaurants — and at a cooking class in Kamakura, a popular seaside day-trip destination near Tokyo.

At the workshop, expert Mari Fujii showed five people from Sweden, Venezuela, India and the United States how to make “kenchinjiru” vegetable soup and several side dishes.

“Vegetarians come and participate, but also people who are interested in and want to know more about the philosophy and background of the food,” said Fujii, 72, whose late husband was a Buddhist monk.

Spicy glass noodles on a table at the Vegan Izakaya Masaka restaurant. (Photo by Richard A. Brooks / AFP)

Being a vegetarian in Japan remains challenging, despite the efforts made in recent years.

Ashley van Gool, PR manager for Izakaya Masaka, thinks Tokyo can “definitely” become as culinarily diverse as New York, London and other global cities.

“It’s already been improving over the past years,” she said, with regular restaurants starting to offer one or two veggie dishes.

Customer Laura Schwarzl from Austria paused her vegetarianism to eat meat and fish during her trip to Japan, saying the food is “very special”.

The 22-year-old also planned to visit Indonesia and other destinations, where she expected to find more choices.

“As soon as I leave Japan, I’ll be vegetarian again,” she said.

By Katie Forster Agence France-Presse