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Notes from a vegetarian holiday in Japan

A country known for its sushi and meaty ramen bowls throws up a good surprise for the vegetarian traveller

A supermarket in a shopping district in Tokyo. Photo: iStockphoto.
A supermarket in a shopping district in Tokyo. Photo: iStockphoto.

Right from Akira Kurosawa’s films to Haruki Murakami’s books and traditional haikus, from the aesthetics of pagodas to the beautiful bonsai plants, there is much that drew me to Japan. As a vegetarian, however, I had a gnawing fear: Would I have to go hungry because Japanese cuisine is famously meat- and fish-based or end up convincing myself that fish was a sea vegetable?

Keeping aside such trepidations, I embarked on my Tokyo odyssey in April, and I am happy to report that I ate well and healthy, well beyond my expectations.

As soon as I had checked into my Tokyo hotel, I made a pit stop at the konbini (24-hour convenience store) across the road to snap up supplies. Konbinis, like Lawson, FamilyMart and 7-Eleven, can be found on every Tokyo corner. I must confess I love snacking, and hate falling back on Indian munchies while abroad. Thankfully, I had done my research, so I stocked up on inari sushi (vinegary sticky rice in a tofu packet), onigiri rice balls stuffed with a pickled plum or nori (seaweed, an acquired taste) and anman (a heated bun filled with a sweet red-bean paste).

As is common on a holiday, I was often hungry, and to my surprise, I ended up eating quite well. For I rarely found it difficult to source a meal.

Matcha green tea ice cream.

After walking through the immense grounds of the Imperial Palace, a bit of medieval Tokyo right in the middle of a modern metropolis, I found a restaurant tucked away amid the trees of the exquisite Japanese-style Ninomaru garden. Here, I had my first taste of the Japanese obsession with matcha green tea. I chose a bright green matcha-flavoured ice cream and despite its slight bitter aftertaste, it grew on me with every mouthful. Next, I stopped at a typical Japanese salaryman (regular office-goer) restaurant. At every eatery, I would flash a printout with “No meat, no fish, no seafood" written in Japanese. So after a quick conversation in sign language with the chef, I lunched on soba noodles, miso soup and vegetable tempura.

I ended up having one of the best dinners of my life inside the Tokyo Station. Walking through this labyrinthine station with 16 train lines, five basement levels, a dozen exits and sundry department stores and shopping lanes, I found myself at T’s Tantan. The restaurant had been recommended on the HappyCow app, a vegetarian traveller’s life saver. After a long day, I wasn’t happy to queue up for 20 minutes to get into this very trendy vegan restaurant—but it was totally worth it! I enjoyed my ramen noodles in white sesame sauce, with soybean meat as a side, so much that I wanted to go right back the next day.

Kimchi ramen.

Between the venerable Sensō-ji Temple and its impressive vermilion-coloured Kaminarimon gate lies the lively Nakamise Dori, flanked by stalls hawking souvenirs and local edibles. I ordered iced matcha from a Japanese stall owner with an American accent and she suggested mochi (skewered rice balls rolled in a sweet flour). The Japanese seem obsessed with sweets, and confectionery is omnipresent. Fortunately, though, their sweets are not very sugary. Ice cream was a staple for me—it’s available even at vending machines. I tried surprisingly tasty flavours like sweet potato and black sesame. At trendy Takeshita street near Harajuku, a hub for manga and anime fans, I lunched on an ingeniously served crêpe rolled up into a huge cone with fruits and ice cream tucked inside.

When I happened to be craving comfort food, I chanced upon an Indian restaurant, Mumbai, near Chidorigafuchi Park, Tokyo, amid a profusion of cherry blossoms. The food had been adapted to the tastes of the Japanese clientele; the palak paneer and dal were neither spicy nor extraordinary.

One aspect of Japanese cuisine which is vegetarian is Shojin Ryori, or Buddhist temple cuisine. This was a must-try, so while shopping in the electronics stronghold of Akihabara, I lunched at Komaki Shokudo, which also runs temple-cuisine cooking lessons. The fried tofu was delicious, as was the hot miso soup with shiitake mushrooms, but the potato and radish preparations left me “cold".

To my surprise, there were vegetarian options in the fast-food universe as well and I found myself trying them at Kyoto and Osaka airports. The MOS Burger chain has a range of tasty, crunchy soy burgers and their chef was good enough to warn me against one that came with a meat sauce.

I was happiest when I felt I was not missing out on the intrinsic Japanese experience even while sticking to my food habits. In Kyoto’s Ryōan-ji Zen temple, I spent several happy moments contemplating the minimalist rock garden, which has 15 rock formations placed like islands in a sea of gleaming light-coloured pebbles, then scoured the immense but picturesque grounds to find the vegetarian Yudofuya restaurant. While sitting cross-legged on tatami mats, I lunched on yudofu, a Kyoto speciality—boiled soybean curd served hot with vegetables, flower petals, soy sauce and rice.

It was the softest, most delicious tofu I have ever had. But what made the meal complete was the serene silence in the restaurant and the view of its extraordinarily verdant garden with sakura flowers creating the effect of a wonderland. I count myself blessed that I was able to enjoy this experience on a full stomach.

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