Eight months ago, I came to study and live in Fukuoka, blissfully ignorant of the trial this would entail as a vegetarian. I thought, “This place has a Buddhist past right? It won’t be that hard to find meat-free food, surely.” Oh, how wrong I was.
In Japan, it seems that a dish is incomplete without some meat or fish hidden in there somewhere, regardless of how little it adds to the taste. From the token slice of ham in the university canteen’s salad to the smear of fish eggs in Family Mart’s egg and vegetable sushi, it’s systemic. Locally, Hakata’s famous ramen is off-limits, being obviously meaty, but I’ve also been told the region’s udon broth often contains fish. Unfortunately, this omnipresent meat and fish is coupled with a widespread lack of comprehension of the concept of vegetarianism. Indeed, the Japanese word is simply bejitarian—the katakana indicating the alien idea. I’ve often found that simply telling restaurant staff I’m vegetarian won’t do, I need to follow up with a discussion of what I can and cannot eat: “So, eggs and dairy are fine but no meat or fish, ok?”
“Ok…” I see them process this with confusion. “But what about bacon? And dashi [fish flakes]?”
I’m from Britain—a veritable haven for vegetarians in comparison with Japan. It’s unusual for there not to be a vegetarian option on any given menu, even if it is from a small and predictable range. Even your standard burger van has a veggie burger!
When I arrived in Japan, I learnt the hard way how misguided I’d been: death by udon. Arriving, as I did, before full term started to a limited canteen menu, I was dismayed to find my only option was (what I have since realized is) terrible udon. The flavorless broth and stodgy noodles were garnished with only a handful of spring onions. Two weeks of that is the most effective diet I’ve ever come across and almost drove me back to the airport.
It was no better beyond the confines of the university. Needing to grab a bite to eat whilst exploring Tenjin, I spotted a Starbucks. “Ah ha!” I thought, “That’s bound to have a vegetarian option, just like at home. Success!” I found a cheese and mushroom sandwich, even helpfully labelled in English. However, after the first bite I noticed that it was like no mushroom I’d ever tasted before. I peeled open the bread for confirmation. The “cheese and mushroom” sandwich was, in fact, predominantly beef-based. I suppose you wouldn’t bother to mention the sandwich contained bread either.
Again, Family Mart helped me consume more meat and fish in my first month here than I have in the past 10 years. I grabbed one of those oh-so-convenient rice balls on the way to work and was halfway through it before I noticed the shrimp eyes staring out at me.
However, I must say, that, despite their bewilderment, the customer service of the staff in Fukuoka’s shops and restaurants has really shone when I’ve asked for help. I recall one waitress going back and forth between my table and the kitchen, confirming what I could eat. I didn’t know what many of the things she suggested were (so I played it safe and said no) but I really appreciated the effort. Also, Japanese friends have cooked me some divine food, making things I’d never dreamed of from tofu and that delicious Japanese pumpkin, kabocha. Even the ladies in the university canteen have been very considerate after overcoming their initial confusion, making vegetarian versions of dishes for me. They’ve even stopped laughing when I ask for karaage-don (a chicken, egg and rice dish) without the meat.
I’ve noticed the Japanese love their food. They dedicate entire television programmes to watching presenters eat. Whenever I travel, my Japanese friends are sure to advise me on the local specialities, so it’s a shame that I can only partially get involved in this. I wonder, though, if this love of food might one day turn to the vegetarian’s advantage, as exotic foreign foods become more widely available.
Until then, though, vegetarians take note: ALWAYS ask if what you are ordering has meat or fish in it. “Kore wa niku ka sakana ga haitteimasu ka?” This will inevitably lead to some bemused looks as the staff assure you, “Of course not… it’s a cheese toasty,” but hopefully you’ll avoid some of my mistakes. For more tips from me, check out the NOW Blog later this month!
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