The reality of being a vegetarian in Japan set in on my first day in the country.
At the welcome party for all newly-arriving prefectural ALTs, the main dish was meat, which was to be expected — but the edamame, fish, and salad were all coated in a strong fish-flavored sauce. I’d failed to do my research before moving. Upon further investigation, I discovered that Japan ranks notoriously high in almost every listicle as one of the least vegetarian-friendly countries in the world, I’d later learn that many seemingly vegetarian foods such as salad dressing or miso soup almost always contain dashi, or fish stock.
If you’re a vegetarian in Japan — by definition, one who doesn’t eat any meat or fish — it’s safe to say that it’s a good idea to get familiar with cooking. While many restaurants will try to cater to your diet with good intentions, there’s a good chance you’ll still get surprise bonito (fish flakes) or bacon topped on your dish. In cases of eating out, you can always scout out some vegan restaurants in cities around Japan.
However, cooking isn’t always a viable (or ideal) option. And for most budget-wise people living in Japan who don’t want to cook three meals a day, the konbini can provide an array of foods for all your dietary needs. Considering there are more than 56,400 convenience stores in Japan (according to a 2017 Statistica report), one is almost never more than a short walk away. You’ll definitely have to tiptoe around the fish-flavored chips and snacks, but there are a number of vegetarian options at any konbini you can turn into your own meals. Here are seven ideas to get you started.
1. Pizza buns
You’ll notice these with all the hot nikuman (steamed buns with meat filling) near the register. The ピザまん (piza-man) variety available at 7-Eleven are gooey, delicious buns made of only tomato sauce, cheese and a soft outer bun. Hot, filling and delicious, these are a common konbini staple. And at only about ¥120, they’re budget-friendly, too.
- Just a note: While 7-Eleven has ピザまん with tomato-and-cheese filling, we can’t vouch for the “meatlessness” of all konbini pizza buns. Most every chain has some variety of these saucy buns, some may have ground pork or other meat in the filling. If you can’t read the Japanese ingredients, always best to ask store staff if the bun you’re interested in is vegetarian. Look out for this character 肉, (niku) in the ingredients list that indicates animal meat.
Onigiri, or rice balls, are widely available and easy to eat on-the-go. Hands-down the most delicious for me is the ume (plum) onigiri. Shaped like a triangle, it’s wrapped in seaweed and filled with plums. There are a number of other vegetarian flavors including yaki (plain grilled), kombu (kelp), mame (bean), plain salt and seaweed.
Natto, or fermented soy beans, are considered one of the healthiest foods you can get in Japan. Natto rolls are widely available in the refrigerated section of most konbini. Be wary that most people — even Japanese — seem to either love or hate natto because of its unique, pungent flavor. Nonetheless, the flavor isn’t quite as strong when it’s in rolled up like sushi, so natto rolls are a good way to test if you can stomach this healthy vegetarian option. It’s vegan, too!
Found in many konbini, prepackaged pancakes make for a perfect little breakfast snack. These mochifuwa (kind of “soft and fluffy”) pancakes from 7-Eleven are pre-wrapped with butter and syrup on the inside. But you have to be quick — at only ¥100 a piece, they often run out fast in the mornings! Pair it with an almond milk coffee from the drinks section to kick start your day.
In the refrigerated section, you can usually find a pack of soba (buckwheat) noodles or thin, white rice noodles. They’re usually eaten cold, which makes for a great chilled meal in the warmer months. Some packages come with a sauce that contains fish sauce, so consider eating them plain or replacing the sauce with your own soy sauce.
Found in the refrigerator section, many konbini carry many types of sandwiches including egg salad, Japanese omelet, and mayo-egg salad mix. If you’re lucky, you may even find a sweet and delicious fruit cream mix sandwich. 7-Eleven has some that contain a blueberry, chocolate and cream mix.
7. Fried potato
Near the cash registers, konbini have an array of fried chicken and other meat goods, but many also have hash browns and french fries you can find under the names ハシュポテト (hashupoteto) and フライドポテト (furaidopoteto). The hash browns rival McDonald’s and the French fries make for a great side with lunch.
Try pairing any of the above items with smaller konbini items, such as a fruit smoothie (available in the refrigerated section at 7-Eleven and other stores), fresh apples, bananas and fruit mixes, chocolate-covered nuts and trail mix and even the humble boiled egg (sold individually in single boxes to make for a totemo oishii (super delicious) meal!
After living in Japan for this long, I never realized how very privileged I was to ever have been a picky eater. Having dietary restrictions and food allergies in Japan certainly isn’t easy — but it’s manageable. Luckily, Japan’s assortment of vegetarian convenience store snacks can help. Although being a vegetarian in Japan is a daily challenge, it’s nothing that you can’t do!
If you live in Tokyo and are struggling to find vegetarian and/or vegan options near you, check out our Tokyo Vegan Guide (¥810) digital book available for download in our store.
What are your favorite vegetarian konbini snacks? Which konbini do you think is the most vegetarian-friendly?