I reside in Kyoto, arguably the culture capital of Japan. A country famous for being health conscious and yet at every turn I take I find a McDonalds, yakiniku (grilled meat similar to korean barbecue) or gyudon (beef bowl) restaurant. Can the average foreigner experience the vegan, vegetarian or organic side of life while here?
Perhaps I should start with the fact that I come from a mostly vegetarian family and I was raised in New York City. Growing up surrounded by extremely health-conscious people in a city where you can find anything you could imagine, the usual topics of conversation revolved around health: natural or organic food and products, vegetarianism and related concepts. Unsurprisingly, my lifestyle is a combination of the above.
Finding something as complicated as organic products was beyond my feeble Japanese ability
The first time I came to Japan was three years ago. When I arrived I didn’t know a word of Japanese. Even had my life depended on it I could not have found anything I needed. After several months of studying and finally being able to communicate in broken Japanese, I was only able to find the basics. Seeking out something as complicated as organic products was beyond my feeble Japanese ability. The other issue I seemed to constantly run across was that it seemed like no one had ever heard of the concept of a meat-free lifestyle. I spent a great deal of time at cafés explaining that I don’t eat meat and that, “Yes, ham is still meat” — unidentifiable though it may be. If at any point it contained meat in the mix or broth, then: “Yes, sorry, it’s still in the meat category.”
I would like to think this time around I am older, wiser and more eloquent. Or more likely the internet has just caught up with demand for products of this ilk. Both store websites and sites containing lists of organic stores, vegan cafés and availability of natural products have multiplied and flourished in both English and Japanese. Sadly, the average non-fluent foreigner stands no chance against the kanji-abundant Japanese sites.
However, the internet order- and delivery-based system is still an option. One such choice is iHerb which is a natural and even eco-friendly company delivering from the United States. Their cheapest order is usually around US$40 (you may choose yen or even other currencies as well) and you also receive an instant discount including shipping rate. Another company is the The Flying Pig, a branch of Costco in Japan, which has bulk items including organic and natural products. This site does not contain as much variety as iHerb; however, they do have frozen and chilled products, unlike iHerb, due to the shorter distance.
Sometimes, there’s just not enough time to wait for a week-long delivery of products, or you simply want to go out, eat and take a load off. Some great places in Kyoto are: Mumokuteki Café a vegan café that also sells organic foods. It’s located near Shijo on Gokomochi-dori, on top of a clothing shop and recycle store. They are child-friendly and have a separate room for families with small children, with a secluded changing and nursing room as well as a space for children to play. They have English menus with some of the staff being able to speak English as well. As for those of us who suffer from deficit of battery life in Japan, there are electrical outlets to recharge our electronics. My top two recommendations from the menu are the vegan katsudon (cutlet served on a top of rice) set and the chocolate shake. The katsudon is a rare find!
A great alternative is the Tamisa Yoga, Cosy Café and Be Organic shop — an all-in-one option. The vegan café has izakaya-like seating in one corner and counter seats opposite. In the middle of the shop, organic cotton clothing and yoga equipment, as well as food and hygiene products, are sold. Mission chores and sustenance accomplished, congratulations. Located near Sanjo in Teramachi, the café and shop are on the second floor and yoga on the third. Above, you guessed it, yet another clothing shop. English menus are available, with limited English-speaking staff. They are child friendly, and even have yoga classes for chidren. The steep incline of the stairs is something to keep in mind. Granted, I’m a professional at falling over things but those steps would challenge even the most graceful of people. If you stop by during lunch hours, I recommend trying the quiche set and chocolate cake!
Choice Café is another option, an organic, vegan and gluten free (except pasta) café located on Sanjo. It is across the river, one street past Kawabata-Dori, with two floors and a slightly classier and modern feel to it. The first floor contains several different types of seating areas along with a store where some produce, imported products and baked goods can be bought. The second floor is where seminars are held about organics and farming, for those interested who speak Japanese. English menus are available and you can also ask for English-speaking staff. An assortment of vegan cheeses made using a secret recipe, are here to make any day complete! And as for dessert have some chocolate pancakes for the ultimate experience. This place is slightly more expensive than the aforementioned options. However, it would make for a lovely date spot, and while still being healthy to boot!
I hope everyone enjoys tasting some great dishes, both Japanese and non and remember to grab some natural, hard-to-find products while you’re there! Getting everything done in one fell swoop. You’ll be the multitask genius others rave about. Enjoy your healthy travels!