Being vegan in rural Japan can seem like a daunting experience, particularly if you’re used to the abundance of vegan restaurants that major cities have to offer. With around 60 operating vegan restaurants in Tokyo, making the move to somewhere like Hokkaido — famed for its seafood and dairy production, not to mention a sparser foreign population — is more challenging.
Before I moved to Sapporo a few years ago, I spent a long time preparing how I would live as a vegan there. My initial concerns included whether I would go hungry, lose weight or feel limited around the locals. I was also worried about the availability of foods in local supermarkets and convenience stores. Information on the internet about plant-based lifestyles in Hokkaido, and even travel books about Sapporo seemed to be non-existent. At that time there was only one listing on the Happy Cow website (which lists vegan establishments all over the world).
My initial concerns included whether I would go hungry, lose weight or feel limited around the locals.
I was prepared for my time in Sapporo to be challenging, and somewhat culinarily boring. Some people go back to their meat-eating ways when the move to a new city seems tough. For a girl who has not touched meat and fish since childhood, this was not an option.
1. Stay positive
I quickly decided to change how I viewed things. I started to notice the foods around me: local vegetables, buckwheat noodles, traditional Japanese sweets — foods that Hokkaido takes great pride in. A lot of them are vegan, inexpensive and widely available. Do the best with what you have; one of the most important changes I made to my life in Sapporo was learning how to cook whole foods. I also started doing my own research with the help of friends, and eventually that HappyCow list grew longer.
The city won’t go as vegan-friendly as Tokyo overnight, but it’s not what it was even just a couple of years ago. Sapporo is opening up to new trends due to a booming tourist industry. Requesting your order made in a specific way is definitely not as awkward as it used to be. Plus, with Hokkaido and other rural areas in Japan aiming to attract more foreign visitors, accommodating restaurants are on the rise.
2. Find vegan-friendly areas
As of the end of 2016, there are just five vegan restaurants and cafés in Sapporo. These include Itadakizen, Aoi Sora Organic Cafe, Manoa, Hereuse Vie and Coocon’s Nest — all worth a visit when you want to dine out. Four of them are located in Maruyama, a neighborhood you might want to get acquainted with if you’re moving here as a vegan or vegetarian. Being one of the most expensive areas in the city, vegan restaurants in Maruyama have been able to stay in business by catering to tourists, and locals interested in a healthy lifestyle. A common trait among all these places is that they use a variety of Hokkaido specialties as opposed to more westernized dishes.
3. Use the right resources
The biggest resource for those who don’t like to cook at home is to use Happycow.com – a great tool for vegans coming to Sapporo. You’ll find updated restaurant listings, pictures and reviews.
The island of Hokkaido takes pride in its quality vegetables. Festivals and street vendors will therefore always have vegetables or plant-based foods for sale, especially during the popular Autumn Fest in September.
Farmers’ markets are also pretty popular in the city at all times of the year. In the warmer seasons you’ll be able to find them in Odori Park, whilst in colder times they move to the underground Sapporo Ekimae dori between Odori and Sapporo stations. These are great places for buying whole foods and vegan items sourced from all over Hokkaido. There are many good buffets restaurants that work with the farmers’ markets in and around the city center too.
A great tip for staying updated on all the farmers’ markets and food festivals is to sign up for the What’s On Sapporo newsletter (both in electronic and paper version) that gives you detailed information on local events every month.
4. Learn the dietary lingo
You should aim to learn a few useful Japanese phrases that will enable you to ask to modify a dish, as well as studying the basic kanjis needed to read menus and ingredients lists. Thankfully, as the tourists keep coming, restaurants are now increasingly eager to please customers with dietary restrictions, including those looking for halal, vegan and kosher foods. Vegan and vegetarian-related vocabulary and terms are becoming commonly known, though you should always be prepared to explain more fully what you need.
Moving to rural Japan as a vegan will certainly be an adventure, but it’s not impossible to stay (or even become) vegan as long as you’re willing to do your research and make the effort.
Are you a vegan living in the Japanese countryside? Got any tips, tricks or advice for other vegans or those looking to switch to the diet? Leave a comment below!