Tokyo Drift: Food

I wonder if you know, how they live in Tokyo, if you’ve seen it and you mean it then you know you have to go, unfazed and curious.

I recently went to Tokyo for 6 days. The only Japanese words I knew were “hello”, “excuse me” and “cat”. Also futanari, but I had no intention of using that one. Though not quite enough language knowledge to sit and appreciate a 40ft scroll of Japanese poetry, it did get me an amused bow and smile from an old man when I pointed at a cat and went “Neko!”. I’m 26.

Since coming back I’ve found it hard to answer the question “What was Tokyo/Japan like?” other than with some wanky summary like “An energetic serene juxtaposition” that has everyone nodding with assuaged wisdom. So I’m going to try to break it down here into categories. First up, eating.


Every single person I spoke to before leaving had similar advice here. “The food is amazing, you’ve got to have an open mind and try everything”. Then I’d mention I don’t like fish and pork smashes my digestive system in twain, plus I was travelling with a vegetarian. The response would be “Good luck”.

The food IS amazing. Small little 5-30 person eateries are jammed everywhere in Tokyo, all cooking delicious smelling things or attacking anything seafood related like it slept with their wife then invaded their home planet. It’s an amazing spectacle and one that should be enjoyed with no more than 4 of your senses.

Cute deserts are a common artform in Tokyo.

The downside is that you will find close to zero Vegetarian friendly Japanese dishes on offer. Most places will not even be able to do a boring veg option to placate your Vegetarian companion as you go crazy over the 60,000 ways to try meat & fish. Even if they say they do a meat free option, Tokyo will hide animal in everything.

Tofu & vegetable noodles? Cooked in a chicken or pork broth. Tomato sauce? Made from fish oil. Simple coffee? Gelatin sweeteners dissolved in it. Sweet red cabbage & rice sushi roll? Surprise salmon. At one stage we even bought a pot noodle that translated to “spicy tomato” with only tomato and pasta listed on the ingredients. Got it home, poured kettle water in and was ready to eat when the discovery was made that there were bacon bits in it.

Japan has no understanding of vegetarianism as a concept. There is literally no word for “vegetarian” in the Japanese vocabulary. The closest is the term “Shojin ryori” which is the term given to the diet pursued by Buddhist monks in Japan. Only, it’s about not eating meat when you really want to eat meat to be more spiritual, and even then Buddhism allows you to snack down on your animal friends if you want. Saying it in a restaurant is not a request for vegetarian options, but a very specific religious meal set that is done only in rare places that costs your second-born’s kidnap ransom for some fancily prepared veg & nuts. Asking for it in any other restaurant and it’d be like going to a pub and asking for the Holy Communion.

Despite appearances and description, plus asking, this was not actually vegetarian. Tasty though.

It’s vaguely seen in Japan that any dish is improved by adding meat & fish to it, so if you’re eating out why not have it in there? It’s like telling a western chef to not use any spices when cooking. Even asking English speaking staff if you can replace the chicken/beef/fish in a dish with Tofu or even have it without is as confusing as if you’d politely requested to sneeze on their car’s wing mirrors.

How does somebody with a pacifistic gullet survive in Japan then? Japanese home cooking will sometimes be vegetarian, more out of dint of it being affordable than it being the interesting option. But that’s not a choice when staying in a hotel room. Of the 4 times we researched vegetarian friendly Japanese cuisine restaurants in Tokyo, it involved a 30 minute journey across the city just to find that each one had closed down/wasn’t open.

There was even one with the owners dogs dressed in outfits that stopped serving at 7:00pm we found out, walking in at 7:30. Their regularly updated Facebook page gave their opening hours as 10am-10pm, and there were two groups sat eating already, but who can tell the whims of small businesses. I got to see the dogs though so I can retroactively be content, rather than the tired and hungry state I was in at the time that could’ve happily eaten the dogs.

The wonders of Korea-town veg-friendly dining.

Basically, full Japanese food is out as a vego. To eat vegetarian in Tokyo your choices are: Italian, Indian and Korean. This sounds a let down when you’re in Japan, but Tokyo doesn’t hold back on cooking amazing dishes even when they’re not the nation’s own. I had some of the best cooked and flavoured dishes of all those categories whilst out there, to the point that I only slightly regret not having been able to sample more national cuisine.

Another thing to note about Japan is that Breakfast isn’t that big a meal there, with most eateries not really opening till 11. Somedays I would end up eating the cooked chicken skewers that you can get behind the counter of 7/11 just to have something to chow down on on the move in the morning. Which I found is not really a done thing in Japan, maybe because it’s like the UK 40-50 years ago where street eating was frowned upon or maybe it’s because-

Continued in Part 2, THE PLACE.