Cruising the Carnivorous Waters: Chronicles from a Plant-Based Voyager in the Land of the Rising Sun
I have always been a vegetarian and therefore conscious of my food choices. However, I decided to become even more of a conscious consumer after coming to Japan, a haven for fish and meat enthusiasts. I was well aware that a new lifestyle of veganism was going to be put to the test, but I was eager to embark on this adventure awaiting unexpected experiences, challenges, and triumphs.
One of the first experiences that surprised me was the prevalence of non-vegan ingredients in even the most common dishes. I learnt that many restaurants in Japan add chicken bouillon to dishes like pasta arrabiata, which I had never encountered in any other part of the world. This was just the beginning of my journey to discovering the difficulties of being vegan in Japan.
Navigating social situations when deciding on a restaurant with non-vegan friends if we were eating out was another challenge. Most restaurants in Japan do not offer vegan options, and even when they do, they are generally more expensive. Moreover, vegan restaurants are not something that non-vegans are excited about due to stereotypes. This made it difficult for me to join friends for dinner and created awkward moments when I had nothing to eat at restaurants.
In weathering through these challenges, I found myself becoming more versatile and flexible in my eating habits. I learned to be content with whatever vegan options were available, and stopped complaining about the lack of options. Becoming vegan was a choice I made, and one that only a small percentage of the population makes. This choice meant that in many situations and events, there may be no food to eat for me unless I brought it myself. As a result, I now always come prepared, either by bringing my own food or eating before I go out.
On a visit to a Buddhist temple in Kyoto, I had an unexpected discovery. I learnt that in ancient Japan a vegan diet was practised by Buddhist monks as a form of asceticism. This culture of a plant-based diet is known as "shojin ryori," which translates to "devotion cuisine," and was passed down through generations. This traditional vegan cuisine is centred around seasonal ingredients and is considered a form of spiritual nourishment. However, with the modernization of Japan, the focus shifted towards meat and seafood-based diets. While some traditional vegan restaurants still serve shojin ryori, veganism is not as widely understood or practised in modern Japanese culture.
Veganism in Japan connected me to the philosophy of "wabi-sabi,” which embraces the beauty of imperfection, impermanence, and the passing of time. In a world where fast food and heavily processed ingredients are readily available, the appreciation of the simplicity and naturalness of foods devoid of animal products is my rebellion against perfectionism in food. I started to recognize that imperfections in locally sourced and seasonal ingredients bring depth and richness to food. Similarly, veganism celebrates the idea of using whole foods that are grown and produced without harming animals or the environment. Japan taught me to reject the preference for perfect, polished food over nourishing, honest meals that are in harmony with nature.
As I continue to deepen my understanding of food, I have come to re-conceptualise veganism to be a celebration of the cyclical, changing, and impermanent aspects of life, rather than a strict set of dietary rules. Until now, being vegan in a non-vegan world has taught me to be more adaptable, patient, and appreciative of the simple things in life. I am still on this learning journey in Japan, where I am discovering new things about myself, life, and the culture and people around me.
Illustrations by Alyssa Yap