Lean, green and no hippy aftertaste

Once hard to find, cheap vegan cuisine is now booming in Japan

by Nicholas Coldicott

Imagine a lasagna without the meat. Now drop the cheese and pasta too. Not much left?

Veggie Paradise, which opened in September in Tokyo’s Yoyogi Uehara neighborhood, fills in the blanks with zucchini slices in place of the pasta, fermented cashew nuts that replicate cheese, and grated, dehydrated root veggies filling in for the meat.

As the restaurant name and unconventional recipe suggest, Veggie Paradise is a herbivore’s heaven. Everything on the menu is vegan, eschewing all meat, fish, eggs and dairy products, as well as sugar, monosodium glutamate (MSG) and anything else artificial. It’s the latest, and most inventive, of the vegan restaurants that are mushrooming across the capital.

On the face of it, operating a pure vegan eatery in a nation famed for its love of fish is a recipe for disaster. By any reckoning, the number of vegans in Japan is negligible. But that may be just why it’s working. In countries where dropping the dairy is seen as the last stage in a progression from barbarian to tree-hugger, only the most devout diners order dishes labeled “vegan.”

In Japan, where the term is barely understood, it’s much easier to market the diet. Free of religious or moral dogmas, veganism becomes just another healthy eating option. Japan’s vegan advocates also have history on their side. There was a period of enforced veganism in the 7th century, when Emperor Tenmu declared Buddhism the national religion and demanded a strict interpretation of its laws on killing.

It was an easy decree to abide by — in those prerefrigeration days, meat and fish were barely blips on the culinary radar. Six centuries after Tenmu, a Zen monk named Dogen returned from a trip to China with ideas for a new ascetic vegan diet that became known as shojin ryori. This vegan version of kaiseki (formal Japanese cuisine served over several courses) fare is still served in temples and high-end restaurants today, but with prices of up to ¥15,000 for dinner, it’s firmly in the luxury dining bracket.

The big difference in the new vegan cuisine is that it is affordable, and selling in quaint cafes, on supermarket shelves and even in back-street surf shops.

Japan’s cafe culture goes vegan

A few of the new pure-vegan options in Tokyo, Kyoto, Sapporo and Hiroshima:

Tokyo

Iede Cafe: Shojin ryori meets cafe culture in this converted Setagaya house that keeps the philosophy but drops the formalities.
4-16-6 Setagaya, Setagaya-ku; tel: (03) 3706-1116; http://iede.cc

J’s Kitchen: Organic, macrobiotic and vegan — if this doesn’t purify you, nothing will.
5-15-22 Minami-Azabu, Minato-ku; tel: (03) 5475-2727; www.js-kitchen.com

Little Maman: Macrobiotic vegan curries, soups and lunch boxes for time-pressed commuters.
3F Queen’s Isetan, Atre Shinagawa, 2-1 8-1 Minato Minami, Shinagawa-ku; tel: (03) 5462-1551; www.little-maman.jp

United Tribe: Surf boards and soy-milk stew.
3-23-24 Tamagawa, Setagaya-ku; tel: (03) 5491-7514; www.u-t-f.jp

Vegan Healing Cafe: This Spartan Shibuya cafe serves half a dozen pure vegan dishes, including tempeh sausages and Vietnamese com am phu.
6-20 Udagawacho, Shibuya-ku; tel: (03) 5489-5185; www.vegancafe.jp

Veggie Paradise: The capital’s latest vegan joint is a raw food specialist that also boasts a cooking school and yoga studio.
1-22-14 Uehara, Shibuya-ku; tel: (03) 6421-2925

Hanada Rosso: Soy cheese and ham indistinguishable from the real things.
2-15-12 Meguro-ku; tel: (03) 3710-7857; www.hanada-rosso.net

Deva Deva Cafe: Meatless burgers in buns or demi glace sauce are Deva Deva’s specialty.
2-14-7 Kichijoji-Honcho, Musashino-shi; tel: (0422) 21-6220; www.devadevacafe.com

Cafe 8: The most famous of Tokyo’s vegan eateries offers a broad menu of healthy fusion dishes.
3-17-7 Aobadai, Meguro-ku; tel: (03) 5458-5262; www.cafe8.jp

Kyoto

Cafe Peace: Veggie gyoza (Chinese dumplings) and spicy Thai curries from the organizers of Kyoto’s Vegetarian Festival.
3F 28-20 Tanaka Monzencho, Sakyo-ku; tel: (075) 707-6856; www.cafepeace.com

Sapporo

Aoi Sora: Organic veggie food in a rustic wooden cafe.
22-1-7 Minami 1 Jo-Nishi, Chuo-ku; tel: (011) 623-3887; www.sapporolife.com/cafe/ chuo/organic/index.html

Hiroshima

Cafe Saishokukenbi: The southern branch of this Tokyo vegan eatery opened Oct. 1.
4-32-2 Koiue, Nishi-ku, Hiroshima; tel: (082) 271-3770.

United Tribe, in Tokyo’s moneyed Futako-Tamagawa neighborhood, sells surfboards, wet suits and polystyrene trays of soy-milk stew, brown-rice puddings and soy cheesecake. The diminutive store began life as a surf store, with manager Hitomi Katsuura adding a kitchen this summer and creating a pure vegan menu. According to Katsuura, almost none of her customers are vegans.

“They come in for the surf goods, and then notice the natural food,” she explains. And when you’ve just shelled out ¥200,000 for a surfboard, what’s another ¥280 for a carob muffin?

Veggie Paradise owner Yuki Itoh estimates that only 20 percent of her customers shun animal products out of principle.

“Japanese cuisine is already healthy, so people don’t need to change their whole diet,” Itoh explains. “But they’re getting more conscious about their food — especially food safety. I know most vegans abroad change for animal rights or religious reasons, but in Japan it’s different — they change for their health.”

The health notions are also closely tied to another of Japan’s culinary concepts: macrobiotics. A majority of the new wave of vegan eateries also advertise themselves as macrobiotic, following a set of precepts formalized in the early 20th century by George Ohsawa, a Japanese philosopher who believed that whole grains are the staple food of humans — and while his diet doesn’t proscribe the eating of flesh, it explicitly discourages it. Ohsawa’s philosophy has been laying the groundwork for a vegan boom for almost a century.

Religion, meanwhile, hasn’t completely relinquished its role in the vegan cause. For the last six years, Tenkai Miki of the Buddhist Jodo Shinshu sect has been parking his scooter in front of Daikanyama Station each weekday lunchtime and selling bento boxes of shojin ryori. Targeting the trendy designers and boutique staffers who populate the neighborhood, Miki produces delicate Japanese food following the same rules that guide the temples and fancy restaurants, but he charges just ¥1,250.

Miki says his aim is to make the traditional Zen cuisine accessible and relevant to today’s young Japanese. Fellow Jodo Shinshu follower, Ryunoisuke Koiko, had similar aims when he opened Iede Cafe in the Setagaya district in 2006. Iede is a cozy three-story house that serves its shojin fare in a cafe style with small, a la carte dishes, some of which are garnished to resemble faces. Call it Zen fare for the Hello Kitty generation.

The vegan boom has even reached the pages of girly culture monthly magazine Hanako, which ran a vegan-themed issue earlier this year, followed in September by American Express Japan’s customer magazine Impression Gold, which ran a feature on vegan Tokyo subtitled “Spotlight on veganism, the hardcore veggie diet.”

But even if vegan fare is now widely available and easily affordable, carnivores needn’t fear — as Veggie Paradise’s Itoh says: “People aren’t serious about making a big change — they’re just trying healthy eating once a week or so. Most of my customers don’t even know they’re eating vegan food until I tell them.”