A new year is well underway, but for a vegetarian in Japan, the memories of all those bōnenkai (yearend parties) linger, with their share of mistaken meat dishes, unwanted fish flakes and perhaps a questionable dipping sauce or two.
Despite well-meaning friends and holiday cheer, bōnenkai can leave something to be desired on the vegetarian front. This year, a tomato-based nabe (hot pot) at one get-together seemed like a promising start, but soon was overtaken by oily meats stewing right next to the veggies. A colorful bagna cauda came close at another, but alas, the sauce into which you dip your vegetables is anchovy based. For the most part I made do with cups of good cheer and conversation, then grabbed a konbu onigiri (seaweed rice ball) from a convenience store on the way home.
January, then, is the time to rest and rejuvenate. An old favorite destination quickly comes to mind: Jindai Motomachi, the area surrounding Jindaiji Temple in Chofu, on the west side of Tokyo.
A magical stroll through the back alleys of this quaint little area (bonus: they have “GeGeGe no Kitaro” manga statues dotting the shopping street as you enter), and I am brought back to my senses. A meditative walk through the temple areas, and I can finally wind down and cleanse both soul and palate for the year ahead. And even better, it’s a great place to find delicious vegetarian food.
Before lunch, I treat myself to some dango (glutinous rice dumplings) on a stick from a street vendor. Simplicity is my savior here. I choose a mitarashi dango, the topping a sweet syrup made from soy sauce, sugar and starch. These steaming skewers cost only ¥100 or so and can be enjoyed right on the street. Pairing this with warm amazake — a sweet, pulpy rice drink made from the same enzymes found in sake but normally with no alcohol content — makes the perfect winter treat.
On my lunch agenda is another simple delight, and one that packs a refreshing hit of nutrients to boot: soba. The streets around Jindaiji are lined with soba shops; some of them can be crowded, especially on holidays and weekends, but I choose the nearest one that seems easy enough to enter, Aokiya (5-12-13 Jindaiji Motomachi, Chofu-Shi, Tokyo; 042-488-1572). A basic, open-air type of place, this shop has no pomp but nonetheless carries an old-world charm.
I order the zaru soba for around ¥700. The noodles are served plain and chilled with just a few nori flakes sprinkled on top, with a side of dipping sauce. The sauce in most soba restaurants does, unfortunately, have fish-based dashi as an ingredient, so if this worries you just ask for a side of shoyu instead. Dip the noodles in a little bit of shoyu, or dilute it first with soba-yu (the hot water left over after boiling the noodles, normally brought out after the meal to mix with remaining dipping sauce, but just ask for it right away).
So, as you navigate another year, I urge you to remember that simplicity is key. Don’t fret if most dishes you see are laced with veg-unfriendly fare. Carry on and slurp away, for humble noodles go a long way.
Ananda Jacobs is a composer, recording artist and actress in Tokyo, and has been ovo-lacto vegetarian for over 20 years. She is currently producing music for her band Jacobs. www.facebook.com/anandajacobs.