“In Japan, possibly because it’s still a rare concept, I see some vegan groups that believe veganism must be preached,” says Soramaru Takayama, co-founder of the Vancouver-based dessert kitchen, Vegan Pudding & Co. “Personally, I don’t believe in convincing people on what they should and shouldn’t eat.”
Takayama has just returned to Vancouver from Japan where he was the host of a talk event at a vegan cafe in Tokyo that recently started to carry his pudding mix.
“We should eat and cook what makes us happy” he says as he peruses the menu for vegan options at the Vancouver cafe at which we have met.
It’s been more then a decade since Takayama left Japan and he says that Tokyo’s vegan scene has since been progressing at an enormous speed.
“I became a vegan after I left Japan and it was very hard to go to a restaurant whenever I visited home,” he recalls. “But there are increasingly more plant-based restaurants catering to vegan or vegetarian customers in Tokyo now.”
He adds that the upcoming Olympics may be influencing the trend, as eateries prepare to accommodate diverse dietary restrictions.
Now based in Vancouver, Takayama has two occupations — operating his vegan dessert business with his wife, and being a poet.
Calling himself a working poet sounds unusual, but he says poetry can be just as effective in influencing an audience as other arts. “Musicians or dancers get commissioned to perform. I think the same could go for poets,” he says.
In 2015, he was commissioned by the Japanese apparel company Global Works for a TV commercial featuring Japanese actors, Masami Nagasawa and Takao Osawa. Then in 2017, Takayama heard that the Japanese lifestyle brand Muji was looking for Japanese performers for the grand opening of its first Vancouver store. With the help of his manager, he contacted Muji’s Canada office and convinced the company to hire him as the opening act for their Vancouver outlet.
“They were surprised but enthusiastic at the same time,” he recalls.
For Muji, Takayama performed a poem inspired by the lifestyle that the brand aspires to promote. It describes, in Japanese, the small pleasures of a minimalist lifestyle, from the softness of Muji’s simple cotton T-shirts to the basic activities of daily living.
When not working for Vegan Pudding & Co. or his commercial poetry projects, Takayama organizes public reading sessions with the help of local volunteers, as well as monthly Poem Night events at his apartment, where poetry lovers gather to read and enjoy a vegan meal.
The interest in poetry, says Takayama, has been with him from an early age. In junior high school he began to read and write poetic aphorisms. He enrolled at university as a philosophy major and studied Buddhism, East Indian philosophies as well as ancient Greek philosophies — all of which helped Takayama shape his writing style.
“There aren’t many records left by the philosophers before Socrates; there aren’t fully written books or scripts, just short fragments,” he says. “I began mimicking the fragmented ancient texts for my poetry.”
After his philosophy degree, Takayama worked as an after-school teacher to save money for a long overseas journey, then in 2007, he departed for Korea by ship.
From Korea, he traveled to China, Mongolia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Nepal, India and Australia, giving out short poetry notes to new friends he made along the way. It was in Australia that he met an artist who introduced him to the concept of vegetarianism.
“He explained various reasons (for it) — some did it for health reasons, some to be more sustainable, others for ethical reasons. I thought it might be fun to try cutting out meat and fish as a hobby,” says Takayama, for whom cooking has always been a passion. The restriction in ingredients, he explains, triggered creativity in him.
“I had to find new solutions. I experimented with tofu, for example,” he says. “How could I turn a block of tofu into something that has a satisfying density or a texture a meat patty would have?”
The new diet eventually led Takayama to make the move to Canada. At the end of a four-year-long trip, he had decided that he wanted to work in vegan kitchens, and he heard that Vancouver was booming in plant-based eateries.
“I came here on a working holiday visa in 2011 and started working at a vegan raw food restaurant that eventually sponsored my resident visa. Unfortunately, the restaurant shut down due to a fire that started elsewhere in the building a week after my visa was approved.”
The fact that it wasn’t plain sailing being a vegan chef in Canada, he says, was eased by his philosophy of going with the flow and having fun with it. When another vegan eatery he worked at closed shortly after he joined it, Takayama took the opportunity to take over the location to open Vegan Pudding & Co.
His patience perhaps stems from the meditation programs he attended in India during his years of traveling. There, he explains, participants were taught to strive for enlightenment through 10-day-long silent meditations.
“I loved the atmosphere and I still practice yoga, but eventually I came to a realization” says Takayama, who began to wonder if his fellow trainees had themselves reached enlightenment.
“I asked around but no one was able to say ‘yes, I am enlightened’ and that was a moment of revelation for me,” he says. “You cannot find yourself by putting yourself through rigid training. One should do what makes one happy.”
Name: Soramaru Takayama
Profession: Poet and the co-founder of Vegan Pudding & Co.
Hometown: Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture
Key moments in career:
2007 — Leaves his job as an after-school teacher to go on a four-year-long journey abroad
2009 — Is introduced to a plant-based lifestyle in Australia and decides it could be a fun challenge
2011 — Moves to Canada to work in vegan eateries. A week after his residency visa submission, the restaurant he was working in closes due to a fire
2014 — Publishes first poetry collection titled “Tsuki to Buranko”
2015 — Opens Vegan Pudding & Co. in downtown Vancouver and is commissioned by the Japanese apparel company Global Works to create a poem for and be featured in its TV commercial.
2017 — Performs his poetry at the Muji grand opening in Vancouver
What I miss most about Japan: “Friends and onsen (hot-spring baths).”
Favorite food to cook at home: “Peperoncino pasta with mushrooms.”