With its pale, unadorned interior, untreated wooden beams and semi-open kitchen, Vegan Store, a two-story “convenience store” that opened in late 2019 near Tokyo’s Kappabashi kitchenware district, is as unlikely a konbini that you will find. With a remit to only stock and serve vegan food, Vegan Store hopes to change the way vegan food is viewed in the capital.
It’s difficult to source exact numbers on what percent of Japanese are vegetarian or vegan, but according to a 2019 survey by Frembassy, a startup aiming to create an accommodating food culture in Japan, only 2.8 percent of those surveyed identify as vegan, and only 4.8 as vegetarian. Three and 5 percent of Americans identify as vegan and vegetarian, respectively.
Store operator, and CEO of parent company Global Meets, Shoko Suzuki says Vegan Store may seem like an outlier, but is clearly fulfilling a need. Suzuki’s decision to promote her business as a konbini and family restaurant was deliberate, designed to demystify vegan fare.
“I’d heard that many vegans in Japan, whether Japanese or expats from abroad, had difficulties following (a vegan) diet here so ended up quitting,” Suzuki says. “At first I thought to open up (the store) in a so-called prime location like Azabu, but then decided somewhere with many festivals (and tourist attractions) would be better so non-Japanese could spread the message that it is possible to be vegan in Japan,” she adds, commenting on what she thinks is Japan’s tendency to adopt trends from abroad, rather than make the first move.
Similar to regular convenience stores, Vegan Store stocks a mix of domestic and imported vegan grocery items.
Deep-fried soy meat karaage substitutes for the dish’s usual chicken counterpart. Frankfurter sausages (¥350) comprising okara tofu lees and konnyaku (devil’s tongue) powder, heavily flavored with vegetable bouillon, have the same juicy texture as normal franks, albeit more toothsome.
Allernon (¥240), a rice flour-based, lactic bacteria-fermented yogurt substitute comes courtesy of the Yasaka Corporation in both plain and fragrant yuzu citrus flavors, while plant-forward chimaki, (Chinese-style glutinous rice wrapped in bamboo leaves, ¥250) made by a group from the Aizu region of Fukushima Prefecture, are just a few of the more common “convenient” snack food items available. More unusual items for sale include a konnyaku, konbu (kelp) and coconut milk abalone substitute. According to Suzuki, gluten-free cakes and desserts are particularly popular, as are frozen goods such as vegan gyōza dumplings and meat substitutes.
If you want a more substantial meal, you can eat vegan and gluten-free adaptations of omurice (rice omelette) — the recipe is a closely guarded secret — and gyūdon (beef-on-rice bowls), among other similar fare, in the family restaurant on the second floor. Although the restaurant itself is not Buddhist, its meals are “pungent vegetable” free to accommodate those diners who do adhere to certain Buddhist teachings. You can also take food out, bento style, in sturdy paper containers to minimize plastic use.
Other nods to sustainability include working with local businesses and small organic farmers as much as possible, as well as sourcing fair trade items. Since opening, Suzuki says the store has become a conduit for information on vegan products and topics, with educational seminars held by producers and others in the restaurant industry occasionally offered on the second floor.
Although 75 percent of Vegan Store’s customers thus far are Japanese, Suzuki is eager to attract more non-Japanese clientele — both visitors to Japan and residents of the country. An in-store currency exchange machine is available to encourage such trade.
Tokyo resident, Jess, originally from Wales, read about Vegan Store online and visited because she sometimes struggles to find purely vegetarian foods elsewhere.
“It’s different to what I expected,” she admits. “It’s got (an) organic, authentic kind of feeling to it. I like that you can see them cooking; it makes it even more appealing to try the actual food (upstairs) because you see that it’s freshly made here. That’s quite inviting.”
For more information about Vegan Store, visit www.veganstore.jp.