Eating plant-based in Japan.
In January I was invited to speak at a conference in Kyoto, Japan on type 1 diabetes. I jumped at the opportunity. Not only to travel to a new country that I have heard so many positive things about but it gave me the chance to network in an area I wanted to do more of in 2018 – talking about my personal experience with type 1 diabetes.
I extended the trip from a couple of days to a week and my partner Alex flew from Los Angeles to join me.
I knew in Japan that they ate quite healthy especially from my nutrition studies where I learnt about the Japanese from Okinawa who are one of the longest living populations on earth.
But I also knew they consumed quite a lot of fish. I wasn’t sure how many vegan options they would have.
The vegan app/website HappyCow was of great help, showing us a few vegan restaurants around Kyoto, but most of these where quite expensive and targeted towards tourists.
We both enjoy eating at local (and cheap) restaurants when we travel so we wanted to explore that scene while sticking to our plant-based lifestyle.
To our pleasant surprise, plant foods are abundant in Kyoto. There are a few places that specialize in local organic vegan dishes (Hale) and others that focus on vegetarian cuisine or are more than willing to accommodate us with fully plant-based meals.
By tradition the Japanese eat small servings of multiple dishes for one meal. A typical plant-based lunch consisted of a small serving of steamed rice, a miso or vegetable broth soup, some pickled vegetables, a small salad and a serving of tofu lightly cooked in vegetable oil.
Sometimes the tofu was replaced with a vegetable curry.
I always felt satisfied after a Japanese style lunch. Full but not bloated, very satiated.
The food also digested extremely well. I attributed this to the fermented and pickled vegetables. These were served at every meal and in all stores next to matcha tea.
We didn’t experience a traditional Japanese breakfast but we made our own based on what we could find in the local supermarket with our zero ability to read Japanese. We did manage to figure out what soy milk was in Japanese (thanks to google translate) so we could buy some of that for our cups of tea and coffee.
Breakfast for us consisted of miso soup, sometimes with noodles, vegan sushi or rice balls and Alex enjoyed some whole wheat sandwiches with jam spread.
They also have the most incredible Japanese sweet potatoes that were available at the convenience store freshly baked each morning that we often snacked on or ate for breakfast.
Although they would always spike my blood glucose levels, only later to learn that they had more carbohydrates than the American sweet potato, so my carbohydrate guesstimation was way off.
It was the middle of winter while we roamed the streets and temples of Kyoto so we would often hunt down warm snacks and drinks to give us a quick hit of warmth. Sometimes we would find something healthy, sometimes we would splurge on a soy milk matcha latter or hot chocolate – many times conveniently it would be timed with a low blood glucose level and bring me back up so we could continue to expore the city on foot.
We even tried a can of sweet bean soup straight out of a vending machine.
We carried around bananas and apples in our backpack, although these were expensive to purchase even from the grocery store. There wasn’t much fruit or fresh vegetables but everyone in Japan looked slim and healthy.
As we ventured to some areas outside Kyoto like Nara and the Bamboo groves in Arashiyama, we would momentarily take our hands out of our gloves to google ‘vegetarian options’ and stumbled across some lovely cafes where we were always greeted by a friendly smile, broken English and the kindest level of accommodation to make sure the meals were plant based.
One of our favorite places was a restaurant that specialized in tofu dishes – Togaden.
Togaden had every tofu dish you could think of and some you would have never heard of. Deep fried tofu, raw silken tofu, tofu salad, tofu soup, tofu curry. They even had raw soy bean milk which tasted nothing like the soy milk you buy from a Western supermarket. As Alex described it, it tasted like liquid tofu. Definitely something you probably only try once.
Our week in Japan was wonderful. We loved the atmosphere and the calming Buddhist & Shinto energy from every place we visited. We connected with the people who were so warm and friendly and we enjoyed the magic of the outdoors, even experiencing snowfall on our final morning run before we departed.
Whenever I travel to a country with a different culture I get some nerves about the availability of plant-based foods and Kyoto exceeded my expectations in every way.
Although I am sure some soups or meals may have not been completely “vegan” and free of all animal products I truly felt that each and every restaurant did their best to accommodate our dietary requests.