From Issue 1: What is Jarry?
Text and Photos by Adam Duxbury
It had always been a dream of mine to visit Japan. So when I met a guy who shared my enthusiasm (and also happened to have a British Airways silver membership card and a stack of air miles), I knew it was fate. We planned a trip to mark our one-year anniversary that would also take advantage of the Easter break at home and the height of the cherry blossom season in Japan. Before leaving I had two concerns: Would I get kicked out every time I tried to enter one of these onsens (tattoos are still associated with yakuza gang members)? And, as a lifelong vegetarian, what the hell was I going to eat?
Touching down in the early afternoon, we made our way to our hotel in Shinjuku, the exciting sights, sounds, and smells of Tokyo all around. We met a few friends who were stationed in Tokyo for work and, just before jetlag stole our last semblance of sense, we had it knocked out of us with a trip to Robot Restaurant—a deliriously tacky live theatre show that was like watching Power Rangers on acid. Later we passed a group of adolescent girls performing saccharine sweet Kawai songs in a public square and slurped down a bowl of (possibly vegetarian) ramen in a smoke-filled restaurant, before packing into a Purikura photo booth and dancing our asses off at an even smokier underground bar. We were in Tokyo, no doubt about that.
The next day I began to realize that being vegetarian and having an omnivorous, Greek-born, son-of-a-former-fish-monger boyfriend as a travel partner meant I had a constant feeling of guilt when we passed yet another amazing looking eatery, trying in vain to find something, anything that looked or sounded like it was free of flesh. “There’s bound to be somewhere a bit further up the street,” he said for the sixth time, our stomachs growling as we searched for lunch. This became a very familiar pattern.
As we were headed for Yoyogi Park, via the hipster-friendly, maze-like streets of Harajuku the boyfriend said, “Let’s grab a takeaway lunch and sit in the park.” “Great idea,” I replied. Several hours later two very hangry men sat down; one of us with a bento box, each compartment filled with delicious meat and fish dishes, the other with a plastic tub full of raw cabbage leaves accompanied by miso paste. I half-heartedly tried dipping the chewy green wedges into the sour paste then gave up. Most important rule of travelling in Japan as a vegetarian? Carry granola bars with you at all times.
Watashi wa bejitarian desu (“I’m a vegetarian”)
Back at the hotel I started studying the phrases I had attempted at home, but with a renewed vigor. Watashi wa bejitarian desu (“I’m a vegetarian”), I repeatedly intoned. It got me the desired result on a few occasions but, in a country where the idea of not eating meat or fish is totally alien unless you are sporting a shaved head and a saffron robe, it was more often met with either a puzzled look or a point towards the fishier end of the menu.
I would like to point out here that I don’t consider myself a fussy eater. I often explain my vegetarianism by saying, “I don’t eat anything animated in a Disney movie.” This mainly relieves the tedium of explaining to strangers my childhood revulsion towards eating meat and my subsequent distrust of large-scale meat production, with all its troublesome health and environmental issues. But I genuinely approached this trip with an open mind—for me, meat and fish aside, all food is fair game and I’ve tried it all (even—shudder—durian fruit).
Outside the cities and Kanazawa
Up in the freezing Japanese Alps, the small town of Takayama was a pleasant surprise. A cute, dimly lit little restaurant called Heianraku had an actual vegetarian section of the menu. It turned out the eccentric owner had spent time in Europe as a young woman, and she was wise to the needs of veggie folk. So we snacked on enormous steaks of braised tofu, sizzling amongst sweet onions in a hot clay pot.
We got a taste of more modern Japanese cooking in the provincial city of Kanazawa. At a newly-opened joint a young group of chefs were keen to impress us. A salad of raw daikon with a rich barley and miso dip was full of umami flavor and it was followed by the lightest, crispest tempura we’d ever eaten. A pillowy potato salad streaked with salty ham was eagerly consumed by the Greek, while for me, a dish of whole, deep-fried eggplant, split down the middle and covered with sticky teriyaki sauce on one side and an unguent, delicate sauce on the other, would have been a revelation in the best Michelin-starred restaurant back home, but at the bar of this tiny establishment, it was a miracle. The whole meal was undoubtedly the culinary highlight of the trip.
When ranking the food during our stay, an easy second place had to be the unique experience of eating Shojin Ryori in the Buddhist temples of Koyasan. Roughly translated it means “devotional cuisine” and it’s pure vegan heaven. For the monks, Shojin Ryori is not a dietary choice, it’s spiritual aestheticism. The ban on killing extends to plants, too, so root vegetables like potatoes and carrots are off limits and so are “sensual” foods such as onion and garlic, but soybeans provide much heartiness in the form of tofu. It may sound dull but the incredible inventiveness of the dishes with careful attention paid to color, texture, and harmony make up for the strict restrictions. There were so many it was difficult to know where to start, but before long, slippery udon noodles in wakame seaweed broth, pickled plums, and a great, shining mound of steamed rice all disappeared without a trace.
Osaka has a reputation as the culinary capital of the country—the phrase kuidaore (“eat ‘til you drop”) is practically the city’s motto. Our first destination was the vibrant Donbori district, a canal-side food mecca that wouldn’t look out of place in Blade Runner. Thousands of venues clamor for your Yen but we found ourselves at the busy Tsurutontan restaurant, a traditional udon house famed for its thick, fresh noodles. When mine arrived, with two hefty slices of fish sitting on top, I just shrugged and put them to one side. By this stage of the trip I’d given up hoping for a Western version of vegetarian food. I often found that even something as innocuous as a fresh green salad would have tiny pieces of meat or fish added. It’s as if the cook suddenly realized they were serving something vegetarian and, in a panic, rectified the problem by adding meat.
I later learned a theory that might explain this. In the 1920s J. W. Robertson Scott, a British journalist, found that Japanese society during World War I was ninety percent vegetarian with fish eaten only on festive occasions. Because meat prices were soaring and the war had pushed wages down, “vegetable-based” meals ruled. But they also came to be associated with poverty and starvation, The generations that survived have since raised their kids to believe that meat is essential to their health. Even the word for vegetarian, bejitarian, is an English loan word, imported alongside otherappropriations like gibbu uppu (give up) and furigan (hooligan).
However I found I was safe enough with one of Osaka’s most famous creations, okonmiyaki; a savory pancake that represents comfort food at its best. In a basement restaurant at the Umeda Sky Building we sat at the bar, a prime position to watch the old boys at work, expertly frying the thick cabbage batter to each customer’s specification (the name means “what you like”), before slathering on a sweet Worcestershire-style sauce, Japanese mayo, tuna shavings, and pickled ginger. We also had our first taste of Japanese gay nightlife in Osaka. One club was holding a speed-dating night so, not being quite at that stage in our relationship yet, we hit a compromise at a friendly little joint with a good mix of locals and expats and plenty of whisky highballs, the drink of choice in many of the bars we visited.
Next we headed to Kyoto for Sakura (cherry blossom) viewing—and judging by the crowds, so had everyone else. For the Japanese these few days of the year are an important time to let their hair down and have a hanami, a party under the blossoms, when the law prohibiting drinking in public is relaxed. Seeing the trees, their boughs heavy with blossoms in pastel shades of delicate pink, milky white, and strawberry red, it was clear why they invoke a celebratory atmosphere.
After a few too many Japanese whiskies the night before, our cravings were for familiar, fatty comfort foods from home, so we hit one of the many Western-style bakeries. These seem to be something of an obsession in Japan and are actually a bit of a lifesaver for the vegetarian traveller. They offer every baked good you can think of and also do excellent Asian twists on familiar pastries like doughnuts filled with rich katsu curry and croissants with sweet red bean
Kinosaki Onsen and back to Tokyo
The question of whether I would get into the onsens unchallenged was answered by a stay in Kinosaki Onsen. These thermal springs are segregated by sex and always nude, so there’s nowhere to hide if you do have any body art. Lurking in a hot tub, trying to look nonchalant, we were suddenly joined by about five young guys sporting more tattoos between them than a Berlin biker convention. Yakuza or not, perhaps Japan was moving with the times.
Back in Tokyo there was time to indulge in a few final culinary adventures so we decided to treat ourselves to some fine dining. There was time to try a traditional ryoutei restaurant where, with some friends, we were given a private room and seated cross-legged on tatami mats at a sunken table. The paper doors slid silently shut and our bowing waitresses brought multiple dishes—this was a convenient way for a vegetarian in a group of meat eaters to get fed, as much of what we ordered was more-or-less vegetable side orders. We also opted for refined dining at the top of the stunning Aman hotel on the 33rd floor of the towering Otemachi Building. There are views over the Imperial Palace and the seven-course menu was a triumph of Japanese-meets-Italian fare—a nice way to ease us back into Western flavors and still enjoy some local ingredients.
On reflection, Japan is certainly a punishing place for a vegetarian. Trying to make my diet fit there was a bit like trying to pick up sushi with one chopstick—everything looked delicious but was always frustratingly just out of reach. However, sometimes the food surprised me and, with a little wiggle-room (and plenty of granola bars), Japan’s ample charms more than made up for the dietary woes for this vegetarian traveler. ///