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Beyond sushi

TOKYO (AFP) – Even on a weekday, there’s a queue at Tokyo’s vegan Izakaya Masaka, including many tourists eager to try meat-free versions of Japanese classics like fried chicken and juicy dumplings.

While millions of visitors have happily savoured Japan’s fish- and meat-heavy cuisine, options for vegetarians and vegans are harder to find.

Now, Tokyo and other cities are on a mission to show the country’s renowned gastronomy is not off-limits to those who don’t eat meat.

Tina Bui, a 36-year-old vegan from San Francisco, said she was very excited to order the signature karaage soy fried chicken at Izakaya Masaka.

She said plant-based options were limited in Japan compared to the United States (US), with just “enough for me to survive” a short trip.

Tokyo’s government has held seminars for restaurateurs and dispatched experts to help eateries develop new menu items, introducing alternatives to staple ingredients such as dried fish flakes or meat-bone broth.

ABOVE & BELOW: Japanese fried dumpling Gyoza being prepared at the Vegan Izakaya Masaka restaurant; a dish of karaage with tartar sauce, made from deep fried soy meat; and executive chef Katsumi Kusumoto using a cooking torch as he prepares a dish at Saido, a Japanese vegan restaurant named one of the best vegan restaurants worldwide in 2019. PHOTOS: AFP

A participant prepares meals during a one-day ‘shojin’ style cooking intensive course
Customers dining at the Vegan Izakaya Masaka restaurant
The window display at the entrance to Vegan Izakaya Masaka

Ninna Fujimoto from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government told AFP that the city wants to help accommodate tourists by widening the diversity of food options, including vegetarian cuisine.

The city publishes a specialist restaurant guide, offers subsidies to get businesses certified veggie-friendly, and has two vegetarian and vegan chefs among its “tourism ambassadors”.

One of them is Katsumi Kusumoto of Saido, a restaurant that serves vegan versions of common dishes, such as grilled eel made from tofu and vegetables.

“In Tokyo, there are lots of Michelin-starred restaurants, the most in the world. But compared to other cities, Tokyo has extremely few vegan and vegetarian restaurants,” he told AFP after a fully-booked lunch service.

Around half of the customers at Saido, which has topped global rankings on the vegan guide app Happy Cow in recent years, are foreign tourists.

It’s “sad” so many people are excluded from Tokyo’s fine dining scene, said Kusumoto, who posts on social media about vegan cooking and gives demonstrations in his volunteer ambassador role.

Founder of the non-profit VegeProject Japan Haruko Kawano is also helping Tokyo in its push for a more inclusive cuisine.

“A lot of restaurants think making vegan dishes is very, very difficult,” she said.

“In Japan, there are few vegetarians or vegans, (so owners) don’t know about them, or what they really want.”

Some worry they will need a separate kitchen, or to follow strict rules as for halal or kosher food, Kawano added.

Others are reluctant to stop using core ingredients like dashi fish stock, often added to flavour otherwise vegetarian dishes.

“There are some very good dashi made without animal products,” Kawano said.

“If they try, and understand how good it is, they can maybe make very beautiful, delicious Japanese food.”

VegeProject was involved in a recent trial to turn the town of Ikaho in the Gunma region into a model for attracting veggie tourists.

Other cities making similar efforts include Sapporo, whose tourism promotion committee is publishing an online video series about vegetarian restaurants and cafes.

Data on vegetarians and vegans in Japan is sparse, with small-scale surveys finding just a small percentage of the population following such diets.

But the concept is not new in the country, where Buddhist vegetarian cuisine, known as shojin ryori, has been eaten for hundreds of years.

These days it is served mainly at temples and specialist restaurants – and at a cooking class in Kamakura, a popular seaside day-trip destination near Tokyo.

At the workshop, expert Mari Fujii showed five people from Sweden, Venezuela, India and the US how to make kenchinjiru vegetable soup and several side dishes.

“Vegetarians come and participate, but also people who are interested in and want to know more about the philosophy and background of the food,” said Fujii, 72.

Being a vegetarian in Japan remains challenging, despite the efforts made in recent years.

PR manager for Izakaya Masaka Ashley van Gool thinks Tokyo can “definitely” become as culinarily diverse as New York, London and other global cities.

“It’s already been improving over the past years,” she said, with regular restaurants starting to offer one or two veggie dishes.

Customer Laura Schwarzl from Austria paused her vegetarianism to eat meat and fish during her trip to Japan, saying the food is “very special”.

The 22-year-old also planned to visit Indonesia and other destinations, where she expected to find more choices.

“As soon as I leave Japan, I’ll be vegetarian again,” she said.