Japan Tosses Veggie Crunch Into The Big Indian Appetite

Preeti Verma Lal picks a newly-launched Japanese restaurant guide and learns that the nation’s affection for vegetarian visitors from India is growing.

  You, the vegetarian, thought you’d starve in Japan — a nation known for its sushi, sashimi and yakitori. Have you burdened your suitcase with roasted peas, noodles and some stay-forever munchies? Have friends told you that the vegetarian will have a hard time finding anything vegetarian in Japan? Dump the myth. Don’t run to Google yet. There’s a better way of finding all things vegetarian in Japan. Pick up A Guide to Indian and Vegetarian Restaurants in Japan, a handbook launched by Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO).

The move comes three years after “Washoku”, traditional Japanese cuisine, was added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list. With the increasing footfall of Indian tourists and business travellers to Japan, JNTO gives tourists and travel agents in-depth understanding of the Japanese cuisine and what it has to offer to vegetarians visiting the country.

Categorised under city heads, the guide lists Indian and vegetarian restaurants in Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka, Kanazawa, Hiroshima and Sapporo. The information box on each restaurant includes website, address, phone number, timings, seating arrangement, starting meal price and whether credit cards are accepted or not. The guide also lists hotels with vegetarian support. This book, however, is more than a mere listing of vegetarian restaurants. It pictorially explains restaurant seating types (table, tatami mat and private rooms) as well as how meals are offered.

 Vegetarian support information includes how to eat Japanese food using hash (chopsticks) and hash bad manners. Chew on some of them. Never use your hash to pull bowl towards you, pass food to another or lick food stuck in the chopsticks. It is considered impolite to stick hash upright in the rice bowl or lay hash across the edges of the bowl. With basics in place, start veggie hunting.

In Tokyo, do not start counting vegetarian restaurants, including Indian restaurants. You’d run out of breath before you could get to 100. A rough count puts the number at 1,000 vegetarian eateries in Tokyo alone. Several of these are located near major sight-seeing locations. At the Tokyo station, there’s Soraniro Nippon — a vegetarian ramen restaurant; Kushi Garden serves macrobiotic cuisine. Eat burritos in Frijoles.

 It’s Vegetable, a Taiwanese restaurant, not only stays away from meat, but also skips the use of onions, chives and garlic. Milan Nataraj, Japan’s first Indian restaurant has opened a branch in Shibuya and Vege Herb Saga that serves vegetarian South Indian food is a hit even with the locals. DevaDeva Cafe, a short walk from Inokashira Park, has very reasonably priced vegan menu that includes ‘Yogi Burger’, a soya sausage topped vegetarian pizza, ‘chicken’ nuggets made from soya beans, a latte made of soya milk and countless vegan desserts.

 In Tokyo, if you want to mix piety with spices, there’s only one name to reckon with — Govinda’s — the Indian restaurant attached to the ISKCON temple. The food is delectably vegetarian and their weekend dinner buffet brings the devout and foodie to their yard. However, if you are a vegan, check with the servers. Milk and ghee flow at Govinda’s.  

“The chefs at all our locations are from the best restaurants and hotels in India. In our kitchens, finest spices and ingredients are used for array of curries and tandoori dishes,” says Bappaditya Chatterjee, Manager, Ethnic Dining Group that runs several restaurants in Japan, including Mantra (Yokohama), Mantra Cafe (Ginza), Amara (Soromachi Sky Tree), Diya (Roppongi Hills). 

Chef Prem Khaduka of Nataraj restaurant tells us that the vegetarian thali is the most popular. “With three curry dishes, naan and one dessert, the vegetarian locals invariably order a thali for lunch. Soyabean curry, kulfi and mango shrikhand also finds several takers,” adds Khaduka, who has been working in Tokyo for about a year.

 If you are headed to Nagoya, there’s Maharaja, Haldi, and Indus; in Kyoto, step into Ashoka and Mughal. Osaka has Shama, Mithila and Bindu. Kanazawa lists Sharma and Mahal.  Hiroshima has several options including Ganesh and Kanak.

Hotels with vegetarian support include Royal Park Hotel, Hotel Nikko Narita, Rose Hotel  (all in Tokyo), Hotel Nikko Princess (Kyoto), Hilton Osaka, Sheraton Hiroshima, ANA Crowne Plaza Hiroshima, Chateriase Gateaux Kingdom Sapporo.

Remember, in Japan, being a ‘vegetarian’ might mean fish/eggs are acceptable. Specifically mention no-fish, no-egg.  Unlike other South Asian countries, in Japan, vegetarian is absolutely vegetarian. No hint of meat seasoning. No oyster-sauce drizzle. No meat broth in a vegetarian soup. The Japanese carry their honesty everywhere. Even to the dining table!