Vegan Tales from Japan

Radies and radishes: Part 13

Posted on 5 March 2010

Chasing dragon fruit

… the journal of a South African vegan in Japan by Carey Finn

2 March 2010

Seasons in Japan are more distinct, or perhaps just better noted. As South Africans (Capetonians) enjoy the last stretch of summer before the brown leaves and gusty winds of autumn, we’re thawing out and enjoying the first signs of spring. The sun has been switched back on, and frostbite is no longer a risk on your way to the conbini. The plum blossoms are blooming, and hordes of Japanese – cameras, lenses, spare lenses, lens covers, tripods, spare tripods and children in tow – are jostling for position under the fragrant red, pink, white, gold and yellow blooms. This is a sure sign that spring has arrived.

A fruit stall in Kobe, Japan. Photo courtesy of Carey FinnWe have been stalking the plum blossoms as they open across Osaka; beginning our stakeout at Osaka Castle. There are hundreds of carefully pruned and protected trees there; making for a great view, and, it seems, a good place to sell octopus balls – the local specialty. The smell of the blossoms is somewhat overpowered by the smell of burnt, rancid oil, so we moved on to Kanbai Viewing Spot # 2: the park near our house.

I heard that the blossoms, many of which give off an intoxicating, heavenly smell, are edible. Google told me so. Technically, it’s the blossoms of actual fruit plum trees that are edible … Google didn’t say anything about ornamental plums – the variety found in Japan. I decided to risk a tiny shred of petal anyway, and found that they taste intensely like … well, plum. Some taste like Grape Fanta too. I survived, but I wouldn’t advise tasting any random blossom – since even if it is edible (and more than just Google says so), you can’t be sure what kind of ‘cides have been sprayed on it.

While you don’t see many people biting the flowers off the branches, in processed forms, plum blossom products are widely used in Japan, most notably in plum wine (umeshuu) and teas. The flowers have also been the inspiration for traditional tea sweets – wagashi. A famous example is Red Plum Blossom with Frost, a sweet made by a Kyoto confectioner since 1699. It symbolises the plum blossom’s defiance of winter.

But enough about blossoms. This blog’s supposed to be about dragon fruit. February 14th marked the beginning of celebrations for the Chinese New Year, and, being a Tiger myself, I headed to China Town in nearby Kobe to eat dragon fruit and deep-fried sweets. Luckily for me, tigers were not on the menu. Instead, there were exotic and not-so-exotic fruits, teas, dumplings (not veg), deep-fried sticky rice balls (mochi), deep-fried sweet potatoes, dipped in syrup, and many other greasy, satisfying goodies.

The mochi were rich, but tasty, filled with red bean paste inside, and coated with sesame seeds on the outside. The fresh fruit was expensive but, as you can see from the picture, fun to try. If you were ok with mouldy fruit, you could get a whole shopping bag of persimmons for ¥500. As unappetising as that sounds, naturally dried and preserved fruit (left in the ‘shadows’ for micro-organisms to do their work) is popular here, and once you get past the thought that you’re munching mould, it’s delicious!

To all the other Tigers out there, or toshi-hito, akemashite omedetou gozaimasu. May your year be filled with dragon fruit, healthy mould and mochi!

Next time: Overnight buses and hostile hostels, vegan-style.

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Radies and radishes: Part 12

Posted on 26 February 2010

Seoul Power

… the journal of a South African vegan in Japan (errr, Korea), by Carey Finn

23 February 2010

One of the biggest advantages to living in Japan is the travel opportunities you have. The main island of Honshu, in particular, is a springboard to the rest of Asia. A flight to South Korea takes just 1 hour and 24 minutes – it’s like flying from Jo’burg to Durban. Travel agents sometimes offer special deals, and after 5 months of stalking them, I was able to get a cheap ticket to Seoul.

A vegetarian feast in Seoul, South Korea. Photo courtesy of Carey FinnSo, at the end of January, I popped over for a weekend. One of my best friends from varsity has been teaching English in South Korea for the past few years, and I was excited to see him again. Of course, I was equally excited to try the local food. Being a whiz in the kitchen, the said friend fattened me up on curries, flatbreads, crumbed tofu and low GI fridge tart – all of which was delicious, if a little deadly. We eventually made it out of the kitchen so that I could take in some of the tourist sites, and try some Korean cooking.

Our first pit stop was at a bakery; unfortunately selling neither verifiably vegan nor yummy goods. The breads and pastries were much like the ones in Japan; either cake-like or plastic-like, or a combination of the two. Lunch, luckily, was much more successful. We went to a great vegetarian restaurant that was tucked away down an alley in the shopping district of Insa-dong. The restaurant had a big menu, and about 80% of the dishes were vegan.

We sat at a low table and ordered several dishes, with the local custom being to share food. A pot of mushroom, veggie and soya-meat shabu-shabu (a Japanese stew-type of thing, where you cook the ingredients yourself), a plate of samoosa-type pastries, filled with fiery fake meat, and a platter of soya steak slices were brought to the table. The main dishes were accompanied by lots of little bowls of dipping sauces, salads and kimchi. Almost everything was hot enough to make even a Mexican blush. The kimchi, Korea’s unofficial national dish, was cabbage that had been prepared with perhaps a kg of chillies. It was tasty, but coming from the much subtler (some say, bland) tastes of Japan, I couldn’t handle it. Luckily for my lips, not all of the dishes contained chilli.

Our leisurely lunch was filling, lots of fun and cheap too. Travelling to South Korea on the Yen is like travelling to … well, somewhere the Rand is strong. Mozambique maybe?

While travelling around and doing sightseeing, I snacked on walnut and soya blend drinks (delicious) and sweet potato soya puddings from the convenience stores, as well as the odd caffeinated beverage from …cringe … Starbucks. The city is as Americanised as Osaka, and all of the usual suspects were present – Krispy Kreeme, Baskin Robbins, etc.

On my last day in Seoul, we had lunch at a vibey Mexican restaurant in the foreign part of the city. My friend and I shared giant refried beans and potato burritos, which went down a treat. Not exactly traditional Korean food, but a good vegetarian option. Much of the food sold at the street stalls and mainstream restaurants contains cow, fish or other animal parts, making it difficult to just drop by a fun-looking place for a meal.

I must have gained at least 3 kg over the weekend, and I fear that if I lived there, I would be the size of a blimp within 6 months. But luckily I am in Japan, for now. ^_^

Next time: Edible plum blossoms, Chinese New Year treats and more.

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Radies and radishes: Part 11

Posted on 3 February 2010

Teetering around Tottori

… the journal of a South African vegan in Japan, by Carey Finn

2 February 2010

Since Japan is colder than Sheldon’s vegan ice-cream right now, I’ve been reluctant to do anything other than eat and sleep. Why humans don’t hibernate in winter, I’ll never understand. But in a feat of superhuman effort and much cursing, I dragged myself away from the heater and took a bus to Tottori prefecture to try some snowboarding.

Chocolate cake and green tea ice cream in Yonago, Japan. Photo courtesy of Carey FinnIt doesn’t snow in Osaka, except for the odd flurry of tiny white flakes, which melt on contact with the ground. So if you want to see the real deal, you have to head out of town. The nearest ski resorts are in Hyogo, Tottori and Gifu. Hyogo is the closest, but we have connections in Tottori.

A 3-hour bus ride later, one of these connections collected us at the station, and showed us around her town. Dressed in a (farm) stylish snowsuit and gumboots, I excitedly crunched through the snow on the pavement, made a snowman in a parking lot and lobbed snowballs at my sidekick.

Tottori is a fairly small town, with very few (possibly zero) vegetarian restaurants, but luckily there is at least one Indian restaurant. So for supper, we chowed down on vegetable curry and rice. The curry was warm and tasty, if a bit watery. It was also reasonably priced, at about 1000 Yen (don’t convert back to Rands if you don’t want a shock). There is a franchise of these Indian restaurants in Japan, but this was the first time I’d been to one. They’re a good choice if there are no all-vegetarian restaurants around. It’s a lot better than stuffing yourself with convenience store rice balls.

The next day, we took a 2-carriage ‘local’ (that means very slow) train to Yonago, a rural area on the other side of the prefecture. We spent the afternoon on the slopes of Mount Daisen, a famous skiing spot in the area. I used the plural, ‘slopes’, but in truth we didn’t get past the beginners’ slope. Still, we had a lot of fun, and were able to stand and navigate most of the way down the almost-level incline, by the end of the day.

Ravenous after all that slipping and sliding, our Yonago connection took us to a great vegetarian restaurant for dinner. It’s called ‘Hibi no Kate’, and is run by a lady with pink hair, who calls herself ‘Honey’ (although only to foreigners).

The restaurant is labelled as vegetarian, but we couldn’t find a non-vegan dish on the menu. The ‘egg omelettes’ were actually tofu, and all of the sauces used soya milk. The desserts were all vegan too. For dinner, I tucked into a veggie burger, which was served with the tofu omelette stuff, salad, miso soup and rice. It was filling, but luckily I have a second stomach just for desserts, so I managed to squeeze in the chocolate cake and green tea ice cream in the picture, too.

We tried to convince Honey to move her restaurant to Osaka, but the Yonago connection, a vegetarian herself, objected. When she leaves Japan though … the trucks will be ready.

Next time: Seoul food. A weekend in South Korea.

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Radies and radishes: Part 10

Posted on 28 January 2010

A sojourn in the land of cows and kiwis

… the journal of a South African vegan in Japan, by Carey Finn

12 January 2010

Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu! Happy New Year, in case you were wondering. I celebrated the dawning of the Year of the Tiger (myself born under this Chinese Zodiac sign) not in the Far East, but a bit further east … so to speak. I spent the festive season with family in Hamilton, New Zealand, and soaked up some much-needed sunshine!

 Veggie burger at Burger Fuel, New Zealand. Photo courtesy of Carey Finn I know I promised an entry on Bossa Nova, breyani and the like, but I’m going to keep that for a rainy day and ramble on about my vegan experiences in Kiwiland instead.

I’ll begin with the in-flight meals. I know these words strike dread and terror in the hearts of many travellers, but I can honestly say (and I swear Cathay Pacific didn’t bribe me in any way) that the meals were delicious. Shocking, I know. But since I’ve been vegan, eating onboard has changed completely.

Gone are the days of cardboard cow cutlets and bread rolls you could kill someone with. I dined on curry, grilled vegetables, salad, foccacia, and even chocolate pound cake for breakfast. The rolls were soft and fluffy, and to make things even better, I got served before everyone else. Makes you want to request a vegan meal on your next flight, doesn’t it?

New Zealand offered decent vegan grub, although some of the breads and pastries had some suspect fats on their ingredient lists. At the popular tourist spots, eating vegetarian was easy enough, but there weren’t always vegan options.

However, everywhere (and I do mean everywhere – even at the garages) I went, soya milk was offered with drinks. It was a little luxury that I don’t have in Japan, and I took full advantage of it; guzzling soya chai lattes (and yes, that’s latte with an “I”), mochacchinos and anything else I could squeeze in.

I found soya ice cream and yoghurt at the supermarkets, but had no luck with cheese. I did find Fry’s frozen foods though, which was a nice familiar taste. I was really hoping for the faux chicken patties, but alas, they were nowhere to be seen. I tried the local veggie polony, which was pretty good; crumblier than the Fry’s version, and with a filling of corn and peas. It went down a treat with hummus and sprouts, in wraps.

What I struggled with, surprisingly, was the size of the portions. At restaurants, and even at home, everything just seemed so big! Here in Japan, portion sizes are a lot smaller, and I think my body has adjusted to that. I understand now why my students complained about Australian food on their school trip; they too struggled with the amount of chow they were served!

The biggest, and one of the best, things I ate while in New Zealand was this burger at Burger Fuel. It’s a fast food franchise and they seem to have at least 1 store in each big city. They have a good range of vegan and vegetarian burgers on their menu, and. you can get them with regular or sweet potato chips (kumara chips), if you want to try something different. The burger was the size of my head, and really tasty. Oishikatta! I’m sure I gained a kilogram during that lunch alone.

I also had some great curry from a veggie Indian restaurant in Hamilton. I kicked myself, because while I was waiting for the takeaways, flipping through the local veggie magazine, I saw that “vegan potlucks” were held once a week, just down the road from my sister’s house! It was too late for me, but inspiring to read anyway. Maybe next time.

For now, it’s back to mochi, udon and all things tofu as I carry on my adventures in Japan.

Good wishes for 2010.

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Radies and radishes: Part 9

Posted on 8 December 2009

South African Vegans do Thanksgiving, Japanese-style

… the journal of a South African vegan in Japan, by Carey Finn

7 December 2009

Being South African, Thanksgiving has always been a very foreign event to me. When imagining it, I invariably thought of Americans with funny black clothes and hats, donning fake beards and stuffing turkeys (or preparing that mysterious product known as Tofurkey, if they were vegetarian).

A vegan Thanksgiving dinner spread, Japan. Photo courtesy of Carey FinnIn Japan, Thanksgiving is less of a foreign event. This is probably due to the large number of Americans living in Japan and the importing of their culture, as well as the fact that Japan has a Thanksgiving day of its own. It’s called Labour Thanksgiving Day and it falls about a week before Thanksgiving Day, just to confuse things. As the name suggests, it’s a day to send grateful vibes to all the workers in Japan.

So this year, we decided to do a Thanksgiving of our own, celebrating the American event on the Japanese day – no, we weren’t trying to be clever – it just happened to be a convenient public holiday. Tofurkey was nowhere to be found, but our American friends cooked up a hearty mushroom stew, complete with rich dumplings. Each guest brought something, so our spread included French bread and home-made hummus, a warm lentil dahl, rice-veg-wrap thingies (a friend’s invention, and a delicious one at that), carob cupcakes, biscuits, and of course, chocolate. We still may not know much about the Pilgrims, but their day is definitely one worth remembering!

As the temperatures drop below the 5 mark, I’m busy stocking up on winter comfort foods like regular potatoes, sweet potatoes, little brown rough-skinned potatoes (exactly like madumbis), any other kinds of potatoes I can find, and of course, chocolate. I’ve been eating one local brand of dark chocolate so far, and buying eco/fair-trade imports where possible. I’ve been avoiding all chocolate that advertises itself as milk. Obviously, it would never be vegan, right? Wrong. A Japanese friend recently informed me that in fact, one such ‘milk’ chocolate in fact contains no milk at all! Crazy, but tasty! ^_^

Only in Japan.

Next time: fruitcakes, Bossa Nova and breyani.

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Radies and radishes: Part 8

Posted on 3 December 2009

Pizza with cashew nut cheese and a side order of good news

… the journal of a South African vegan in Japan, by Carey Finn

30 November 2009

God bless Italians. Pizza is amazing. Being vegan makes eating pizza a treat, rather than a take-out, but all the more enjoyable for it. The thing with non-dairy cheese is that it’s difficult to find (at least, in Japan) and usually expensive, and the alternatives require a couple of culinary skills. Case in point: cashew cheese. Luckily for me, there is a vegetarian restaurant in Hommachi, central Osaka, which possesses said culinary skills.

Cashew nut cheese pizza from Hommachi, Osaka, Japan. Photo courtesy of Carey FinnI went for a lazy Saturday lunch at Green Earth (gotta love the name), and ordered their special vegan pizza, drooling with anticipation. It had been 8 months, 2 weeks and 3 days since I last bit into vegan pizza, and I was near breaking point. The restaurant used to make the pizza with soy cheese, but recently changed to cashew. Why, I’m not sure. Anyway, the pizza arrived – a medium crust, topped with brinjals, peppers, olives and pineapple. Metcha oishii, as they say here. That means really delicious. It wasn’t a St Elmo’s style, more like a focaccia, but it went down a treat.

I also ordered a side of battered ‘chicken’ nuggets, made using that gluten meat I blogged about a while back (see Part 4). They were tasty – though could have done with a dipping sauce of sorts – like a sweet chilli sauce or something. And for dessert … there was pumpkin cake with vegan cream. It was definitely the best cake I’ve had in Japan so far. I ordered a second slice for the road. They sell sweet tofu muffins, carob brownies and a few other sweet treats near the till – almost all vegan, and cheap.

In other good news, there has been some resolution with the cats I blogged about last time. I took a trip out to Shiga again, to show a volunteer from the NPO where the cats are. We fed a few of them, and she promised to chat to another volunteer about getting some TNR done. The next day, she mailed me to say that she’d been back to the spot, with the volunteer, and they’d found out that all of the cats but one had in fact already been neutered/spayed by the locals!

The neighbouring residents had taken pity on the cats and trapped them one by one, and some residents had even let the kitties move into their houses. One man apparently has 10 cats in his house. They said that the area is known as a dumping ground for unwanted pets, and they were trying to stop the cat population from increasing by doing TNR. It was very welcome good news! The money I’d set aside for the TNR of those cats, I transferred to the NPO for use on another group of cats, rescued on the other side of the river.

So, there’s hope out there, it seems.

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Radies and radishes: Part 7

Posted on 22 November 2009

(A)Stray in Shiga …

… the journal of a South African vegan in Japan, by Carey Finn

16 November 2009

I haven’t blogged about the hellholes called “pet shops” in Japan, or the dearth of fur in the department stores here, and I’m not going to today, but they do form part of this post’s backdrop. The state of animal welfare is dismal in Japan, just like in many other countries – South Africa included. But some things are really, really dismal. Like the stray cat population, for instance.

 The Stray Cats, live in Shiga, Japan. Photo courtesy of Carey FinnPick a park, any park, poke around in the bushes a little, and you’re bound to find a full-on feral cat colony. Sometimes you won’t even need to look – the cats will caterwaul and come find you, in the hopes of scraps of food. The number of cats that have been abandoned over the years, and bred out in parks, gutters and other areas around cities, is heartbreaking. There are a couple of excellent NPOs working for these kitties; but they’ve really got their work cut out for them.

A couple of weeks ago, I went exploring in nearby Shiga Prefecture. I picked one of the lesser-known stations on the train line that goes around Lake Biwako (known for its beaches, floating temple and rowing song), and after disembarking, bushwhacked my way down to the shore. En route I came across a pack of skinny cats, parked under some cars. Their leader padded over and meowed pitifully. He let me pat him – the first cat that I’ve been able to pat in Osaka – and sent me to the nearby convenience store, for food. Nothing kitty-friendly was vegan too, but I bought a few things and went back to feed the cats – they nearly ripped the plastic carry bag to shreds in their desperation! I’d never seen anything like it. It was really awful. I considered stuffing a few into my slingbag, but decided against it – instead I contacted one of the cat NPOs and I’ll be going back on a trap-neuter-release mission soon. Hopefully, I’ll also be able to organise a regular feeder for the cats.

That was just one instance of the feral and stray cat colonies in Japan. There are hundreds more – and yet the hellhole kitten mills just keep turning out more and more pets. I won’t write about the recent occasion when we misguidedly attempted to catnap a stray at a local station … or how it led to my sidekick receiving antibiotics and tetanus shots … but there are times when it’s tough being an animal lover, wherever you are in the world.

This post ends on that note, but with a somewhat lighter postscript:

Pumpkin-flavoured soya milk: This flavour, sometimes called ‘gourd’ here, is difficult to identify at the supaa. It’s difficult to identify what the taste is when you’re drinking it, too – but once you translate the box, it makes absolute sense! It’s a rather tasty flavour; much nicer than the dairy milk, grain and peach flavours I’ve tried – but not as nice as the melon, grape or adzuki bean. Only in Japan. 😉

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Radies and radishes: Part 6

Posted on 31 October 2009

Time to Grow Your Own (GIY) …

… the journal of a South African vegan in Japan, by Carey Finn

26 October 2009

Anyone who’s ever tasted soya beans fresh from their garden, or chowed down on home grown tomatoes and basil will know there’s just no comparison to vegetables plucked from the supermarket shelf, even if they’re certified organic. Having attempted a very small-scale veggie patch in South Africa, I was excited to carry on my foray (or should I say, forage) into natural farming in Japan.

Balcony garden in the making. Photo courtesy of Carey FinnFinding organic soil proved near-impossible. We asked around, in English and Japanese, to no avail. It was either sift through the bags of soil at the nurseries to find a brand with the least fertilisers and other added chemicals, or dig up the local park. The latter posed 2 problems: 1, the risk of getting caught and having to deal with authorities in extremely limited Japanese; and 2, the fact that the soil is compact and very clay-like. We had already acquired 4 pots of this clay-like soil from a construction site down the road (another story altogether). So we opted for the nursery soil. Organic soil is just not one of the conveniences in super-convenient Osaka.

Then we went in search of seeds. We found some spinach and peas at the 100-Yen store … nowhere near organic, but we thought we’d give them a try. They sprouted and have grown up quite nicely, without any fertilisers or anything. They aren’t incredibly strong plants, but they seem to be tasty, as they attracted some small green caterpillars, which somehow scaled the wall of the block of flats to our balcony … again, again and again …

We squeezed some tomato seeds from organic tomatoes we bought, into a pot of soil, and they sprouted beautifully. The first flowers appeared 2 days ago so the fruit shouldn’t be far behind. Instead of buying more questionable, chemically-treated seeds, we opted to use the seeds from the organic veggies we get once a week – through a mail-order company called Warabe-Mura. All the produce comes from small organic farms in nearby Gifu Prefecture. It’s great – you can smell the earth on the veggies! So now we have some unidentifiable squash (called gourd, over here) growing too.

Fresh organic veggies from Warabe Mura, Japan. Photo courtesy of Carey FinnAdd some flowers, a rescued hibiscus tree and some organic lavender to the mix and our balcony garden is coming along nicely. Oh, not to mention a cotton tree … never mind vegan veggie gardening –it’s time to take this to the next level – my sidekick has threatened to start weaving her own clothes.

Now just to get a fruit tree or two installed downstairs, near the bike sheds. I’ve already ranted about the exorbitant price of fruit in Japan – but did I mention some of it tastes like it’s sweetened? That’s right. Sugar added. Or at least, it tastes that way. In his book, The One-Straw Revolution, Masanobu Fukuoka mentioned the injecting of additives into oranges during processing. Some say it’s colourants, and I think maybe it’s a type of sweetener too.

Seriously. There’s naturally sweet, straight off a tree, and then there’s “sets-your-teeth-on-edge and tastes-like-a-super-processed-fake-orange-juice-from the supermarket, after being shipped thousands of kilometres”, sweet. Who knows – maybe the (did I mention, non-organic) oranges really are just that sweet. But it got me thinking.

Next time: Vegans meet stray cats in Shiga, plus pumpkin-flavoured soya milk. And maybe a new restaurant too.

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Radies and radishes: Part 5

Posted on 13 October 2009

Good times in Kyoto and Kobe …

… the journal of a South African vegan in Japan, by Carey Finn

7 October 2009

I experienced my first vegetarian festival last weekend, and it was, in a word, delicious. On Saturday evening we headed to a pre-festival vegan buffet in Kyoto central. The Kyoto Vegetarian Festival is an annual event, but the vegan buffet made its debut this year. Judging by the good attendance, food and times had by all, I’m sure it will happen next year too.

The Kyoto Vegetarian Festival, Japan. Photo courtesy of Carey FinnThere were a handful of gaijin (foreigners), and a lot of Japanese folk of all ages at the buffet. There were even some cute vegan kids running around, munching away and giggling under the tablecloths. The dinner was about exchanging stories, but the big veg fest itself was about showing people how easy it is to be vegetarian or vegan, and why it’s so important that we go flesh-free. We all had to say a few lines on why we were vegan – I could only manage English, but I mentioned environmental, animal and, oft-forgotten, human rights reasons.

On Sunday, after a night spent on a hard tatami mat floor, trying to remain undetected by spider mites (the price one pays for cheap accommodation), we headed to the veggie festival, which was held at Okazaki Park, near the famous Heian Shrine. There were about 100 stalls and hundreds and hundreds of people. We pigged out on organic vegan quiche, cake, waffles, falafels … curdled soya milk … then got some souvenirs. The curdled soya milk, while not particularly favoured by me, is a favourite here. Mmm, tasty.

There were some organizations which support organic community farming, handing out stuff in Japanese, and some organisations against fur, animal testing, and the like. I got a bright yellow no-fur t-shirt, which I will be wearing to a protest in November.

Kyoto, it seems, is a great place for vegetarians. Nearby Kobe, which also begins with a K (I really needed a way to introduce Kobe, ok) has some good points of its own. One is that it is where Arjuna was set (an anime about a girl who has to save the earth); the other is that it is home to Modern Ark Farm CaféOpens in a new window. It is not a farm at all, but they serve delicious vegan and veggie meals (including cake and that tasty wheat meat) – all organic as far as I can tell.

Vegan and organic seem to go together in Japan, which is great. Organic fruit, however, is a rarity. I found my first organic apple at a natural foods store in Kobe, and it cost about R40. Ouch. It was big and tasty though. Organic bananas imported from Mexico are easy to find, but I have to question how fair the trade is …

Next episode: Balcony gardens, artificially sweetened oranges, and more.

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Radies and radishes: Part 4

Posted on 2 October 2009

Of monks, wheat meat and tofu cheesecake …

… the journal of a South African vegan in Japan, by Carey Finn

27 September 2009

There are 2 precious (metal) weeks in the Japanese working calendar, when businesses close and the trains get busier than usual, as people take holidays around the country. The first is Golden Week, a week of public holidays in July; the second is Silver Week, a week in September, where 3 of the days are public holidays, and the remaining 2 might as well be.

Gluten wheat meat dishes in Osaka, Japan. Photo courtesy of Carey FinnI just missed Golden Week; being, at that point, in South Africa, and running around like mad to get ready for my move East. Silver Week, however, I was lucky enough to be here for. I marked it in my diary as soon as I touched down in Tokyo. Partner and 2 friends in tow, I headed to the north of the neighbouring prefecture of Wakayama (the south part of which is where the annual dolphin slaughter happens, fyi), to a mountainous village known as Koya-San.

This is seen as the spiritual headquarters of Esoteric, or Shingon Buddhism, in Japan, and the village is full of temples. We were lucky enough to stay at one, where we enjoyed delicious vegan tofu dishes, including a sesame dofu dish, called goma dofu – which is the specialty of the area. You can eat it with wasabi and soya sauce, or as a dessert with maple syrup and cinnamon. I am not ashamed to admit that I have become addicted to the latter.

Shojin ryouri, being the traditional Buddhist food of Japan, is generally vegan, and always delicious. It was one of the best parts of our stay at Koya-San; along with the storytelling of the 89-year-old mother of the head priest at the temple … she started studying English 70 years ago!

In the village, there’s a great little veggie restaurant called Bon on Sha, which is run by a French lady and her Japanese husband. They speak like four languages … The food was great (they had tofu cheesecake!) and the place so vibey (all wood and clean decor) that we went back 3 times in the space of 24 hours. They sell handmade pottery and carvings, and I managed to find 2 great cups for my tea collection.

Back in Osaka, we experimented with, firstly, tea (in my nice new cups!) and secondly, gluten meat over the course of the week. When you hear gluten meat, those Yuh-Der soya fish, prawn and steak products come to mind, right? Or maybe you think of something like Fry’s? Think again.

In Japan, gluten meat contains no soya … it’s all wheat. Which is a big problem if you’re wheat intolerant! Anyway, that’s the prime meat replacement here – they serve it at lots of the veggie restaurants, and you can buy it tinned online, or at health stores. On its own, it tastes bland … maybe a bit wheaty. But if it’s cooked right, it’s delicious. I’ve had it battered and fried, and also barbeque-sauced and shoved in a tortilla. Now I’m addicted to this too. In fact, I’m signing off right here, to go munch some sweet goma dofu and wheat meat … in that order.

Next episode: Kobe, organic fruit, and veggie festivals in Kyoto.

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Radies and radishes: Part 3

Posted on 18 September 2009

In the dead of night, rice balls call …

… the journal of a South African vegan in Japan, by Carey Finn

16 September 2009

Most convenience stores (konbini) in Japan are open 24 hours?and most people live, at most, 1 km away from one. Even in rural (inaka) areas. Seriously. This is konbini country. After a long night out, when you’re wandering the streets, waiting for the trains to start running again, konbinis are a popular place to refuel. They sell everything from instant meals (not bad quality, either) to magazines, deodorant and adult DVDs. You can even pay your bills, fax and photocopy stuff. And most importantly, konbinis sell rice balls.

Japanese rice balls. Photo courtesy of Carey FinnOnigiri, as they’re known in Japanese, are little triangles of super-processed rice, with a strip of seaweed around the outside, and a bit of filling. Most contain fish, but there are almost always pickled plum (ume) and kelp (kombu) options for us vegans. The filling is written in kanji on the front. No problem, I thought, because the packets are colour-coded too. At Lawsons (a huge chain of konbinis; they even appear as landmarks on Google Maps), purple means plum and green means seaweed. Unfortunately, at other stores (there are about 4 other major chains – 7/11, FamilyMart, am/pm and Sunkist), green also means fish, and I had the unpleasant experience of biting into a rice ball and staring into the eyes of about 100 tiny, dead fish. Moral of the story? Learn kanji, and bite with caution!

Fish appear in some form or another in almost everything in Japan. Salad? Why not add some fish flakes to that? Soup stock? Definitely.

Speaking of creatures from the sea, the annual Taiji dolphin massacreOpens in a new window is taking place as I type. Thousands of pilot whales and dolphins are chased into a cove, to be slaughtered for their flesh or captured for entertainment parks around the world, every single year. This year, the hunt was delayed thanks to the movie The Cove, which has raised awareness of the issue worldwide; but now, the sea is running red with blood again. Please take the time to watch this movie, and tell your friends. Dolphin abuse sucks.

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Radies and radishes: Part 2

Posted on 9 September 2009

… the journal of a South African vegan in Japan, by Carey Finn

31 August 2009

It’s been a month since I arrived in Japan, and I’ve settled in pretty well. My sidekick and I have figured out the rubbish and recycling system (a complicated affair that can result in smelly bags of trash being returned to your doorstep, if you put them out on the wrong day), I’ve lost my karaoke virginity (to a Big Echo in Osaka City) and I’m still vegan. Yay!

I discovered a really useful label on food – the letters ‘JAS’ and two interconnected circle thingies – turns out this is the sign for organic. A lengthy inspection of all the supermarkets (‘supaa’) in the neighbourhood yielded organic daikon radish (literally, ‘radish radish’), cabbage, tomatoes, carrots, brinjals, peppers, pasta, potatoes, and, most importantly – tofu! It’s quite a bit more expensive, but totally worth it. Sometimes they even put a picture of the farmers on the packaging.

Macrobiotic meal: A delicious vegan dinner at Cafe Pino, in Suita City. It comprised a crepe stuffed with potato, soba broth and sweet brown riceI also visited a really “rad” vegan restaurant in Hommachi, which is about 40 minutes from my flat, easily accessible on the train lines. It’s called Raku (‘Luck’) Café, and it’s what locals call a “hole-in-the-wall” – a tiny place with a counter and seats for at most, 6 people. The owner is vegan and really chilled. I’d read about his restaurant on He doesn’t speak much English, but we managed to talk to him with the help of smiles, gestures and a veggie couple sitting nearby. There was no menu, he simply asked us if we were eating (‘tabemasu ka’), we said yes, and an awesome salad, potato dish and pasta dish were served.

On the counter was a set up of glass flasks and tubes, reminiscent of a school chemistry set. This turned out to be the coffee maker! I tried to say how cool I thought this was, and ended up being served coffee … freshly ground and smelling heavenly across the language barrier. Actually, I stopped drinking coffee about a year ago, but this whole experience was too cool to pass up! So I left feeling slightly caffeinated and totally inspired – until then I hadn’t come across any veggie Japanese people.

I’ll definitely be going back to Raku, but one thing I won’t be trying again is something called nattou. If you’ve watched Anime, you’ll probably have heard of it. Nattou is basically fermented (a euphemism for ‘rotted’) soya beans, which are served as a phlegmy topping for breakfast rice. There’s a joke that the final test that stands between foreigners and Japanese citizenship is nattou … and no one can pass it. So of course, I was determined to be the exception. Alas, I failed. Miserably. Nattou stinks like a sweaty fermenting foot and has the texture of stringy snot … it’s very healthy and may be linked to longevity … but I just can’t swallow it. *sigh*

If you can stomach nattou, I’d love to hear from you! Drop me a line and tell me how.

Next episode: beer, edamame, rice balls and more!

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Radies and radishes: Part 1

Posted on 8 September 2009

… the journal of a South African vegan in Japan, by Carey Finn

4 August 2009

It’s been 2 weeks since I arrived in Japan, and I’m pleased to report that I’m surviving on more than just soya milk and onigiri (rice balls). Not much more, but hey. If you thought being vegan in South Africa was tough, think again. I totally took Fry’s for granted!

When they say they put fish in everything in Japan, they really mean it. A lot of vegetarians who came over here started eating fish because of it. From soba noodle dishes to salads, there’s something fishy about everything. At the supermarkets, they have shelves full of dried fish … that said, they also have entire aisles of tofu, miso and other bean products. Not to mention seaweed, grains and tea!

Lunchtime snacks: Sweet and salty rice crackers, banana flavoured soya milk, and green tea mochi ball, with sweet red bean paste fillingI think being vegan in Japan is only tough while you’re figuring out the language, what to buy, and where to eat out. I’m sure it would be the same for a Japanese vegan in South Africa. If you are planning to travel to a place where English isn’t an official language, be sure to learn to ask what’s in foodstuffs – oh, and what the answers mean too! Learn from my mistakes. 😉

I’ll be in Japan for the next 12 months, teaching English (yawn, how clichéd) at a senior high school in Osaka. This blog will be about my vegan adventures though – if you want to hear about my teaching, drop me a line.

So, food … never in my life has buying food been so frustrating, or exciting! My first meal involved matching the pictures in my Vegan Restaurant Pocketguide to items in a Tokyo combini (convenience store) and convincing myself that beer could provide the RDA of B-vitamins … it got a bit better when we arrived in Osaka and found a supermarket – although IBS sufferers be warned, brown rice is virtually unheard of! This weekend we’ll be hunting down some Japanese hippies and extorting from them the location of said rice, as well as organic fruit and veggies.

Fruit and veggies are very expensive here – particularly because we are in a city. One shouldn’t convert back to rands … but when you’re paying R40 for an apple, you can’t help it! That said, the fruit, suspiciously large and immaculate as it may be, is pretty good.

Soya milk is interesting … as much of it contains dairy milk too! One of the few vegan brands comes in some rather … unusual flavours, such as dairy milk (boy, was that an unsettling taste experience), cooca (as in the leaf, not the chocolate) and green tea … luckily I can now tell which colour is original. Green tea soya milk flavoured cereal, anyone?

Next episode: nattou … traditional breakfast of Japan, secret to longevity, and the final cultural barrier no foreigner can overcome!

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Vegan Tales from Japan

Posted on 7 September 2009

Welcome to our special feature :- vegan Tales from Japan.

This section is a regular series of diary excerpts from our intrepid explorer Carey Finn, as she reports back her experiences as a vegan, recently settled in Japan.

Follow Carey’s adventures as she gets to grips with a new language, a new culture, and the trials of being a vegan in a strange new country.

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