Is Tokyo’s Vegan Dining Scene Improving?

Even in London, with thousands of vegan residents and visitors, great vegan restaurants come and go. Still, it is a sad statement of Japanese interest in veganism that Tokyo begins 2012 with three fewer vegan-only restaurants than last year.

  • First, there was the closure in March of the vegan and organic J’s Kitchen in Hiroo, owing to a shortage of safe and secure food products following the Tohoko disaster.
  • In December, Tokyo lost Manna Foods (a raw vegan restaurant) in Daikanyama and Cafe Little Hands (lunch only pop-up restaurant) in Jiyugaoka. I had never been to Manna, but had sampled their raw lasagna at VeggieFesta. Like many others, I found their food delicious, but pricey for the small portions.
  • Attending the farewell event at Cafe Little Hands, I regretted I had never eaten there before because the food was wholesome–not oily or excessively flavored–and included a variety of fresh fruits, vegetables, grains and nuts. It was like eating a home-cooked meal, and reasonably priced, too.

On the positive side, there is a growing number of plant-based dining alternatives from restaurant chains to pick up the slack:

  • After months anticipating the arrival of Fukuoka’s Mana Burgers in Tokyo (it was renamed “Island Veggie” with backing from the Aloha Table chain).
    • Visiting Island Veggie in Hiroo for a weekend lunch, I ordered the set, and was given a choice of deli items with either bread (the “whole wheat” bread was not baked in-house, and whole wheat content minimal), brown rice, or rice cracker.
    • The namesake “Mana Burger” my friend had was small and light on lettuce and tomato. Although the patty is vegan, they offer dairy cheese on the burger and no dairy-free cheese option. Bun was not particularly healthy either, perhaps why Mana Burger’s originator calls it “natural junk.”
    • Island Veggie’s novelty, and upscale location attracts a good crowd for now, and–despite small portions and high prices–its corporate support should keep it afloat.

There are a few more all-vegan restaurants in Tokyo worth checking out or checking into again:

  • Azabu Juban’s Eat More Greens (backed by the Big Eats company, parent co. of Donut Factory) has a dependable selection of vegan staples (with items such as chili, hummus and falafel) in a convenient location.
  • If you’re a Falafel lover, you have to try Falafel Du Kuumba who gives you an enormous falafel sandwich (dressed with additional spicy homemade harissa sauce) that spills over the place when you eat it. Or you can choose an ample-sized half sandwich and lentil soup for the same 1000 yen price.
  • Healing Cafe, with locations in Shinjuku and Ikebukuro. I have heard good things about it, and am making a point to visit there soon.

I encourage you to make a resolution to seek out and support healthy vegan restaurants near you this year, too!

Meanwhile, since there are never enough vegan restaurants–and busy people have little time to seek them out–the best vegan food is wherever you can find it (subject for my next post…)

3 thoughts on “Is Tokyo’s Vegan Dining Scene Improving?

  1. Jim Dunlop

    Will,

    Speaking as an MBA grad, one of the biggest problems I see, especially in seemingly niche-reliant ventures like this, is the inability to market properly.

    I could open up a huge can of beans with this, but it just seems to me that many establishment owners in Japan just have NO clue how they should promote their business, nor to whom. If I were to have my own vegan restaurant, my target market would NOT be the hardcore Vegan crowd — they’re always going to seek these places out, but rather, I would work on making it a trendy place for the mainstream, especially young, single Japanese women. I would completely eschew the vegan aspect, but rather concentrate on how healthy, “eco,” and delicious my food is. I would try to advertise through gyms and sports clubs, and start referral campaigns at universities. Make it fashionable, and don’t skimp on the portions.

    Just like you mentioned when we met in person, Will. In Japan, “vegan” sometimes has negative baggage attached to it. It makes people suspicious and they think it’s associated with religious cultism… That’s why I would probably avoid the term as much as possible. And if someone were to ask me, “Are you a vegan restaurant?” I would answer, “We are an “eco” restaurant. Our goal is sustainable, fashionable cuisine for the future of Japan.”

  2. william Post author

    I agree restaurants have a rough time catering exclusively to vegans and would do better attracting omnivores by letting taste speak for itself. On the other hand, restaurants using plant based ingredients with little or no oil, sugar or salt do not appeal to those on western diets consisting of meat, dairy and refined foods. Human beings are programmed to seek out calorically dense foods (Dr. Doug Lisle calls it “the dietary pleasure trap“) and their tastes need to be re-calibrated several weeks before they can obtain satisfaction from minimally processed plant foods. If I were a restaurant owner, I would have a dilemma because I wouldn’t want to serve customers anything I would not eat myself. The approach of weaning people off animal products with plant-based processed foods (i.e. cakes, junk foods) is positive for animal rights, but not necessarily for health. Many people place a high importance on foods that are full of vegetables, but there is generally an expectation they are an accompaniment to some kind of animal product.

  3. Jim Dunlop

    And yet, places like Mana Burger that sell “natural junk” can survive. Perhaps part of the answer is to remain uncompromising on the vegan menu, but still provide a number of dishes that appeal to “taste” even though they may not be as healthy as other items on the menu.

    Make them your “osusume” and provide health guides and legends on your menus, much like traditional restaurants do — indicating which dishes are “heart smart” or “low fat” or “low sugar” etc. That way, you are still 100% vegan, but allowing people the freedom to explore and re-align their taste-bud satisfaction receptors (or whatever you want to call it) in their own time.

    You can certainly offer those items that might need an “acquired taste” but there’s nothing that says every item on the menu has to be that way.

    Those who are “in the know” like you, Will, can take advantage of the best and healthiest dishes right away and will gravitate towards such options… But if you design things right, even those folks who perhaps have never even tried eating meat-free can still derive some satisfaction from the restaurant’s offerings. Yes, it’s true — this formula is taught in pretty much every cooking school: FAT + SUGAR = FLAVOR. Again, I think the answer may lie in appealing to broader tastes rather than thinking that you’ll turn the world to your way of thinking.

    I’m not advocating the creation of a vegan McDonald’s here (although I gotta admit — that would be kinda cool), I’m suggesting that a moderate approach to vegan menu where the choices could still attract the public at large, even if a number of those dishes aren’t necessarily items you would eat yourself in your own home every day.

Leave a Reply