Help me Hivemind: spending money and eating veggie in Japan.
May 27, 2009 10:55 AM   Subscribe

How much spending money do I need for 10 days in Japan? And: help me eat vegetarian while I'm there.

I'll be visiting Japan for 10 days from the 8th of June. That's 3 days in Tokyo, 4 days in Kyoto (with a day trip to Nara and possibly another one to Osaka, and a few hours spent in Nagoya), 2 days in Hiroshima (with a day trip to Miyajima island) and finally 1 day in Narita.

I'm trying to get an idea of how much spending money I should take. Flights, hotels and JR pass are all booked already, but I'll pay to get around Tokyo for the first 3 days (subway or trains) and from Narita Airport->Tokyo, as the JR pass is only for the last 7 days. I won't be looking to eat anywhere that expensive, though doing so by accident is quite possible. I'll be looking to take some souvenirs home, but I'm not after anything specific (and unlikely to go for expensive electronics etc.) and travelling carry-on only so space is limited. I'm travelling with friends so we'll probably want to go out drinking some nights, but not clubbing. No specific tourist destinations in mind but we'll be going to see temples, maybe a couple of museums etc.

So: how much spending money should I take?

And... I'd like to make an appeal for advice on eating vegetarian in Japan. I get that this will be difficult and that there's fish stock/flakes in everything - I'm ok with the fish stock/flakes but would like to avoid meat/fish flesh/seafood.

So my second question is: are there any common vegetarian dishes (with or without fish flakes but ideally without) that I can look for in restaurants? Something I can learn the name of and be sure (or at least relatively sure) that I'm getting something flesh-free? (What about convenience stores etc.?)

And finally: if I learn phrases for 'do you have anything without meat, fish or seafood?' and 'can you make it without meat/fish/seafood?', what kind of response am I likely to get in typical eateries? Refusal/bewilderment/misunderstanding/annoyance? (I won't be able to carry on a conversation as I only know a few basic words and phrases, though I will occasionally be accompanied by a fluent Japanese speaker.)

Thanks very much in advance everyone, and sorry for the many sprawling questions - I'm trying to get the most out of my weekly questions before I go! For what it's worth, I'm a 24-year old male from the UK, travelling with 2-3 guys and 1 girl of similar ages.
posted by Kirn to Travel & Transportation around Japan (19 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: You will have a hard time finding vegetarian friendly options, especially outside of Tokyo.

Explaining vegetarian needs to restaurant staff will be difficult. Even if they understand you, they probably won't have anything to offer. Japanese restaurants by and large sell set meals. Unlike in the US (I can't speak for the UK) asking for substitutions is frowned upon.

Some places might offer you 'vegetarian' noodles. Even so, assume that your noodles have been boiled in broth that contains fish products. Even noodle dipping sauce (here I'm thinking that which comes with somen, tasty cold summer noodles) contains a measure of fish products. These dishes are tasty and I doubt they'd make a vegetarian ill due to fish content. Just about all "traditional" Japanese meals contain fish, msg (on restaurant tables in a jar labeled aji no moto), and copious amounts of sugar.

All that said, there are vegetarian options.
1) Eat at Italian restaurants or at Western chain restaurants. Sizzler, for one, has a wonderful salad bar.
2) For Japanese fare, visit the foreigner tourism center in airports or in the case of Kyoto, near Kyoto station, and explain your needs. They may be able to provide you with a list of Japanese restaurants that accommodate vegetarians.
3) Kyoto has an excellent tofu-only restaurant. All dishes are made from yuba 湯葉 【ゆば】 -- a byproduct of the tofu-making process. Of course the dishes may contain fish broth in some form or another. If you are interested in this wonderful culinary experience, me-mail me and I'll get the name of the restaurant.
4) Rely on traditional dessert foods for meals. Bean-cakes (manju) are generally made with buckwheat flour (I think) and have a bean filling. It's an acquired taste to be sure, but if you need calories and energy, you might consider buying boxes of these and munching on them for your meals. You can also by them in ubiquitous convenience stores.
5) Stock up on snacks and meals at any of Japan's excellent bakeries, often found in or near train stations.
6) Ask a tourist center to hook you up with reservations at a temple that serves certifiably vegetarian meals. Especially in Kyoto, there should be options like these. For a hefty price.

If your ethics allow you to compromise, your trip to Japan is the one time to do so.

I say this because of the sheer difficulty in explaining your needs and the inability of most Japanese restaurants to accommodate you. You'll avoid a lot of stress if you just order what has the least number of obvious fish or meat ingredients.

If I can be of any help w/r/t Kansai (Kyoto, Osaka) me-mail me.
posted by vincele at 11:23 AM on May 27, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I traveled with a strict vegetarian while I was in Japan, and her strategy was to inform servers that she was Buddhist. They seemed to understand.
posted by krunk at 11:26 AM on May 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

krunk, that's a great idea! I'd add that the OP should do some research and claim to adhere to a sect well-known in Japan for following strict vegetarianism. Saying you're a Buddhist is great, but to say I follow Buddhist sect X (bukkyo no x-shu 仏教の”X”宗 ) will be even better!
posted by vincele at 12:05 PM on May 27, 2009

Yeah, they have a difficult time with the notion that fish "counts" against vegetarianism. My friend Angus had this exchange with a restaurant proprietor.

A: I'm sorry, I can't eat that. I'm a vegetarian, and it has crab in it.
R: It's only imitation crab!
A: But that's real fish.
R: ...
posted by aubilenon at 12:05 PM on May 27, 2009

Best answer: I usually keep a journal and record my expenses whenever I visit Japan and I usually range from 5,000 yen to 15,000 yen a day depending on the souvenirs I bought. For your first few days in Tokyo you can budget about 500-700 yen per round trip for subway fare, though that will be a little high if you're not going far. Food will run you about 1,500 yen a meal if you stick with low/medium end places.

If you can tolerate eggs I would suggest eating okonomiyaki in Hiroshima. There are vegetarian toppings like mochi that will get you a cheap and delicious meal. Yakisoba is also usually made on the spot so you can request that they hold the meat (just say 'niku-nashi'). Also if you don't want those fish flakes say 'Katsuo-nashi'.

Convenience stores are a good bet for cheap eating, of course. Onigiri are cheap (~150 yen) and plentiful. Look for ones containing umeboshi and konbu. They also stock noodles and have free hot water on hand if you want to eat it immediately. You'll have a lot to choose from, but Family Mart, 7-11, and Lawson are my favorites in terms of selection and cleanliness.

Also, if you're with friends you can go to a yakiniku place and order the vegetable plate. If you're alone, prepare to get berated about not buying meat, but if you're with friends it is much easier to pass notice. It's worth it, though, for the roasted kabocha.

For drinking I would suggest visiting a neighborhood izakaya. They have good drink specials, generally, and the menus are loaded with vegetarian finger foods like edamame or cold tofu.
posted by Alison at 12:12 PM on May 27, 2009

Nthing Krunk. I've heard people mention that that works in the past. But no matter what you try, you're likely to run into problems. Just take them in stride and make them into part of your 'hilarious Japan stories.'

The concept of meat as we know it isn't the same. A veggie friend of mine went to an Italian place in Tokyo and tried to get a dish made without meat (as Vincele says, is considered rude). The chef even came out from the kitchen to talk to her about it. Finally he came back with a special plate of pasta, just for her.

With Ham. Because Ham isn't meat.

Soba and other noodle dishes may have the fish stock/flakes, but can be relatively meat free. Agedashi Tofu is a good fried tofu dish. Either in Hiroshima or Osaka you ought to try the Okonomiyaki. It might even be possible to find reasonably veggie versions in Hiroshima, since the local version throws in yakisoba. And if you're eating on the cheap, definitely try some onigiri from the convienence stores. You should be able to find ones that are 'umeboshi' and will have a pickled plum in the center instead of meat. (on the other hand, some people hate the sour plums)

Oh, and a great light, tiny, souviner to take home are the charms from any temples you go to. I brought back a lot of 'safe driving,' 'luck in relationships' and 'luck at school' charms that went over very well with friends and family. And you should be able to find some other great souviners at a 100 yen shop. I know people who bought some really pretty cups and dishes back from Japan that got lots of praise that were only 100 yen.

While you're in Kyoto check out Nijo castle and Kiyomizu Temple if you have a chance. And for a fun off the wall experience in Kyoto, go to the 'Uzumasa Movie Village.' It's where they shoot all the historical TV shows, and lots of pleasantly-tacky fun.

Oh man, I wish I was going on your trip!
posted by Caravantea at 12:37 PM on May 27, 2009

You might take a look at the post Two Weeks in Japan at 101 Cookbooks. Heidi Swanson, the author, is vegetarian.
posted by jocelmeow at 12:47 PM on May 27, 2009

Best answer: is a great resource for finding restaurants in Tokyo and Kansai. If you do a search there for vegetarian you should find some great places.

In Kyoto, I highly recommend Yaoya no Nikai, a greengrocer with a delicious set lunch. The websites say "reservations recommended" but you should be able to just show up early and ask to be put on the list. The cost is >2100 yen per person, which is on the high end for lunch but it's a meal you'll remember for a long time.

Also check out tempura restaurants - you should be able to get an all-vegetable set. And since you're travelling with a Japanese speaker, ordering at izakayas should be a breeze.

In terms of cash, I found <5000 yen per day for two people (<1500 for lunch and 2500-3500 for dinner) was more than enough to cover meals, but that's with breakfast included in the hotel, and a lot of kaiten-sushi eating. Japan is a very bad place to not eat fish.
posted by Gortuk at 12:49 PM on May 27, 2009

Vegetarians can find acceptable salads in the convenience stores. AM-PM and 7-11 are well known US chains, many more of them exist in Japan (like Sunkus, Lawsons, etc). Ignore your experience with American convenience stores, they're very different in Japan, much nicer. In the refrigerated section you can find fresh, shrink-wrapped salads with lettuce, corn, cucumber slices and tomatoes -- at times, this seems like the healthiest food available there.
posted by Rash at 1:18 PM on May 27, 2009

There are excellent indian restaurants in Tokyo and Kyoto. Go to those, they have proper vegetarian food.

Avoid _Japanese_ curries, as they are _loaded to the gills_ with beef squeezins even when served meatless.

Eat eggs, if not vegan.
posted by rr at 1:54 PM on May 27, 2009

I can't say much about vegetarian eating, but as for the money, Narita to Tokyo (where in Tokyo?) can be from 1500 to 3500 yen, depending on the train you take (there are two companies, JR and Keisei. If you don't activate your JR Rail Pass, either one is okay. Keisei goes to Ueno, JR goes to Tokyo, Shinagawa, and Yokohama).

Depending on where you go in Tokyo, your daily travel budget can vary widely. If you stay in the city, the most you'll see for one way train fare is about 270 yen, and that's for a pretty long ride. A lot of places (Ueno and Asakusa, Harajuku and Shibuya) are actually walkable, if you have a map with you. If you're going out of the city (I highly recommend it, if you're at all interested in history/temples) Getting to Kamakura is probably the cheapest day trip, trainfare-wise, around 1,000 yen each way from Tokyo station. Nikko (also highly recommended) is a fair jaunt, and I think about 4,000 yen each way.

Tryjorudan for train fare and time information. It works on all trains, JR and private, and includes subways.

Stay away from taxis if you're on a budget, they start at 710 yen for the first two km.

In Kyoto, be aware that most of the temples have a decent entry fee, up to 500 yen. The various districts have groupings of temples and shrines, making it easy to see several. This adds up pretty fast. Make sure, if you have time, to check out Daitokuji, near the Golden Pavilion. It's got dozens of stone gardens, and is much less crowded than Ryoanji, the more famous temple near the Golden Pavilion. My other temple recommendations are Nanzenji, Eikan-do, and Ginkakuji, all doable in one day, if you don't mind walking. Kiyomizu is fantastic, but also check out Fushimi Inari Shrine, south of Kyoto, for a short hike up a mountain through, literally, a forest of orange torii gates.
posted by Ghidorah at 3:58 PM on May 27, 2009

Our vegan friend brought a LOT of her own food when we all went to Japan...dried soup mixes and the like. And she had a great vegetarian restaurant book (or maybe it was info she found online, I forget) so we would seek out veggie places. In Kyoto we went to the Peace Cafe, I think, and she was thrilled with it.
posted by GaelFC at 4:33 PM on May 27, 2009

About okonomiyaki and yakisoba... Okonomiyaki will almost invariably have pork or another meat in it, or it'll be topped with katsuo flakes that undulate in the heat of the dish. Even if you manage to convey you want meat-free versions of okonomiyaki or yakisoba, the "sauce" for these dishes will probably contain fish products in small amounts.

If you eat eggs, omuraisu (omelette-rice) dishes can come meat-free.

Like some people have said, there are hippie-run vegetarian restaurants here and there, but you'd need a special guidebook or someone who really knows the town to show you how to get to them.

I know a few in Osaka. But honestly, unless you want to see the homeless and mobbed-up side of Japan (I think you should, but that's besides the point) you're better off spending all your time in Kyoto and arguably Nara than any time in Osaka. And I speak as someone who lived in and loved Osaka for years.

About the money question. Kyoto is a beautiful walking town, but you will eventually tire out and need to take a cab, and cabs are expensive. Plus, the train only goes to certain parts of the city, and with transfers, sometimes it is faster and easier just to take a cab. Otherwise you can take a bus. That might be hard to do without idiosyncratic Kyoto-specific reading skills. 500 yen for temple entry strikes me as low. For the famous ones, I'd double that estimate. Same for Nara.

Fees are fewer and costs are lower in Tokyo than out West for a number of reasons.
posted by vincele at 5:54 PM on May 27, 2009

As an aside, before you leave Narita Airport pick one of these up. It gives you a Suica IC card with 2,000 yen to use on fares (or any store/vending machine with one of these readers) and a one-way ticket on the Narita Express, all for 3,500 yen. The Narita Express fare to central Tokyo alone is 3,000 yen, so it's a great value, and one only open to foreigners.
posted by armage at 8:37 PM on May 27, 2009

Oh, and Fushimi Inari Taisha is really an amazing place. You've probably seen photos, but they don't do the place justice. I'd love to go again myself; the last time I went I was chased around by a drunken, belligerent old man (?).

If you have time, the area around Terada-ya is also a nice place for a stroll compared to Gion or other more crowded tourist destinations.
posted by armage at 8:43 PM on May 27, 2009

This is from eight years ago, but still probably relevant about Japanese attitudes towards vegetarians: Japanese Un-vegetarianism.
posted by davar at 2:18 AM on May 28, 2009

I just got back a few days ago and i'll add a few things...I could add some more detailed spots if you say exactly where about you'll be, these areas can be quite large. One thing that can be very helpful is ask the people at the hotel/hostel desk for advice, they can ever write you out a piece of paper to show people instead of fumbling with the language. I had to do that with my allergies, and just for the info pollen is in full effect at the moment.

I took the Keisei a couple days ago from ueno to narita for a 1,000 yen. It wasn't the fastest train, but it'll be 10x faster than anything in the states so I had no problem. I honestly spent around 60-100 dollars a day, the cities are just so much fun and with beers and snacks things just add up quickly...not to say you can't do it for way less. I had great Indian in Ueno, i'd keep an eye open for them and the people there are usually from India and will be able to speak decent English as well.

I know the best spot for vegetarian ramen in nikko if you decide to head up that way...
posted by mattsweaters at 10:55 PM on May 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

I didn't really use this much, but it can be quite helpful if you need it.
posted by mattsweaters at 12:44 AM on June 1, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks very much everyone. Wasn't quite as difficult as I'd expected, but mainly because of helpful threads like this one. I got a couple of meat-free okonomiyaki, a whole bunch of rice balls and pastries (though there was about a 25% rate with the pastries of "oh, this has meat in it after all... swap anyone?") and a few tofu noodle dishes. Also a couple of western-style restaurants. And, for future reference if anyone is in Hiroshima, there's a great Tex-Mex restaurant very near the Peace Park called Otis! which is the only place in Japan I ever saw the green V veggie symbol, and it was printed on about half the menu. The place seemed really cool regardless of veggie-ness too.

Money-wise, I took 100,000 yen (10,000/day) and ended up spending almost exactly this amount - I think I had about 4000 yen left at the airport.

Thanks again everybody.
posted by Kirn at 10:14 AM on June 19, 2009

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