A month in Japan this summer.
March 26, 2019 7:26 PM   Subscribe

My partner and I will be spending a month in Japan from June 8 until July 6. What do you recommend? Difficulty level: lacto-ovo vegetarians and a few tattoos.

First time visitors. We arrive in Tokyo this June and leave Tokyo a month later in July. We were thinking of sharing our time out between Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and Hokkaido but haven't fleshed out any plans yet. We'd like to do a fair bit of walking and hiking but also just enjoy being in conurbations. Fancy a slow rhythm, taking our time to explore and learn as we go along. I have tattoos that I'm happy to conceal as appropriate but that are visible while wearing a bathing suit.

I've seen these questions already and there's some great suggestions in there. Thank you!
posted by mkdirusername to Travel & Transportation around Japan (15 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I don't have any personal advice but if you check out Simon and Martina/Eat Your Sushi on youtube, they have extensive tattoos and have been to a number of onsens that do not forbid them.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:08 PM on March 26, 2019 [5 favorites]

Best answer: There's up to a 21-day JR pass that allows unlimited travel on trains (except the fastest bullet trains). Purchase it before you arrive as it is available for non-Japanese citizens only. You can see the majority of the main island (Honshu) and even take it up to Hokkaido. If you want to see the famous lavender fields in Hokkaido, the season starts around late June if you want to time it accordingly.

If you do go for the JR pass, it is perfect for wanderers. Pick random towns and just take a train there. Get a pocket wifi that you and your partner can share, if you are adventurous you can probably even book ryokans on the train en route to your destination(s).

Popular onsen towns that are frequently visited by foreigners should at least have one or two onsens that don't mind tattoos. However, be prepared in case you are turned away and have other options as a backup plan. Some do not let you in with bandages if you try to cover them up. While many onsens are relaxing their rules, overall Japan is still a conservative country and you will still find places that do not allow foreigners if you go off the beaten path. Don't let that deter you if you do face this even in the city. For example, one of my friends was rejected from entering a bar in the Golden Gai area for being foreign, but there are literally like 100 other bars that welcome tourists.

If you are both very strict about being lacto-ovo veg, Japan can be a challenging country to eat in. A fundamental base in much of Japanese food is dashi (fish stock) and many Japanese confuse vegetarianism with pescatarianism. However in the main cities there should be vegetarian and vegan restaurants to choose from and even some popular ramen spots like Afuri offer vegan options. But as far as a regular restaurant, do not expect much. However, it should be easy to get snacks at convenience stores like inarizushi or konbu onigiri.
posted by xtine at 8:31 PM on March 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

Important to remember that as influencers, Simon and Martina/Eat Your Sushi were paid by the hot spring resorts to bathe there (so maybe check out where they stayed?)

Otherwise, the golden rule in Japan is to never bring up the (minor) rule you're about to break by asking for permission. If you ask for permission, the answer will usually be "no".

If you don't ask for permission, you may never have to beg for forgiveness later.

(As a father, I have to set a good example for my kids, so I follow all of the rules, except I drive at 100 km/h rather than 80 km/h on the tollway).

The tattoo rules are intended to prevent the mafia from operating. As foreigners, you are obviously not the mafia, and you'll get a pass.

As others have stated, you'll have a hard time staying strictly vegetarian in Japan, because almost all food has some sort of animal product in it.

Shojinryori, or Buddhist vegetarian fare, is an option.
posted by JamesBay at 9:39 PM on March 26, 2019

Best answer: There are a lot of places to walk, but if you're in Osaka then Nara Prefecture is a short, inexpensive train ride away. The city of Nara itself is a fantastic place to walk around. There are a lot of antiquities there.

An even more interesting walk (and going further back in time) is to walk around Asuka. If you take the Kintetsu line to Kashihara-jingu-mae, you can do a great walking course through the countryside that takes you past all sorts of neat stuff from Japan's ancient history, including burial mounds, weird statues and water clocks, and the oldest remaining Buddhist statue in Japan. There's also a great museum about 30 minutes' walk east from the station.

The Manyo'shu -- some of the most romantic, erotic poems of all time -- were written around here, and there is an entire museum devoted to them.

There are also little cafes where you can take a break and grab a cold beer. The Ishibutai kofun is also not to be missed.
posted by JamesBay at 9:45 PM on March 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It'll be hot and humid. Some people carry around a small towel for mopping up sweat.

There are sento and onsen that allow people with tattoos. Here are some in Tokyo. My wife enjoyed the first one on the list.

The break even point for a Japan Rail pass is around the price of a return trip from Tokyo to Osaka. Any more train travel than that and they're probably worth picking up. I found paying extra for a green car pass was worth it, but others are fine with the regular class.

In Tokyo, get to know the Yamanote Line, because you'll be using it a lot (it's a circle, so it's not hard), but also don't be afraid to whiz across the city on the subway. Google Maps does a pretty good job with timetables. Grab a Suica card as soon as you can. That way you can just tap on and tap off local trains and buses and not have to worry about wrangling ticket machines (not that this is particularly onerous). I'd get a Suica even if you get a Rail Pass . Lining up to show the inspector your pass so you can leave the station is a pain.

Shimokitazawa seems to be the new 'cool' district in Tokyo. Visit if you enjoy op shops and cafes.

Check out teamLab's Borderless exhibition in Odaiba. I don't really have the words to describe it.

As xtine notes, convenience stores are a...well, convenient source of vego fare. Elsewhere, vegetarian sushi abounds. Keep an eye out for stores that sell seriously good salads by weight, too. You'll also be spoiled for choice in depachika: gigantic food halls lurking beneath the mega malls in places like Shibuya and Shinjuku that sell everything from cheap vege tempura through to amazing salads and vegetable dishes that all look like they fell out of a magazine photoshoot. Finally, you'll probably find safe options in bakeries. The Japanese make fantastic bread. Yes, that fluffy cloud stuff, and their sandwiches, but their European-style stuff is world class. Steer clear of nabe (stew-type dishes), soups / ramen, and donburi (rice bowl) - you can pretty much guarantee these contain fish-based dashi.

If you enjoy walking, consider a day trip (or better still, two days) from Tokyo to Hakone to see Fuji, cruise the lake (pay extra for 'first class'), ride cable cars over volcanic vents, eat black eggs, enjoy onsen, and just wander the many forest trails to visit various shrines.
posted by some little punk in a rocket at 9:49 PM on March 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I just spent a week in Kyoto as a vegan. Kyoto in particular is full of vegan and vegetarian restaurants, but you do have to plan ahead to be sure you can get something to eat.

I made heavy use of the Happy Cow mobile app. Restaurants don't get listed on Happy Cow unless they have a solid understanding of veganism and vegetarianism, and I always found it easy to find the veg options and order.

I also used these printable cards for explaining dietary restrictions in Japanese:
I never needed it when I went to a place from Happy Cow, but I used it a few times when I stopped by another place that had items that *looked* veg-friendly.

I walked all over the place, mostly with a destination in mind for where I would be eating. The only time I ran into an issue was when my destination restaurant was closed unexpectedly. I couldn't find one of the other nearby restaurants, and I ended up walking another mile to get food. It's helpful if you have mobile data available on your data plan, for modifying your plan on the go.

Also: The Kyoto veg restaurants provided me with some of the best meals I've ever had!
posted by umber vowel at 9:53 PM on March 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

Holy Exley is a watercolourist and vlogger who just got back from Japan. She and her husband are both vegan and talk about finding food and where to eat - I think she was going to make a list of restaurants. There's about 5 20-min videos about the Japan trip on YouTube. Very recent, so should be easy to find.
posted by jrobin276 at 12:48 AM on March 27, 2019

Best answer: A couple of years ago I spent a month in Japan in Okinawa (Yomitan), Kagoshima, Hiroshima, Kyoto, Himeji, Tokyo, Kamakura and Narita, on a vegan diet, and although I did lose weight that was because of all the walking to excellent restaurants. The choice does thin out away from the big cities, and sometimes we had to stuff ourselves with mochi and other snacks when travelling. Happy Cow is your friend, but be aware that some restaurants will suddenly close because they feel like it, so have a Plan B.

I've been meaning to write up little reviews of where we ate for over a year, but I have a photo collection with notes on Flickr. Yes, I am obsessed with mochi.
posted by BinaryApe at 1:53 AM on March 27, 2019

Best answer: I just spent a week for work in Japan with a vegan colleague. It worked, it wasn't easy, but it worked. He did have to not be bothered by items fried in oil used to cook animal products, and we ate western food maybe more than I would have wanted, but it was fine.

For your trip I think the non-negotiables are Tokyo and Kyoto, and then it becomes a question of what your interests are and what your travel style is. I would def buy a Japanese Rail Pass and I would plan on doing Tokyo and Kyoto at the beginning of your trip and ending your trip in Hokkaido, purely from a weather perspective. The humidity starts to come up and the rainy season will begin sometime in June. The later you go into June the more certain you'll be the weather will be uncomfortable. I'd rather be out in the countryside than in a city once the weather gets bad.

I think a night or two in an Onsen Ryokan is also a pretty great thing for a first time visiting to Japan to experience, and there are great ones across the country so let the veg friendliness drive that decision. (they are all inclusive generally and not geared to leaving for meals)

I have kind of an off-piste suggestion as well. My family and I did a road trip and it was pretty wonderful. Other than being on the wrong side of the road (if you are from a left hand side part of the world) the roads are wonderful, the signage clear, and the other drivers courteous. And it will allow you to get out to some more rural areas of Japan not served by rail. We did it as part of a trip to Ishikawa, and that was great, but I think Hokkaido would be wonderful for that as well.
posted by JPD at 5:59 AM on March 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

Deeply annoyed that I can't lay my hands on the reference, but there's someone whose e-mail newsletter I receive who is currently walking his way through Japan, and that might be of interest to you.
posted by WCityMike at 7:47 AM on March 27, 2019

Best answer: The Japan Rail pass is a great tool to save money but it's also a good way to waste money if you buy it before you finalize your itinerary. One common mistake is buying a multi-week JR Pass when you're spending one of those weeks entirely in Tokyo, where the pass has limited value.

Once you have a rough idea of where you want to go and when, you can use a JR Rail Pass Calculator to see which pass is worthwhile (or use Hyperdia to look up train times and costs).

I'm a big fan of flying domestic in Japan, which is way better than domestic air travel in North America (and cheap if you buy in advance or take advantage of tourist-only fares). If you're trying to fit Kansai and Hokkaido in the same trip, flying one leg could save a lot of time and money. You could fly from Tokyo to Sapporo and work your way down to Kansai on a JR Pass. Or go Tokyo > Kansai one way on the shinkansen and then fly to Sapporo, getting back to Tokyo with a JR East Hokkaido pass (5 days of travel in a 14 day period). Note that either way you're passing through Tohoku so you might want to add a stop in Sendai or Aomori too.
posted by Gortuk at 10:07 AM on March 27, 2019

This kind of fluffy advise, but the best food I had in Japan was in a tofu restaurant in Kyoto that I just found walking around. And I didn't even like tofu before that. One of my travel companions is a vegan Buddhist and I don't really remember having difficulties accommodating his needs anywhere; he was more experienced in Japan than I was, but used to just getting stuff from convenience stores, and I set out to get something better. Temple food is good. Convenience stores in Japan are completely different from anything in the West. They have amazing food, including vegan and vegetarian.
Difference forms of Buddhism are normal in Japan, and I didn't find it difficult to have great meals while accommodating my friend.

It's strange, not a lot of Japanese speak English, and the places you want to go don't have English menus, but somehow it is quite easy to travel in Japan.

I don't know anything about the tattoo issue.
posted by mumimor at 10:34 AM on March 27, 2019

Best answer: I'll second (third? fourth?) the Koyasan recommendations in previous questions for both the walking/hiking possibilities and the fantastic vegan temple cuisine.

Note: if you want to stay for 2 nights at a temple at Koyasan, make sure you stress in the booking that you want to eat the temple meal both nights because of your diet, otherwise they may, like they did with us, cancel your second night and apologetically explain that it's the same meal* and give you directions to the only restaurant in town.**

* Us: But it's a great meal! We don't mind having it again! Monk: *apologetic shrug*
** In 2007 there was only one restaurant in town. Maybe more have opened in the decade since. I can't tell you what it's like because we managed to get lost--the only time we got lost in Japan, strangely enough--and ended up eating the absolutely worst convenience store food to be found in Japan which is, admittedly, a weirdly great tourist experience since convenience store food is almost uniformly good there.

posted by telophase at 1:05 PM on March 27, 2019

Response by poster: Just wanted to say thank you for taking the time to answer. Should be loads of fun!
posted by mkdirusername at 6:23 PM on March 29, 2019

Best answer: Just as a follow-up, I was thinking of Ridgeline.
posted by WCityMike at 9:17 AM on April 1, 2019

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