The six stages of being a vegan in Japan
Written by Daphine Zhao
Editor’s note: This story comes from a blog created by a group of 13 students from the Stamps School of Art & Design at the University of Michigan. The students traveled to Japan to experience cooperation between facilities for people with disabilities, schools, museums, governmental and non-governmental organizations. Follow the blog: Art Education for Change in Japan.
STAGE 1: The konbini diet (aka, the convenience store food diet)
You’ve already established which kinds of onigiri, or rice balls, are vegan. Note: It’s almost always the cheapest onigiri available.
But sometimes you will get confused as to which ones you can eat since different konbinis have their own brand of nigiri, and thus, have different labels.
Even though eating rice, pickled vegetables and kombu (seaweed) was fun for the first two days, that weird cold sore (that only comes back if you don’t have enough iron) on the corner of your mouth has come back, and you’re really hungry.
It’s during this stage that memories of Paris and being constantly hangry (that’s when you’re hungry and angry— in my case, I was angry because I was hungry) come back to haunt you, and you grow tired of pretending to be okay with not eating actual food.
STAGE 2: The Miho meal
Perhaps the universe has finally noticed how hangry you have been, or how your stomach has been keeling over from only eating carbs, but there is that one dish in that one restaurant that you can finally eat.
Of course, your first official meal is thanks to your friend on the trip who speaks fluent Japanese, and a former Stamps alum who’s fluent Japanese skills allows them to speak with the waitstaff and help create a customized dish for you.
Other students in your program have began to empathize with you and begin to offer some of their Heiwado-bought fruits to you, as each communal meal offers less and less vegan options for you.
STAGE 3: The private chef
It’s during stage 1 and 2, where your repeated efforts to explain to the kitchen staff about supplying you with a few vegan dishes here and there, are finally coming to fruition.
Prior to this point, the only thing you could eat from the kitchen was the rice.
But it’s also at this point that the nutritionist that works in the kitchen, walks to the dorm and asks you about what ingredients you usually cook with and proceeds to make put vegan dishes in separate bowls for you.
And at first, these bowls just have “vegan” scrawled on them, but soon, they have “Daphine” written on little slips of paper, complete with smiley faces. These vegan meals start out as veganized-versions of the food everyone else is eating, but they quickly turn into original dishes that are both delicious and filling.
And you’re perfectly excited.
STAGE 4: The organic beer garden
That one time you went to the Moriyama Festival and hopped on the shuttle to the Beer Garden, you realized that the words “organic” and “vegan” were written on chalkboard signs next to food vendors and you bought as much as you possibly could.
And it was exciting to not have to constantly ask if something was vegan or not, and you could focus more on the different types of vegan food you could possibly indulge yourself in.
And for a few hours, you settle in with your bag full of vegan snacks and feel content.
STAGE 5: The Kio/Madame stage
You know the drill. When you’re doing your daily activities and “a meal is provided,” you know that translates into: “A meal is provided and, oh, I guess you can maybe eat the rice. Are you OK with that?”
So you pack a lunch for yourself, still a little hurt that you can’t actually enjoy Japanese food… again.
But then your translator for the program, excitedly passes you two fresh homemade pea-kombu onigiris they made last night because they were worried that you wouldn’t have anything to eat.
And it doesn’t even matter to you that one accidentally gets squished in your bag and some rice falls out and that you start eating the fallen grains of rice from your thigh.
You haven’t had homemade food in a while, and it helps make Japan feel like home to you.
STAGE 6: The content stage
You’ve gotten so used to not eating the communal meals that are provided that you’re surprised when a vegan meal is actually provided for you.
And it’s really surreal when the curator of the Miho Museum helps you talk with the head chef of the Miho Institute of Aesthetics about making custom vegan dishes for you— all while the kitchen is trying to cook a meal for 100 students.
Or when you visit the Miho Farm, and a communal meal is being served, and the Director of Education in the Shiga Prefecture grabs your hand and explains that the miso soup for the communal meal has been intentionally made with kombu dashi, just so you can also eat it. Or how your own plate of vegan cookies lie on the table during afternoon tea.
It’s also during this stage that you realize the wonderful hospitality and kindness of human beings.
And that it’s OK if it takes people a while to know what you can and cannot eat.
Because it’s the small gestures that make you feel validated, and truly welcome.