Japan Eats

Healthy eating in Tokyo

Christopher Pellegrini reports on the capital’s healthy food options.

Foodie’s paradise, Tokyo, is claimed by many to have the most eateries per capita of all the cities in the world. True or not, finding something that is both healthy and easily accessible can pose a dilemma, especially if you’re not comfortable with the all-Japanese intricacies of information gatekeepers such as the excellent restaurant ranking website, Tabelog. Far too many people find themselves restricted to an onigiri, a jelly squeeze-bag, and a plastic bottle of green tea when they’re looking for a low-cal meal.

In order to provide you with some of Tokyo’s more heart and waist-friendly dining options, we talked with Justin Berti, a yoga instructor, fitness trainer and health nut who for years has scoured this fair city for dining options that jive with his strict diet and that he can recommend to his clients.

Soba

Soba: a standby for vegetarian visitors.

Supermarkets

Sometimes it can be a real bear to find healthy food options at the supermarket nearest your train station. Everything seems to be over processed and packaged. The following supermarkets are chains but carry a decent selection of imported items and health-conscious options.

Natural House has 25 locations in and around Tokyo.

F&F has 11 shops in Tokyo with another five in Kanagawa.

Seijo Ishii doesn’t have an English website, but they do have dozens of locations around Tokyo and the surrounding prefectures.

Berti recommends the bentos at Natural House and F&F, and he mentions Seijo Ishii because it has plenty of “fresh salads and healthy options.”

Restaurants/Cafés

Restaurants often have menu items that look like they might be vegetarian friendly, but don’t think that you can always get an informed answer from your server. There’s fish and beef in almost everything (including potato chips!), and you’d be foolish to assume that the folks preparing your dinner accept the same definition of vegetarianism that you do (vegetarians don’t eat fish?!).

The following are some healthy dining options that have at least a little something that’s safe for vegetarians.

Nouka no Daidokoro is a good option for vegetarians as they offer some 100% vegetable course meal options. This chain of earthy restaurants added two new Tokyo locations within the past 12 months and has a salad bar that is not to be missed.

Nataraj is a small vegetarian Indian restaurant chain that has a few options in Tokyo and they occasionally have evening entertainment options such as belly dance shows.

Little Heaven near Otsuka station is a full-fledged vegan restaurant with somewhat limited hours. Dinner is served 6-9PM every day, and lunch is available Tues to Fri from 11:30AM-2PM.

Shamaim is an Israeli restaurant between Ekoda station (Seibu-Ikebukuro line) and Shin-Ekoda station (Oedo line) and is a good source for hummus and falafel west of the Yamanote loop.

Eat More Greens in Azabu Juban bills itself as a vegetable café and bakery modeled after those found in downtown New York City.

Earth Café Ohana in Sangenjaya caters to vegans and vegetarians and tries to use organic ingredients whenever possible.

Crayon House is a vegetarian-friendly restaurant across from Brown Rice Café (scroll down) that also has a veggie shop in the basement. Be sure to specify that you want food with no meat or fish if that’s your prerogative, they’ll understand.

Bio Café in Shibuya claims a menu with organic options.

Loving Hut recently started selling vegan bentos in the basement of Matsuzaka Department Store in Ginza.

Soup Stock Tokyo has more than 30 locations in Tokyo that feature a revolving menu of low-cal soups and a curry or two. They usually have a vegetarian-looking option on the menu, and you can generally get straight answers about the actual ingredients (hint: ask about lard) which is great for people with allergy concerns as well. Soup Stock Tokyo is essentially a fast food chain, perfect for those times when you only have 20-30 minutes to get a meal in, but it should never be grouped with the ubiquitous burger joints and beef bowl shops of this city.

Saishoku Kenbi Okubo is on a back street between JR Okubo and Shin-Okubo stations and features a vegetarian-friendly and affordable lunch buffet. Closed Tuesdays.

Tenya has shops all across downtown Tokyo and specializes in tempura. This chain can be very helpful for vegetarians who need a quick and cheap bite to eat. The yasai-don is always on the menu, and there are occasionally seasonal variants that get featured as well.

Chaya Macrobiotic has three upscale Tokyo locations and features a menu flush with organic produce and other vegetarian-friendly fare.

Brown Rice Café/Deli in Omotesando adheres to a Whole Foods prep style and specializes in soy, veggies, and of course brown rice. They have a couple of 1,700 yen set meals and a detox juice for 800 yen that purportedly is good for liver overuse control.

Convenience Stores

Konbini are generally not known for selling products that are waist-friendly. However, Berti feels that one chain stands above the rest:

Natural Lawson opened its first shop just over ten years ago, and now there are more than 70 in downtown Tokyo.

“They usually have nuts and dried fruit without added salt. The quality is much better. They also have sweet potato snacks, better fruit cup selections, and a healthier selection of teas–stuff you can’t find in regular convenience stores.”

One of Berti’s biggest pet peeves is the price tags on everything. Even though organic is popular in Tokyo, it can be incredibly hard to find. And when you do find it, you’ll notice that much of it is imported, so “you spend half your rent on an 80% cocoa chocolate bar and almond butter.”

He saves money by ordering from iherb.com, and invites people to freely use his discount code, JUS847, to save five dollars on their first purchase. He also recommends checking out the “Vegan in Tokyo” Facebook group for those that seek strategy tips on finding true vegan fare.

Those who avoid animal products in their food will also be interested in this Google map that details many of the vegetarian and vegan dining establishments available across Japan. The Japan Veg Guide is another resource worth checking out.

So as you can see, there are several health-conscious options available for the vegetarians, flexitarians, weight watchers and pavement pounders among us. Hopefully this short guide has given you a few new ideas for when you’re tracking down your next meal in Tokyo.

Justin Berti is a yoga and fitness instructor at FAB ACADEMY.

An earlier version of this article was originally published by Tokyo Weekender. Special thanks to Adam Gyenes, Mayu Imada and Neill Harper for their valuable input.

2010: Year in Review

Marcus Lovitt looks at the culinary trends of 2010.

2010 was all about cheap eats. So called ‘B-class gourmet’ dishes became a fixture on Japanese TV screens, McDonalds Japan enjoyed record profits and shoppers bought their food in bulk from such places as Costco and Niku no Hanamasa. The reason? Japan’s ongoing economic woes. A torrent of bad news on the economic front (falling prices, massive government debt, a rapidly aging population) put The Fear into consumers. Put simply, nobody was willing to spend more than necessary eating out or at the supermarket.

Lawson's Premium Roll Cake

Lawson's Premium Roll Cake

Perhaps its to be expected that amidst all of this doom and gloom, the fantasy of eating at a Michelin-starred restaurant had enormous popular appeal. Japanese variety shows boasted that Tokyo has the most Michelin-starred, together with the most three-star-rated restaurants in the world. Needless to say, few of those watching at home could actually afford to patronize them, but their very existence was a point of pride.

What Japanese could afford were little luxuries such as Lawson’s Premium Roll Cake. Convenience store patisserie items were big news this year – the three big chains (Lawsons, FamilyMart and Seven Eleven) figuring that there was still money to be made in pre-packaged sweets.

Conversely, another bright spot for manufacturers were healthy and/or low-calorie products. This was particularly evident in the drinks market where products like black tea and non-alcoholic beer increased their share of the market.

Here’s our take on 2010, and our forecast for the coming year:

Momoya's 'edible raayu'

Momoya's 'edible raayu'

Our Top Japanese culinary trends for 2010

  • Raayu, that spicy red oil you drizzle over ramen and gyoza, hit the big time in 2010, but this time filled out with such ingredients as fried garlic, fried onion, and ground sesame seeds. First developed by Momoya, ‘edible raayu‘ was popularized by appearances on television as a way to flavor rice bowls. Like any true Japanese culinary trend, demand quickly outstripped supply and Momoya was temporarily forced to stop advertising. Other companies such as S&B Foods Inc. have since entered the market and are now making competing products.
  • B Class Gourmet: True, this one has been around a long time. However, the Fifth B-1 Grand Prix held in Atsugi, Kanagawa Prefecture this year really captured the public’s imagination. What is B Class Gourmet? The name refers to tasty dishes which are also inexpensive, such as Miso katsu from Nagoya, Yokote yakisoba and Atsugi Shirokoro Horumon. There’s little doubt this trend will continue in 2011.
  • The rise and rise of all things organic. Supermarkets continue to devote more and more shelf space to organic produce – particularly products grown without pesticides, aren’t genetically modified and are wheat/gluten free. Meanwhile, in wine bars (themselves something of a trend this year) so-called organic wines began to appear on the menu.
  • Roll Cakes: The popularity of the convenience store patisserie section came as a surprise to many people. However even in bad economic times, people still want a taste of luxury, even if it is from the local combini.
  • Komeko (rice flour) has traditionally been used to prepare Japanese sweets. This year it began to be used to prepare western-style bread and cakes. It is hoped that Komeko might raise the degree of Japanese self-sufficiency; the government is now promoting the use of locally produced rice flour. Many companies (Seven Eleven, FamilyMart, Lawson, even Starbucks) have begun to sell komeko, marketing it as a healthy alternative to wheat flour.
  • White taiyaki: It seemed at one point this year a taiyaki shop was going to open at every train station in metropolitan Tokyo. What appears to have set off this real estate bubble was the popularity of ‘white’ taiyaki – fish shaped pastries filled with custard. The fad wasn’t to last, however, and by the end of 2010 many of these new taiyaki-ya had already closed their doors.

Honorable mentions: The increasing popularity of tagines in Japanese homes, tomato vinegar, gourmet gelato, wine bars and cooking magazines aimed at men.

What we’d like to see in 2011

  • Vegetarian dishes: Being vegetarian in Japan (and  Tokyo in particular) is never easy. We want to see more vegan and vegetarian options on izakaya menus.
  • Cafes for breakfast: Most Japanese eat breakfast at home or skip it altogether. We’re hoping 2011 will be the year Japanese discover the independently run cafe. A decent cooked breakfast before 10 in the morning please!
  • Creative sushi: Tired of the same-old sushi at your local kaiten place? We’re hoping for more of the playful innovation that makes a visit to Nakameguro’s Koi-sushi such a lot of fun.
  • Middle Eastern food: If Japan can get over its fear of coriander, then surely chick peas and garlic shouldn’t present too much of a problem? Kebab stands notwithstanding, Japan is yet to truly embrace Middle Eastern cuisine. At the very least we want to see containers of hummus appear on supermarket shelves!

Our predictions for what will be big in 2011

  • Toronama donuts: Japan seems to have an affinity for donuts. For the first year or so of Krispy Kreme’s Japanese venture, customers braved long lines to buy a box to take home to their families. Neither baked nor fried, Toronama donuts are a combination of mousse and sponge which are served cold. The company responsible for this latest donut fad – Nagoya’s Love Sweets Antique – has now opened up shops across the country, and toronama donuts are set to take off nationwide.
  • Bread cookers, specifically machines designed to cook with Japanese rice flour (such as the Sanyo ‘Gopan’) are going to be big in 2011. ‘Go’ stands for gohan (cooked rice) and ‘pan’ for pan as in bread. Expect to see your favorite talento filling the airwaves with demonstrations of how to cook with these machines during the first half of 2011.
  • Pretzels: Anyone who has wandered past Ikebukuro station in recent weeks will have noticed the long lines outside Auntie Anne’s, the American pretzel retailer. Is this the start of something big? We think so.
  • Makgeolli, that milky looking Korean beverage, is becoming increasingly popular with young Japanese. While its unlikely to equal the recent highball craze, we think makgeolli‘s stock is rising.
  • Asian spicy nabe: Every year sees a different nabe (Japanese hotpot) craze. For the past year curry nabe and tomato nabe have led the field. We’re going to go out on a limb and predict south-east Asian flavors are going to be big in 2011.

What did you think were the biggest culinary trends of 2010? What will be big in 2011? And what would you like to see? Leave your comments below.