"Does this pasta contain meat?"
"It doesn't contain meat," the cheerful the restaurant waitress assured us. "Only bacon."
Visitors to Japan who are vegetarian face two problems: that of language and that of culture. The former consists of the usual difficulty in making yourself understood in an unfamiliar tongue. Meanwhile, the latter exacerbates the problem by not guaranteeing your culinary desires will be understood, even if your words are.
At first glance, it may seem counter intuitive that vegetarian eating would be a struggle in Japan, where so many products are soy-based. It is certainly true that items such as tofu and natto are popular, but with no purposeful intention to remove meat, both are frequently cooked with unsuitable stock. Those who cannot overlook these small additions and also remove fish from their diet face a battle to eat with confidence away from home.
I am fortunate enough to eat both meat and fish and suffer from only amusing --rather than health destroying-- allergies. As a result, my 'point n' smile' approach to food ordering stood me in good stead until I became friends with a strict vegetarian. The above conversation is not remotely atypical for a trip out of town and results in me frequently having to choose between companionship ...
… or dinner.
This is not the choice of champions.
Given this rarity of vegetarianism in Japan, it was therefore a surprise to find 'Aoi Sora'; an organic vegan restaurant in Sapporo. Offering lunch plates at around 1000 yen (about $10 or £6.50), Aoi Sora is reasonably priced as well as offering dishes devoid of all animal products.
It is also amazingly tasty. Perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised, but Hokkaido is famous for its seafood in a country obsessed with seafood, so my standards for a tasty meal have sky rocketed since moving here. The brown rice in particular was full of flavour.
Yes. The brown rice. And before you think I'm crazy, I found this other blog where the person also waxes lyrical about them wholesome grains.
The restaurant is small, containing a large communal table, a handful of small tables and a window-side bar. The menu is presented on a chalk board and consists of one daily lunch and three smaller alternatives. It is written only in Japanese, but being organic vegan food, my usual 'point n' smile' ordering system just became a whole lot safer.
For a home-made style Japanese cuisine, I'd genially recommend this place even to the non-vegetarian. It may become a regular spot for me and if myself and my vegetarian friend go elsewhere ... well, I may buy her a bento box to fill in advance.
Aoi Sora Organic Cafe
Chuo Ward, Minami 1 Jonishi, 22-1-7