Vegan Hanami essentials
The origin of Japanese hanami (flower viewing) traditions can be traced to festivities behind palace walls that were reserved for the elite. Today, the legacy stands transformed — from a sophisticated admiration of the transient beauty of flowers to a tradition of gourmandizing, while lying in joyous abandon on a neon-colored mat under a tree in full bloom. Much akin to the saying hana yori dango (dumplings over flowers), takeout food defines life under sakura trees.
Takeout food in Japan manifests its homely, healthy and intricate nature through the bento (lunch box). These traditional containers are packed with tiny portions of assorted foods, subtly differentiated by the set-menu to represent different types of bento. Is vegan an option in these perfectly balanced meals?
To answer this, we explored vegan takeout options in hanami-friendly locations in Tokyo. For those who love a nice vegan meal under a cherry tree, here are some recommendations for this season.
Ekibenya Matsuri, Tokyo Station
Hanami spot: Imperial Palace East Gardens
Bento type: ekiben (bento sold at train stations)
If you were to envisage a bento paradise, it would surely look like the Ekibenya (ekiben store) at Tokyo Station. It is easy to deduce the popularity of the store once you see the plethora of choices available. There’s something for everyone here — seafood bento, teriyaki chicken bento, pork cutlet bento and voilà, the “vegetable bento.” It is a privilege in Japan when ingredients are clearly labelled to indicate no meat, no fish, no dairy and no eggs. For this reason, Ekibenya’s no-fuss bento for vegans is a winner, even before you have looked beyond the packaging. An eye-catching paper belt holds together a seemingly traditional bamboo box and matches the colorful and perfectly-balanced contents within: white rice, sekihan (red bean rice), soy karaage (fried-chicken), hijiki (seaweed), purple radish tsukemono (pickle) and bites of vegetables including mushroom, lotus root, pumpkin and peppers.
The only caveat is that the store is located inside the JR gates of Tokyo Station — but the price of the train ticket is still worth paying.
Hanami spot: Yoyogi Park
Bento type: hokaben (bento served with hot rice)
The depachika (department store basement) food markets in Japan are treasure troves of takeout food. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the tantalizing visual merchandising and overabundance of choice in every food category imaginable, but vegan options are still a rare find. The Pariya delicatessen chain glimmers with strong potential to serve vegan foodies. The counter staff at Pariya in Tokyu Food Show, Shibuya, are happy to hear your dietary requirements and check with the chef in the kitchen (just behind the counter) about the ingredients that have been used to prepare the day’s fare. Four neat compartments in the bento box can be filled with a choice of ingredients and hot cooked rice. Vegan deli options include marinated vegetables, leafy salads, grainy vegetable salads and noodles. The hot rice options include white rice, brown rice and black pepper rice. The resulting box is as flavorful as it is colorful.
The store has a number of branches across Tokyo and more than one in the Shibuya area. Details of branches are available on their website.
Loving Hut, Jimbocho
Hanami spot: Chidorigafuchi Moat
For an intriguing bento experience, try the vegan unagi (eel) bento available at Loving Hut, exclusively available on Saturdays. The restaurant also has a completely vegan menu and offers a vegan buffet. However if you fancy a stroll to Chidorigafuchi, perhaps followed by a boating trip in the imperial moat, you can request a takeaway of the eel bento.
Price: Around ¥1,000
The konbini haul
It isn’t always easy to find a vegan bento service close to a hanami spot you may be visiting, but it is possible to make an impressive hanami hamper with the food choices available at convenience stores located at just about every corner in Tokyo. On a quick lunchtime outing to three of the most easily available convenience stores in Tokyo—AEON, Lawson and Family Mart—located within a 500-meter distance from each other, I picked up a selection of vegan provisions worthy of packing into a sumptuous picnic basket.
- Onigiri (rice balls) — shio musubi (plain salted), sekihan (red bean) and ume (plum)
- Soft tofu (sold in packs of three)
- Salted edamame beans
- Soy and buttered sweet corn (for vegetarians)
Price for all of the above: Around ¥650
Two of the safest and most underrated vegan options at convenience stores in Japan are the shio musubi onigiri and the soft tofu. The shio musubi onigiri is perfectly salted and moist. The soft tofu is a silky, melt-in-the-mouth pudding with natural sweetness. It is only reasonable that they are sold in packs of three because every bite leaves you wanting a little bit more. The flavor can also be enhanced with sauce or seasoning, like soy or maple, that can be bought at convenience stores.
The ingredients of the products vary from store to store and are usually given at the back of the package. Although they may not clearly be labelled “vegan,” using google translate and an inquiry with counter staff should help ensure that the product is vegan. The good news is that at least the name of most of the food items in convenience stores is printed in English.
Convenience stores across the country cater for sakura season with cherry blossom-flavored everything — from tea and cookies to coke. Add the flavors of the season to your hanami picnic hampers or add some color with a bottle of the new sakura print Coca-Cola, perhaps.
JR Tokyo Station (Platform 6/7 area), 1-9-1 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku
Tokyu Toyoko Food Show B1, 2-24-1 Shibuya, Shibuya-ku
Okada Bldg 2F, 1-54 Kandajinbocho, Chiyoda-ku