In Tokyo, Jess Scott is finding being a gluten-free, almost-vegan 100% difficult.
She tells of her intrepid quest to find meat-free meals and gluten-free bread in the biggest city in the world.
I spent my first three days in Tokyo scouring supermarkets, bakeries and depachika (department store food halls) in a desperate quest for gluten-free bread. I trawled through endless forums and travel blogs, checked every single online grocery delivery service, quizzed anyone and everyone I encountered – to no avail.
In arguably the biggest city on the planet, gluten-free bread is virtually non-existent. Even while passing through the farthest-flung rural New Zealand towns, consisting only of a petrol station and a dairy, I had never struggled to find it before. Here, even armed with Google Translate, no one I spoke to had ever encountered the term “gluten-free”.
This was the first indicator that I was not in Kansas anymore, Toto. It was easier to find bread in a can from a vending machine or a donut shaped like Pikachu, than whole grain toast. You could buy candied squid, curry-flavoured lemonade and fried chicken flavoured RTDs with ease, but not hummus. Suddenly the strange and novel was my new norm, and normalcy for me had become a rarity, confined to a dusty “imported goods” shelf at the back of the supermarket.
You don’t realise how much you take your habits and comforts for granted, until you’re in an environment where they are no longer possible. It’s surprising how attached you become to daily rituals, where something seemingly minor becomes quietly devastating. I had never really thought about why I ate toast for breakfast every day, but suddenly found myself at a loss without it. Without the comfort of routine, I felt like I’d been cast adrift. What do other people eat for breakfast?
I quizzed a friend from home, who had been living here for the past year, on what people ate. She said traditional Japanese breakfasts weren’t too different from any other meal – grilled fish, rice, miso soup and pickles, sometimes even the infamous natto (extremely pungent fermented soybeans). As open-minded as I was trying to be, I definitely wouldn’t be able to face grilled mackerel or slimy soybeans first thing in the morning.
Although 4.8% of people in Japan are vegetarian (almost on par with America), surviving here as a non-meat eater has been incredibly challenging. Ingredients like bonito flakes or dashi (fish broth) are snuck into the most unassuming of dishes and many restaurants won’t have a single meat-free option on the menu. While there has been an influx of new vegetarian and vegan-friendly restaurants over the past couple of years, even a vegan convenience store, these are still uncommon and expensive. As $20 salads aren’t exactly feasible on a student budget, I have been forced to diversify. I decided to (temporarily) integrate seafood and fish into my diet, to avoid subsisting entirely off boiled tofu, miso and lettuce leaves. It seemed silly to be somewhere with such an incredibly rich and diverse food culture, only to spend my time here hungry and miserable.
Like everything in a city this size, food is expensive. Fruit, in particular, is exorbitant. Comparable to the Victorian era, where wealthy families would import exotic fruits to show off to their rich friends at dinner parties, in Japan, being able to afford fruit is a status symbol. It is typically given as a gift, rather than eaten every day. A melon can fetch hundreds of New Zealand dollars, a single peach easily more than $15. The most expensive variety of grapes, the Ruby Roman, can fetch up to $40 per grape, with a record-breaking bunch recently selling for almost $1500.
Subsequently, only the most flawless specimen make it to shelves, individually wrapped in styrofoam sheaths, heaven forbid they should bruise or blemish. The peaches are so perfect they look more like the peach emoji than actual fruit. The grapes look like bunches of plums, oranges like rock melons and apples are triple the size of a Royal Gala. Even the cheapest discount store strawberries are still perfectly symmetrical, all identical in size and shape.
Much like fruit, cafe coffee isn’t a part of people’s everyday lives here, treated as a luxury, rather than a necessity. It is priced as such, with the average latte costing between $7 and $10. Subsequently, most people just drink cans of cold brew from vending machines or convenience marts. At under $2 a pop, these are a far more economical option. Unfortunately they taste, to varying degrees, like dirt. Prepare to lower your standards, coffee snobs.
I wonder if I’ll experience a similar sort of culinary culture shock upon my return to New Zealand? Will I mourn no longer being able to wander into a supermarket and inevitably discover something I had never even known existed? Miss the thrill of the “lucky dip” when I don’t Google Translate a label, and don’t know what I’ve got until I open it? Will even my beloved hummus cease to excite me, seeming bland and predictable, after two months of indulging in the unusual and unexpected?