"Tabearuki" - A guide for Vegan Gourmet on the Move
Tabe-aruki, 食べ歩き can be literally translated as "eating, walking". Whereas actually walking while eating is traditionally frowned upon in the Japanese culture, this activity of walking around and trying a lot of local foods, is a popular date- or domestic sightseeing activity.
In this article I will share my tips for one of my favorite travel activities!
How to: Tabearuki
Tabearuki is a staple concept in Japan and a popular word on SNS hashtags, domestic travel descriptions and date plans. With the kanji 食べ歩き literally translating as "walking" and "eating", it may come as a surprise that walking while eating in Japan is considered rude, and is even forbidden in some areas. Popular tourist spot 'Kamakura' made international news last year by asking visitors to no longer walk the crowded streets while eating, after countless complaints of locals getting their clothing stained by passing by the many eating visitors...
But good news! Tabearuki does not actually require you to walk with your food. It describes the activity of trying many small, often local specialty foods that you can order per take out or eat-drink at the spot. If the shop does not offer an in- or outside space to quickly enjoy your treat, just find a quite spot nearby where you won't bother anyone, and you'll be fine. IMPORTANT: take home your garbage! many shops won't accept your garbage as they simply don't have the capacity, and you're more likely to see unicorn in kimono, than a public trash can in Japan...
Vegan Tips and Tricks
Tabearuki can be surprisingly enjoyable when Vegan. Many traditional dishes, wagashi sweets and street foods will be made of simple, natural ingredients - and as they are often made on the spot, they are less likely to contain animal-derived emulsifiers, weird E-numbers or additives. With street food and freshly prepared food being popular for tabearuki hotspots, staff will be directly in charge of making the food and therefore have better understanding of the ingredients than staff selling pre-made foods in a store. In case of a family-run business, chances are they have even heard your questions before!
It does also mean that the food usually isn't packaged, which is great to reduce waste, but also means there often is no ingredients list or label. So unless they have the allergens listed on the menu (which actually happens more and more!), you will be dependent on the communications with the store keeper.
These are my go-to lines:
Does this contain eggs or diary?
卵や乳製品が入っていますか？tamago ya nyuuseihin ga haitteimasuka?
Are any animal ingredients used?
動物性を使っていますか？ doubutsusei wo tsukatteimasuka?
Does this contain Katsuo?
かつおかかつお出汁を使っていますか？ katsuo ka katsuodashi wo tsukatteimasuka?
For Wagashi (Japanese sweets like mochi, ohaghi, dango, etc.) I usually stick with inquiring for eggs and dairy. In case of doubt I might confirm gelatin (ゼラチン) as well, although traditionally, the plantbased alternative Kanten (寒天) is more common. Honey is usually less of a risk, as mizuame (水あめ) is far more common and if they go out of their way to use the more expensive honey, it will likely be a key selling point and part of the name or description. *Note that for many popular Sakura products, the chances of carmine (コチニール) is very big; a simple Sakura daifuku may be made without milk or eggs, but the pink coloring or Sakura Anko inside may very well include this.
For savory foods I prioritize asking about katsuo (鰹・かつお) - assuming I could already eliminate other meats and fish, and I would ask for the other ingredients in a second step, if needed. For example, when checking a fresh miso senbei rice cracker, I would be less worried about eggs or weird additives.
For drinks, my experience is that there is diary involved in 90% of the cases. Even when it's a smoothie, fruits juice or advertised as a soy milk drink! Many placed will indicate the product contains some sort of milk (乳), but in case it isn't specified, I would ask the staff and their allergen chart where possible. Based on the certainty of the merchant's answer, their attitude (friendly and patient or rushed and annoyed), I would be comfortable confirming in more detail and or plainly asking "What are the ingredients" or "What is this made of? (+does it contain animal products?)" どんな材料を使っていますか？ donna zairyou wo tsukatteimasuka? 何から出来ていますか？nani kara dekiteimasuka?
Nobody's is perfect! But as long as you are doing the best you can - whether it's for the animals, the environment or your health (or all combined!) you are doing a great job!
It is completely up to you to decide to stick to "100% confirmed" Vegan foods or if you would like to balance culture and experience at the risk that sometimes an ingredient will get overseen or lost in translation.
If you forget to ask a particular ingredient (e.g. you confirm diary and eggs, but didn't ask about gelatin) or the merchant isn't fully knowledgeable on the definitions (e.g. I can't count the amounts of time I was served tofu made especially for me... topped with Katsuo bonito flakes!), chances are you will slip up at some point. Also, when there are long lines at popular hotspots, you may not be able to ask all of your questions, or have staff consult their superiors or allergen lists. Then you will have to decide: Be 100% sure or make an educated assumption and enjoy the experience regardless.
Truth be told, this is the same risk you take consuming any product in Japan that doesn't carry the Vegan Certification Mark, or where you haven't contacted the company directly for confirmation - as the labeling is very poor and animal derived ingredients mostly invisible.
>>Read my blog on Tabearuki in Hakone Yumoto (Coming up!)
I hope you found my experiences helpful and that you will enjoy tabearuki as much as I do, to try new local delicatessen and snacks!