Vegetarian Cuisine

Japan for festivals and veggie food

I will be travelling in Japan from August 11 for about 10 days after attending a student conference. I understand that the Obon Festival runs on August 13-16, and have been warned that this is a very busy period and thus difficult to find accommodation. I am intrigued by the festival – can you tell me more about travelling around at this time?

I am on low student budget and would be staying in hostels, so to what extent is this true? Furthermore is it really that difficult to be a vegetarian in Japan? Birju Kotecha, Bolton

Times Online assistant travel editor Ginny McGrath responds: According to the Japan National Tourist Organisation, Obon is a Buddhist ceremony for welcoming back and appeasing the souls of ancestors. It is held in mid-July or mid-August depending on the region.

A spokeswoman told me that Obon is one of the two most important holidays in Japan, with the other being New Years. Family members usually return home to be together for Obon. The serious aspect of Obon is that people visit gravesites and clean graves, but at the same time there are also festivals, dancing in the streets, called Bon Odori, and stalls selling food and drinks.

How much Obon will affect your holiday to Japan depends on where in Japan you will be visiting. The festival of Obon lasts for three days; however its starting date varies across different regions of Japan. The Japan National Tourist Organisation explains: When the lunar calendar was changed to the solar calendar in the beginning of the Meiji era, the localities in Japan reacted differently and this resulted in three different times of Obon.

“Shichigatsu Bon” (Bon in July) is based on the solar calendar and is celebrated around the 15th of July in areas such as Tokyo, Yokohama and Tohoku region. “Hachigatsu Bon” (Bon in August) is based on the solar calendar, is celebrated around the 15th of August and is the most commonly celebrated time. “Kyu Bon” (Old Bon) is celebrated on the 15th day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar, and so differs each year. “Kyu Bon” is celebrated in areas like the northern part of the Kant? region, Ch?goku, Shikoku, Ky?sh? and the Southwestern islands. These three days are not listed as public holidays but it is customary that people are given leave.

If you would like to experience Bon while you are in Japan the Daimonji Gozan Fire Festival on 16 August in Kyoto is recommended.

As part of Kyoto’s August Obon festivities, fires in the shape of large Chinese characters (kanji) are lit in five locations on the mountains surrounding Kyoto City.

You should also join in the bon odori that is an essential part of any bon celebration – everyone joins in. Bon Odori (meaning simply Bon dance) is an event held during Obon. It is celebrated as a reminder of the gratefulness one should feel toward one’s ancestors. Originally a folk dance to express the effusive welcome for the spirits of the dead, the style of celebration varies in many aspects from region to region.

Each region has a respective local Bon dance, as well as different music accompanying the dance. The music can be songs specifically pertinent to the spiritual message of Obon, or local folk songs. Consequently, the Bon dance will look and sound different from region to region.

Trains are likely to be very busy from 13-16 August so you should book long distance trains in advance and likewise book accommodation ahead. If you want to visit Kyoto, even if you are staying in hostels, you should still book in advance as it is a peak holiday period and student holiday time so even cheap accommodation will be busy. Try this website to fidn hotels: www.hostels.com/en/jp.ky.html.

On the matter of vegetarianism, Japan is difficult for strict vegetarians, but not impossible.

Noodle broths in Japan tend to be made with a pork or fish broth so even is it says “soba noodles with mountain vegetables” on the menu, the soup is likely to have fish stock in it. So if you are a strict vegetarian you need to keep things like that in mind.

Common dishes like tempura, okonomiyaki and yakisoba (stir fried noodles) all have vegetarian options. If ever you are stuck you can get salads, fruit, yogurt and vegetable filled rice balls at convenience stores and Italian restaurants are found all over Japan – a good option for veggie pasta or pizzas.

Buddhist vegetarian cuisine (shojin ryori) is like a delicious vegan banquet. It’s offered at shojin ryori restaurants in Tokyo and Kyoto or you can sample it by staying at a temple (shukubo) somewhere like Kyoto or Mt. Koya.

This website is good for looking up vegetarian restaurants in Tokyo: www.bento.com and also for wider Japan try www.happycow.net/asia/japan.

Useful phrases for vegetarians:

Watashi wa vegetarian desu: I am a vegetarian.

Watashi wa (insert one of the following words here) o itadakimasen: I don’t eat …

niku (nee-koo): meat

sakana (sa-kah-nah): fish

tori (tor-ree): chicken or any type of poultry

tamago (tah-margo): egg

gyunyu (giu-new): milk

nyu seihin (new say-hinn): dairy products