Vegan Japan

We did not make it to Japan this year, unfortunately, so as part of my reminiscing here is an article I wrote on surviving there as a vegan, with thanks to Tanwyn Sensei for providing the photos.


If you do any basic research on finding vegan food in Japan you will invariably be told that even though it is becoming more accessible, it is still very difficult.

Whilst the first part of the statement is true in terms of more vegan only establishments opening up in the larger cities like Tokyo and Kyoto, (you can even find vegan bento boxes at Tokyo station), the second part is more apparent than real.

On my first few trips I accepted the difficulty as a matter of course and used my Japanese holidays as a weight loss regime.

The truth is, however, that Japan has plenty of vegan food to offer if you know how to look and make a little effort. Indeed, now days I come back having put weight on.

The cause of the discrepancy in perception is that the Japanese do not regard the meals as ‘vegan’, as such. They are just traditional Japanese meal options.

Tofu and seaweed

Fish in dashi does remain a problem, but even that is not insurmountable. If you memorise some simple phrases such as:


or even the more general:


It is always worth asking about the dashi separately, as the fish stock in this is so generic it is often forgotten by the serving staff.

Here are some of the ways we have eaten well in Japan as vegans.

The simplest way is to buy familiar foods from either a konbini, or a supermarket and make up your own salads, etcetera. This is a good way to have pre prepared lunches for those long travel days. But is also perhaps, the least satisfying way of finding food, it being far too close to what you would do at home.

Safe Japanese foods like inari zushi are also readily found in such places, for a quick, if not necessarily nutritious, snack. (Certainly my youngest’s favourite konbini food). There are also a variety of vegan onigiri to be had this way, but if you cannot read the ingredients, you could be in for a nasty surprise, so choose wisely.

Small lunch time dango shops, or roadside vendors, provide a good walking snack or sit down lunch. One tiny place we found, run by an old couple, also served some of the best home made tofu you could ever wish for.

Minshuku regularly offer meals for an added cost to the accommodation. We usually organise, at least, breakfast this way. A little bit of basic communication ensures it is vegan and we start each day well fed with a traditional Japanese breakfast of rice, vegetables, pickles and soup.

One of the minshuku breakfasts

In more remote locations with a lack of eating options, the same can be done for the other meals. One place we stayed at, fed us so well for breakfast and dinner, that I did not bother eating lunches. This is also an excellent way to sample local delicacies. I have very fond memories of mountain vegetable pickles.

Dinner at the minshuku with complementary beer

In the evenings a good place to find vegan food is any of the Family pubs. There are a number of these chain store franchises across Japan and they are an excellent way to wind down after a long day of climbing stairs. You have a booth to yourself and the menus have pictures of all the meals. They usually have one or two vegan mains, such as soba noodles and a good variety of side dishes. Order one of each and you have a vegan feast to share. Our favourite Ne Ne Ya, has a sprout salad dressed with truffle oil that we have never been able to resist.

Family Pub offerings

It is also not too difficult to have a more up market restaurant vegan meal without the expense of a Kyoto monastery shojin ryori restaurant. By all means, do not neglect such an experience if you have the money and happen to be in Kyoto. It will be one of the most exquisitely delightful dining experiences of your life. We have managed equally sublime experiences in small towns.

By arranging with the restaurant in advance that we wanted a vegan meal, shojin ryori style, they were quite happy to create a banquet for us, not available on their standard menu. The first time we did this, having very little in the way of language skills, we organised it through the information office at the local train station, where one of the staff spoke some English. The second time, with only marginally better skills, we did it ourselves, by just turning up an hour or so before we wanted to eat, explained what we wanted, when and for how many. They asked what our budget was and all was sorted. We came back to a multi course feast of dishes of unimaginable elegance and indescribable tastes, each plate surpassing the one before.

A fig dish that we are still talking about years later

All this, including sake came to less than 2000 yen a person. We could not eat it all, leading to that awkward moment of asking for a take away container, without appearing to suggest the chef come home with me for the evening. Much room for improvement in my Japanese language.

With not too much effort it is quite easy to eat well and vegan in Japan. And bear in mind our language skills were rudimentary at best. I do not recommend those cards you can find on various web sites that you can print out to take with you, stating in Japanese that you can not eat any of the foods listed on the card. We tried them one year, and every place we presented them to told us there was nothing they could serve us. There no doubt was much we could eat, but they were not going to take the risk. It is better to learn a few key phrases and try to communicate in person.

Much of Japanese food already is vegan, they simply do not define it in that manner. Making the effort to discover this can be one of the most rewarding culinary experiences of your life.

Kai Cho



Are You Looking at Me?

Whenever I teach something outside the basic kihon curriculum, which is often, I am always amazed at the lengths students will go to, to avoid doing what has just been demonstrated.

You can look down the line on the mat and every nage is doing something different, none of them what they are supposed to. (Occasionally, even uke is doing the wrong thing, but that is perhaps a different story. Or perhaps not).

We are not talking complicated techniques here, just basic body movements, so it is impressive the levels of imagination required to come up with these new, convoluted and totally ineffective ways of expressing what they thought they had just been shown.

This then begs the question: What the hell are they seeing when I am teaching?


Kai Cho




Broken Bokuto

In a recent, advanced, sword class one of the bokuto broke.

It struck me that this happens a lot less now days than it did in the olden times when we were first introduced to the practice of kiri kaeshi.

A combination of lack of skill, poor mental attitude and rubbish, store bought, weaponry, produced a lot of kindling.

Is very much a good indication of beginner versus senior as to how many bokuto they lose, is invariably the lower rank’s weapon that is destroyed.

For the most part, it is not the fault of the weapon when it breaks.

Of course, there is only so much punishment any wooden sword can take and the lifespan of a store bought product is severely limited by the lack of quality of the materials. And in the recent case of destruction, it was clearly bokuto fatigue that was the root cause and not user error.

Some of us are fortunate enough to have high quality, hand made, locally produced weapons as our bokuto of choice.

That said, no matter the quality of the weapons, (and here we end with our traditional admonition), there is no substitute for regular, focused training.


Do not collect weapons or practice with weapons beyond what is useful
Musashi, Dokkodo



Kai Cho



This Week’s Demonstrations

Whenever we do martial arts demonstrations for schools, we always encourage the children to ask questions. This can have mixed results. At one recent event, for instance, a school teacher came up to us afterwards and commented that the students seemed to be going out of their way to ask the most ridiculous questions possible.

But this was not the case this week, when one group asked some quite insightful questions.

Bear in mind also, that these were babies. Not literally babies, but very young students; grade three maximum, possibly grade one. I cannot say for certain, as all children look alike to me. But they were all quite young for their age.

After showing some of our basic open hand techniques, one child asked, “If that is basic, what are your advanced techniques like?”

Another asked what if your attacker also knows martial arts; I may have made some inappropriate and disparaging remarks about karate, but it was a good question, nevertheless.

One wanted to know how we would deal with two attackers, one in front and one behind.

And my favourite question, or rather comment, was from a student who thought what we did was very much all about the timing.

It was a good day.

Plus there were baby ducks, hopefully asking equally intelligent questions of their adults.

At the end of the last demonstration of the day, a child gave me a flower.


Kai Cho




Poor Attendance

It is not unusual for at least one student a class to not attend for whatever reasons: they have to wash their hair, there is a football game on television that night, something I said to them the week before hurt their feelings and they have not yet emotionally recovered. But recently, of the four classes I teach each week, I had to cancel two due to lack of students and the other two were under strength, one having only one student in attendance.

After more than thirty years of teaching I still find this disturbing.

I have trouble understanding why any student would choose to do anything rather than train. Instructors, yes, I have no problems empathising when they do not want to turn up and teach, but students, no.

Over the years, however, I have stopped taking it so personally. I used to think it was up to me to motivate students to want to attend the classes; that if they were not there, there must be something wrong with either the content or the teaching.

Fortunately, I have not felt this way for quite some time.

There is enough hindsight to know the classes are always well structured, the content relevant and well taught, no matter who is taking the class.

So if a student chooses not to attend for whatever, lets face it, to me, irrelevant reasons, it is a reflection of their personal circumstances and not a reflection on the School.

I will probably always regard such decisions as short sighted and borderline crazy, and patiently wait for the day when they can see the Path.


What do you do if the bird does not sing?


Kai Cho



Shortcuts to Training: Are there any?

Have you ever wondered what it takes to become a skilled martial artist? Have you looked at inspirational martial arts masters and thought “Is there a secret to their success? Is there a ‘shortcut’?”

Many martial arts instructors, if they are worth their salt, will tell you: There is no secret. Just train.

But that can’t be right, can it? Surely it is the mysteries of the East? Or perhaps it is the acquisition of a magic or hidden technique?

Worry no more! Here are three concise steps to a true ‘shortcut’ in becoming a skilled martial artist:

  1. Get out of your own way
  2. Be fully attentive during training
  3. Put in the hours

In years to come, you might even look back at this, and find yourself passing it on to your own students.

Happy training!

Tanwyn Sensei




Kirikaeshi is a regular part of sword practice.

Within our School it is means of practicing set counters for set strikes in rapid succession, in a controlled manner.

Recently, when teaching an advanced sword class, I introduced an exercise that takes this practice back to its bare essence. This was not yet another case of me just making things up as I go along, in order to stave off boredom whilst teaching. It was taught to me many decades ago by my teacher.

At the very moment of full commitment by uchitachi, shitachi reverses the attacker’s ki with an appropriate, but not predetermined counter of their own. No contact is made, but the effect on uchitachi can be devastating, if executed correctly.

While easy enough to demonstrate, this was difficult to explain to the students. Despite intellectually understanding what was required, (evidenced by their own realization when it all went wrong), they kept focusing on trying to physically counter the attacker’s strike.

No amount of simplification of the exercise made any difference, it remained, for them, a purely physical situation. That is not to say, they did not do some very nice and effective counters, it just was not the point of what we were doing.

Reflecting on this later, I had to question whether or not this kind of practice can actually be taught, or whether it is one of those things that you gradually learn to do unbeknownst to yourself, over years of constant training.

The exercise then becomes not a training practice, but more of a litmus test to indicate a student’s current level of understanding and development.

Not a great revelation, but yet another confirmation that the only real way to progress is correct and constant training.


Kai Cho



It’s part of training

Early in my martial arts instruction, whenever something happened that blocked my progress, I was given the following advice: “It’s part of training.”

Do you have an injury that is preventing you from attending class?  Has class been cancelled? Are you experiencing a plateau?  Have you had to step back and focus on the fundamentals to correct your technique?  Anything that requires you to remain committed to the art is part of training.

It is a call to look at the bigger picture.  One technique, one class, one moment is not success or failure.  It is only part of training.

O’Brien Sensei




Etiquette in our art involves saying “thank you” often.  We say it before class begins, after training with a partner, and when class is complete.  We acknowledge those who developed the art and we are thankful for new students who come to learn with us.

Gradings offer a marker in time to stop and be thankful to those who took part in the day, and to my teachers who prepared me for the grading.  The gift of understanding and guidance on a way is incremental, and it is worth looking back to see those who have been there with me.

Practicing gratitude over time becomes a habit and it is one of the most valuable things you can take from your training to your life.  Gratitude requires integrity and is a component of satisfaction, and happiness. 

It was a good day filled with many happy memories.  I was grateful to have gifted teachers and a talented training partner.  I am also relieved that it is over, but it is not the end.  I have plenty of opportunities to be thankful in the future.

O’Brien Sensei