VeganMoFo 2019: Genmai Shinshoku Aisunao, Naoshima Island

Get ready, it’s time for Dr HH’s traditional VeganMoFo guest post!

Hello! Dr. HH here with my annual contribution to the HH VeganMoFo.  Why have I specifically been drafted in for today’s post? Being a high brow, classy, intellectual individual with an eye for the finer things in life, it was only natural that I write about our day of exploring the Naoshima Art Island.  The day started bright and early from our base in Okayama with me polishing my monocle and dusting off my top hat in preparation for a classy day of art critiquing.

The first thing you spot upon arriving by boat at Miyanoura port is this splendid pumpkin.  Unfortunately, it is difficult to appreciate this piece of art fully as there are so many goons about getting in the way.

It was easy for us to roughly split the island’s museums into two halves for us to tackle before and after lunch.  We hopped on the bus to take us to our first stop, the Chichu Art Museum.  This housed just a few things, including five of Monet’s water lilies. They also had this pond outside that was inspired by said paintings.  There were no pictures allowed of any of the indoor art and we were in the small minority of people who actually followed the rules, so you’ll have to make do with some just some outdoor pictures.  This was our favourite museum on the island, it only had three things in but they were all excellent and the building itself was very impressive too.

Next was the Lee Ufan Museum which housed a selection of what I can only describe as modern art. I remember there being quite a lot of rocks, but not a lot else.  There were also some outdoor bits – I’m sure you can all pick the artistic majesty of this piece I call ‘rock and stick with archway in the distance’.

From here we went to Bennesse House.  This was the biggest museum on the island, which housed a varied collection of modern art and provided some spectacular views of the island.  Much like most modern art galleries, I enjoyed some of the art and found it good fun whilst other pieces left me scratching my head.

It was a bit of a grey and grisly day but the rain was quite gentle at this stage so we decided to take a fairly long walk up towards our eatery before tackling our lunch.  On the way there was a good selection of outdoor art, we spotted some funny looking creatures and the most famous spot on the island, the yellow pumpkin!

Our lunch spot, Genmai Shinshoku Aisunao, was tucked away down a side street near the Ando museum.  On Happy Cow it is listed as using fish stock, but we were informed that everything was vegan and from what I remember the reviews back this up.  We were served this exciting looking lunch special.  In the great Japaense tradition we had become accustomed to, our waitress offered to explained the dishes to us, clarified that the tiny green blobs were made from kelp and excellent with rice, and with that she was off.  Oh well, knowing what things are only detracts from the excitement!

There was an excellent bowl of brown rice, topped with some sesame seeds that gave it a good savoury flavour.  I’m normally pretty critical of rice and it feel it’s quite a dull carb, but here it was a great addition to the meal, and the kelp did indeed add an extra punch of flavour to it. The bowl of miso soup at the front was delicious with a great depth of flavour. The white plate in the back corner had some relatively uninteresting chunks of pumpkin and carrot, but there was a piece of spongy freeze dried tofu that we’d really taken a shine to when it had been served to us before, and once again it did not disappoint.  The rest of that plate had some pickled vegetables and some little cut up noodley bits, which were all good accompaniments to this spread.  The black bowl at the back had some tofu and mushrooms in a broth, which was probably the best part of the whole lunch.  Finally, the dessert plate…we knew from the menu that we were getting a soy milk pudding, which turned out to pretty much be a sweet bit of tofu.  It was perfectly pleasant but not particularly exciting.  What we did not expect was for the beans on the plate next to it to also be a little sweet, that was odd.  Overall, this was an excellent meal that provided us with plenty of fuel for our afternoon wanders.

Next on our list was the Ando Museum, dedicated to the architect who designed most (maybe all?) of the museums on the island.  It provided some models and some background on how the buildings had been developed and extended over the years.  The last thing on the list for us was the Art House Project.  This was made up of five different small locations, each with an exciting exhibit.  It sounded a little like a mini version of the Biennale in Venice so we were quite excited to see what was on offer.  We hustled from site to site in the pouring rain to take in four of the exhibits, but unfortunately they were rather underwhelming.  One consisted of sitting in the dark for about ten minutes, and another was just a small flower arrangement.  The other two were a little more fun but still not particularly exciting.

By this time, the rain was heavier than ever and we had about 20 minutes to get back across to our ferry port so we abandoned the idea of seeing the last of the art house projects and sped off on our way.

This was a great and long day out.  We set off early from Okayama and made an effort to see as much as we could.  I really enjoyed the Chichu Museum and Bennesse House but I could happily have skipped the other museums.  The outdoor bits and pieces were great fun too, and the island was a pleasant place to stroll around…well, it would have been more pleasant if it hadn’t rained all day!  The food was excellent and I would thoroughly recommend a trip to Naoshima Island. If you have even a passing interest in modern art there’s plenty to enjoy, and it’s certainly something a little different from the hustle and bustle of your average Japanese city.

What kind of squash would you most like to see transformed into art?

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VeganMoFo 2019: Convenience Store Snacks of Japan

Usually I do all my holidaying in Europe, which means there’s a pretty good chance that I recognise the vegan snacks available, or have enough of an idea about the language to scan for allergens. Japan was a whole different story: there were no English ingredients, and all of the products were completely unfamiliar to me. Fortunately, there is a hardworking network of vegans in Japan doing all the research for tourists like me and cataloguing all the vegan options available in the main convenience store chains: 7-11, Family Mart, and Lawson. We saved this blog post and scrolled through it whenever we entered one of the shops so we could find a suitable snack.

WARNING! Do not, under any circumstances, buy these! All of the Soyjoy Crispy bars are vegan, but they are absolutely disgusting. The banana ones almost made me throw up, they were so strongly (and artificially) flavoured. We bought these early on, learned our lesson, and avoided them like the plague afterwards.

These were much more like it! This is essentially some kind of puffed rice bar, coated in chocolate. Because it contains cereal, we had them for breakfast pretty much every day…they are largely chocolate though. These were my favourite snack we discovered in Japan, and I was devastated to eat the last of the stash I brought home with me.

These Morinaga biscuits were also a good breakfast option, and were readily available at all the convenience stores. There were six crunchy little biscuits in each packet, making them ideal for sharing. The nutty ones were a bit savoury, but the berry ones were better, and the chocolate ones truly excellent!

For salty snacks, we were well-served by Chip Star. These were Pringles-esque (though the outer tube was just cardboard and they were wrapped in plastic packaging inside). The red ones were good and salty; the nori ones were amazing!

We also enjoyed Family Mart’s seaweed crisps, and the 7-11 salted ones. We played it quite safe on the crisps front.

These were a bolder move! These crackers with “happy seasoning” were some weird sweet/savoury hybrid, and they were very moreish. I brought a packet back to the office, and they were a big hit! It’s a shame that each cracker was individually wrapped in plastic though.

Also disappointing on the plastic front was this chocolate bar. I’d expected it to be wrapped in foil, but it was actually three smaller chocolate bars, each wrapped in plastic. It was nice dark chocolate, but I was too mad about the plastic to enjoy it.

Pickled plums are ubiquitous in Japan, but as I’m not a fan of pickles, I steered clear. Dr HH gave this rice ball with pickled plum a whirl though, and found it quite pleasant. It was nice to have a more substantial snack.

And look at this fun treat! After we went to the Inari temple in Kyoto we were dripping with sweat and in desperate need of refreshment. We found these ice lollies in the first convenience store we stumbled into. It was very much “blue” flavour, but all we cared about was that it was cold: it definitely did the job!

Besides the Soyjoy disaster, we were pretty pleased with the snacks we found – and extremely grateful to the vegans who came before us and did all the hard work!

Have you ever tried a Soyjoy Crispy (and lived to tell the tale)? Which Japanese snack would you most like to try?

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VeganMoFo 2019: Curry House CoCo Ichibanya, Okayama

One of the great things about the UK is that a lot of the chain restaurants now have vegan options on the menu, and good ones at that. Our research pointed us towards one Japanese chain with a similar set up. We saw Curry House CoCos everywhere we went, and were always relying on it as an emergency backup just in case all vegan places were closed. Okayama was the only place where we actually needed it, because the vegan options were almost non-existent!

This place has a vegetable curry on the regular menu, but whatever you do, don’t order it! There’s a separate vegetarian menu, which is in fact all vegan, and that’s where you need to order from. It has several options, but they’re essentially all the same sauce with different vegetables.

Fortunately, it’s a good, flavoursome sauce! I got the mushroom, okra, and yam curry. The mushrooms were in the curry itself, while the okra and yam were sliced up in a little pot on the side, which was a bit perplexing. I just tipped it in and mixed it up! Despite this weirdness, it was a nice dish.

Dr HH got the aubergine and vegetable curry, which featured fried aubergine – there’s warning in the menu that the aubergine is fried in the same oil as the meat, so you can make an informed decision on that at least. He declared this a good, tasty curry!

All in all, this was not spectacular food, but it was a solid emergency meal, which is exactly what we were expecting. I’m happy this option exists, but also happy that we only needed to call on it once!

What’s your go-to chain for an emergency vegan eat?

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VeganMoFo 2019: Merci Moncher, Okayama

Travelling light makes everything so much easier. Wherever Dr HH and I are going, and for however many nights, we always pack the same amount: a regular, day backpack that will fit under the seat in front on a flight. It means that we can’t pack anything surplus to requirements, and it also means that we can navigate around relatively easily without dragging suitcases of wielding gigantic backpacks that could knock someone out. It was a massive bonus on this trip in particular because we spent so much time hopping between destinations, and everything was just easier without huge luggage to worry about. On one day in particular it was a huge help: we were travelling from Osaka to our next destination, Okayama, and we were able to stop along the way to visit Himeji as well, without hauling loads of stuff with us.

Himeji was on the itinerary just so we could see the castle. I’m very much a traditionalist when it comes to castles (moat, drawbridge, dungeon, turrets, etc), but I did enjoy the castles in Japan. They were just beautiful!

Then we resumed our journey to Okayama, and found ourselves boarding the Hello Kitty shinkansen, which was quite a fun surprise! Almost everyone on the platform whipped out their phone to start taking pictures as it pulled in.

Then we arrived in Okayama! It was on our itinerary for two reasons: firstly, the castle (I enjoyed the contrast with the white castle we’d just seen in Himeji), and secondly as a base to visit the art island of Naoshima (more on that on Monday). We stayed for two nights, and I wouldn’t have stayed any longer – there weren’t too many sights to see (some very nice gardens though), and the vegan options were particularly disappointing.

Happy Cow gave us a few places with vegan options, but the opening hours were unfavourable, or nothing was labelled vegan on the menu, or they were sold out of that one vegan dish when we got there. It was a tough place!

When we arrived we went for a late lunch at Merci Moncher, located in a shopping centre near the station. Nothing was labelled vegan here, but from the list of ingredients and allergens we deduced that the falafel plate should be fine. And “fine” is what it was: not spectacular, no amazing flavours, just a solid plate of food to sustain us for the afternoon.

We got two nice but unexciting falafel, some brown rice, two different kinds of hummus, some pumpkin and carrot, plenty of red cabbage, a bit of salad, and a little dish of minestrone soup on the side. It was expensive for what it was, but we didn’t really have an alternative and were happy just to find somewhere. It was colourful and fresh, and it did the job!

As vegans, falafel is often a good backup choice when on the go, with the bonus that it’s generally cheap and cheerful. It was a bit of a nuisance that it was so expensive here, but sometimes you just have to take the hit!

Is falafel your saviour on the road as well? And do you travel light?

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VeganMoFo 2019: Eko-in, Koyasan

Our main motivation for visiting Koyasan was to stay at one of the Buddhist monasteries and enjoy a massive feast! This was another example of traditional Japanese accommodation, but it was known as a shukubo, not a ryokan. It had the same set up as the ryokan in Hakone though: simple room, beds made up on the floor, meals served in the room, communal baths. However, all the staff there were monks, and they did not wait on us quite so much (thankfully!).

There are a lot of these monastery accommodations in Koyasan and we weren’t sure how to choose between them initially. Casual research suggests that all of them serve vegan food, but a closer look revealed that a lot still use fish sauce. I managed to establish that Eko-in is actually all vegan, so that was the one for us! By coincidence, it turned out to be the exact same place that a friend of mine stayed at ten years ago. He hated his experience then, saying the monks were quite surly, nobody spoke English, and they were forced to participate in the morning religious ceremonies. Things have clearly changed in ten years: the monks were all very young (students at the nearby university), friendly, and spoke excellent English, and they were quite relaxed about participation in the ceremonies – we essentially managed to slink off when we wanted out. (For the record, I hated being a tourist in someone else’s religion, and would definitely not do this again.)

Like the accommodation in Hakone, it was also in beautiful surroundings. High up in the mountains, Koyasan was a beautiful place. We especially enjoyed the walk through the nearby cemetery, made extra special by the the mist and damp in the air – it was peaceful, and a little spooky. Lots of walking around the little town left us ready for a big feast, and that’s exactly what we got!

Unlike in Hakone, this time we got all our food served to us at the start so we could sit and eat undisturbed and then just call front desk when we were ready for them to clear it away and make the beds. Perfect! After setting out all our trays, the monk who served us announced, “Let me explain the meal for you. This pot has hot tea. This dish has rice.” And off he went! Those are the two things I’m quite confident I could have worked out for myself! Everything else remained a mystery.

It’s hard to say exactly what each dish was…but at least I recognised this one as tempura! It was really good, and I liked the little cake-case of some kind of green salt. It’s just a shame these were already tepid by the time they were served, but I think this is the problem of serving a multi-course feast to every guest at the same time. Also on this tray we had a really flavoursome soup, some wilted greens, a plate of pickles, and a little block of sesame tofu. This was one of the best things we ate in Japan, it was so creamy it was just like if you’d blitzed together some silken tofu with some tahini. Incredible!

This tray was where the lines between sweet and savoury began to blur somewhat! The aubergine was well cooked and served with a sticky, tasty sauce. Everything on the white plate at the back tasted quite neutral: there was some extremely bland seaweed, a pickled pink flower, and four flavourless gelatinous shapes. We weren’t really sure what was going on. The dish in the front left was more baffling still – we could best describe it as some kind of sweet, fig-type fruit in pink syrup with some gelatinous shapes. It felt quite otherworldly. Also there was a fruit plate, which was unexciting but at least I knew what to expect from it!

And the final tray had some weird concoctions too! We got a good spongy piece of tofu, which was really nice. Then there was this pink, gelatinous noodle cube, which looked sweet but wasn’t. It seemed to be tea-soaked. It was nice, but a bit weird! And then we had a strange mixed plate containing very sharp pickles, a sweet potato slice, some black beans, a sticky mochi wrapped in a leaf, and some kind of fruit that tasted just like Bakewell tart but we both agreed wasn’t actually a cherry. Very mysterious!

It was a really fun meal, though I would have preferred a bit more info so I could make a logical progression from savoury to sweet. Dr HH and I would take turns sampling each dish and ask each other after the first bite: “Is it sweet or savoury?”, to which the other would usually reply: “Somehow both…” It was fun having lots of little things to peck at, and that sesame tofu will stay with me forever.

We were up at the crack of dawn to observe the chanting and then the fire ritual, and returned to find breakfast in our room and our beds made up. It was a much smaller meal than the night before, which was probably just as well – I was still fairly full!

For breakfast we had some more rice and hot tea (of course!), a really good miso soup, a little pot of salad that appeared to contain cornflakes (?!), some nori sheets, some tasty brown noodles with mushrooms, an excellent pot of seaweed and sesame seeds (simple but extremely effective!), an absolutely disgusting pickled plum (I hate pickles, so that didn’t really help), an orange, and a lovely little tofu pouch filled with something that was either sweet or neutral, we just couldn’t understand anything any more! Again, it was a fun meal, and filled us up nicely for our journey back down the mountain.

I would really recommend staying at Eko-in. It was such a beautiful place and we felt really well looked after. There were a few weird details – we had to leave our shoes on shelves at the entrance where anyone could have taken them; the door could lock from the inside but not from the outside, so we locked up our valuables in the safe, but anyone could have gone through the rest of our stuff if they so desired. But for one night, for a special experience, I was really happy. I’d go back again, but skip the early morning religious ceremonies, and just have a lie in instead!

Is cornflakes in salad a phenomenon that has passed us by? Would you like to stay in this place?

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VeganMoFo 2019: Bon On Shya Cafe, Koyasan

Koyasan is another of those places that appears on almost every Japanese itinerary I looked at – it’s a small town full of Buddhist temples which double up as tourist accommodation, way up a mountain. Much like our earlier trip to Hakone, it appealed to me because it was a brief foray into nature for some peace and quiet between big cities, and also because it was a chance to have a massive vegan feast in traditional accommodation (more on that tomorrow!).

We travelled from Osaka by train, cable car (if you are scared of heights, it’s quite a terrifying experience), and bus, and finally arrived at Koyasan feeling hungry. Most of the temples serve vegan food, but there were also a few cafes with vegan options too, so we made a beeline for Bon On Shya Cafe which is located on the main (only?) road through town. It was a lovely place, which was a gallery as well as cafe. There was limited seating, but we managed to squeeze in.

There’s a daily lunch option, and if you specify when ordering they will bring the vegan set. It was one of the best lunches we had on the trip! The star of the show was the aubergine quiche, which had the most beautiful thin pastry. The accompaniments were also fun: bread topped with delicious pesto; potato and pumpkin salad in a creamy tofu dressing; refreshing quinoa with tomato and tofu; spicy beans; mock meat with green peppers; and the usual brown rice and green salad. There was an exciting variety of dishes, and we found them all really great.

There was also a vegan dessert, which would have been rude to turn down. We ordered it with soy milk chai masala, which was absolutely bursting with flavour! I’m not a big fan of Japanese tea, so this was exactly what I’d been waiting for. As for the cake, it was a berry tofu cheesecake which had a fruity, creamy topping, and…

…a biscuit base! FINALLY! A vegan cheesecake with an actual biscuit base is essentially the Holy Grail as far as I’m concerned, and here it was. It was perfect. Why can’t this be the standard? Nobody wants a soggy, flimsy little base.

I’m sure some people travel to Koyasan seeking enlightenment and a spiritual experience. I felt like I got everything I was searching for in that piece of cheesecake.

Have you ever found the perfect cheesecake where you least expected it?

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VeganMoFo 2019: Slices, Osaka

Wherever you go in the world, you can always without fail find an Irish pub. Osaka was the first place where we found a Canadian one though! It was quite an unexpected discovery, and I don’t really know what makes a Canadian bar different to any other (besides the massive Canadian flag on the wall, obviously), but this place had a very exciting vegan menu, so I didn’t ask too many questions!

The vegan menu featured exciting dishes like poutine, mac and cheese, lasagne, pizza by the slice, and brownies, plus various bar food options like onion rings. I ordered the fish and chips, because that’s a hard thing for a Brit to turn down! The chips were really well-seasoned, and the fish was battered mushrooms (similar to what we had at Paprika), which were very tasty, though there was no apparent effort to give them a fishy taste (nori, dill, etc). Calling it fish was a bit of a stretch – it was very much chips with battered mushrooms, but that was fine by me!

Dr HH went Japanese and ordered the okonomiyaki, a local speciality which we were yet to see veganised before coming here. Essentially it was a bed of noodles topping with a thin pancake featuring spring onions, cabbage and carrot, and the whole thing was absolutely swimming in teriyaki sauce. There was far too much sauce, so he wasn’t overly impressed by this, but was pleased to get to try the dish anyway.

And we was also pleased with these onion rings that we ordered to share! I felt I already had quite enough oil on my place, so after testing them out I let him devour the rest.

We returned again another evening because we wanted something quick and easy. This time we shared the daily special, which was cheese and jalapeno sticks. They were more spring roll-like than I was expecting, but they were still tasty.

And we each got a slice of BBQ chicken pizza, which was delicious! There was lots of cheese (though it seemed more of a creamy cheese sauce than regular melted cheese), plenty of BBQ sauce for flavour, and a generous helping of tasty little chicken bites. This was absolutely wonderful! From the menu we got the impression that the vegan pizzas weren’t available as a whole, you could only order by the slice, which was a shame – a whole one of these would have been sensational!

This place served its purpose well and gave us the solid comfort food we were craving. The menu also had some fun mocktails too, and service was really friendly in the familiar, western way. My only complaint was that smoking was allowed inside. This was a really difficult concept for me to grasp, having lived with smoking bans for a long time. I don’t really want my food to taste of other people’s cigarette smoke, and I feel bad for the people who work there and have to breathe in the smoke all day. Here’s to more smoking bans!

Have you ever been to a Canadian bar?

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