Hi everyone! In this blog post I will write about how I’ve been keeping my particular dietary restrictions while in Japan. I’m Jewish, so I keep kosher, and although it’s difficult, it’s definitely not impossible. I hope this post will help others like me – whether they keep kosher or halal, or are vegetarian, vegan, or simply allergic to various things. Whether you are thinking of studying abroad in Japan or another country, if you have dietary restrictions you need to do research in advance to see how you’ll manage while abroad. If this pertains to you or to someone you know or if you’re simply curious, please continue reading below.
So, I’ll start by explaining how I did research about keeping kosher in Japan before arriving for my study abroad program in Tokyo. I’m currently a college student at BHCC in Boston, Massachusetts. Boston has a substantial Jewish community, and for the past few years I’ve been living in a kind of homestay with a Jewish family in Brighton. Of course I did some basic research online, but the most valuable information I received was from people in the Jewish community in Boston. So I asked my host family and people around for advice and it turns out that some friends-of-friends-of-friends (who actually happen to live quite close by) go to Japan almost every year and had plenty of advice to give me from their own experience.
Through correspondence with these kind folks, I received tons of much-needed advice in regards to keeping kosher and keeping other aspects of the Jewish faith. Had I arrived in Japan without this knowledge, I would have been totally at loss.
So, what treasure trove of knowledge was I bestowed with, you ask? The most useful info was a guide of places in Tokyo to buy food and what foods specifically I would be able to find. In addition to that here’s one of the best pieces of advice I received: I was told kindly, but bluntly, that food in Japan is quite expensive and that I may need to double or triple my current food budget (yikes!). Another great piece of advice I received is that it would be better to change my diet to include as much local foods as possible, such as rice and fish.
With that advice in mind, I started my journey to buy the necessary items for my kitchen. First, I bought an induction cooking stovetop and a small electric kettle from Bicqlo Bic Camera in Shinjuku for about a total of $70 (they have a great selection of electrical appliances, though you may find cheaper stuff in Akihabara). Then, I bought an induction-cooking compatible pot and pan from a supermarket, Sieyu, close to my place for around $25 total, bought some cheap utensils and dishes at Daiso (super-cheap and awesome 100 yen store (100 yen ~ 1 dollar) ), and then went to the Chabad house run by Rabbi Sudakevitch to do tvilat keilim (immersion of vessels).
Next, I went in search of food. At first I checked out various places, but my favorite stores are National Azabu, a super-pricey international foods store, and Hanamasa, a grocery store that is pretty cheap compared to most supermarkets. In general, I spend about $100 per week on food and that’s just from doing grocery shopping! Fruit and vegetables are expensive in Japan in general and the imported goods are usually two to three times more expensive than their original price.
At National Azabu I usually buy things like Cheerios, Quaker Oats (you can buy 10 lb. box of oatmeal for about $25), Jif peanut butter, lentils, and pasta, while at Hanamsa I buy only fruit, vegetables, and rice. The only things I found with a kosher sign at Hanamasa are Heinz Ketchup, Heinz Mustard, Skippy peanut butter, Sunny Fruit Organic Figs, and Sunny Fruit Organic Apricots. If you have access to a car or you know someone who does, you can also go to Costco. Costco has a variety of kosher and halal items, some of which can be found at National Azabu – for example, Kirkland Extra Fancy Mixed Nuts (2.5 lb.) and the 10 lb. Quaker Oats box. Another international foods store worth mentioning is Nissin World Delicatessen.
Keep in mind that you’ll have to cook a good portion of your meals if you have dietary restrictions. I recommend renting an apartment with a full kitchen or a room with a small kitchenette. For those who keep strict kosher, going to eat at a restaurant is near impossible. (Well, technically, there’s one kosher restaurant in Tokyo called Chana’s Place). Those who keep halal or are vegetarian have more options, but beware – even places that are vegetarian often use pork additives and other meat additives in soups and other foods. For the folks who have allergies – my advice to you is to stick to buying unprocessed foods and foods from international stores that are IMPORTED. Many foods you may be familiar with are actually made in Japan or China and the factories might not be as careful about potential allergens. Make sure that what you are buying is ok for you to eat. Be careful and stay healthy.
Now, I’m going to give you a little lesson in Japanese etiquette. It’s considered rude to inquire about ingredients and ask for ingredient substitutions in a restaurant in Japan. In large cities like Tokyo, where there are many foreign tourists, there may be a higher tolerance to these type of things, but you will still be frowned upon (though probably not directly to your face). Please realize that you are a guest in a foreign country. You don’t have to give up on your own religion or ideals, but at least try your best to respect Japanese social norms and rules as much as you can. There are many unwritten rules in Japan, so doing a little research on things that are acceptable and unacceptable will help you be a good representative of your home country.
I hope that this post will help you with your study abroad journey. Good luck and stay true to yourself!!! In my next blog post, I’ll write about some of the awesome festivals I’ve been to recently. Ja, mina-san, mattane! See you next time!