Although the world knows me primarily as a cheapo, I don’t like to compromise on the quality of my fodder. So, my fellow health-conscious wallet-watchers, here I’d like to share with you a few notes from my forays into the jungle of healthy eating in Tokyo. Read on for tips on meeting vegan, paleo and other dietary needs. We’ll start with organic, and go from there.
Wait, Japanese people eat healthy, right?
Well, some do. The good news is that Japanese cuisine is so varied and (generally) of a high standard that it’s perfectly possible to eat ultra healthy everyday. The bad news is that it’s usually not quite as cheap and convenient as “back home”, particularly if you have a special dietary requirement or two. But if you’re into eating healthy like me, you probably appreciate the value in spending a little more on quality, rather than quaffing cup ramen every night. Still, with my responsibility as flag-bearing cheapo, I’m going to tell you how to keep things within a reasonable budget.
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How do you say “organic” in Japanese?
I like to eat organic where possible, and I’ve explored various corners of Tokyo, finding outlets, markets and shops that stock unadulterated produce. The term for “organic” in Japanese is “yuuki”: 有機. As far I understand, this means no pesticides—”munoyaku” 無農薬, and no artificial fertilizers is “mu kagaku hiryo” 無化学肥料.
On labels, you also see “reduced” use of chemicals, e.g. 極減農薬. I’m not sure of the technical classification of these terms, but I guess they’re better than the thorough blasting unlabeled fruit and veg presumably receive otherwise.
Perhaps my favorite place for groceries is buying direct from the source at a farmers market. The produce is local, fresh, good quality and usually fairly cheap. You often get awesome freebies too, like a bag of lemons or a rogue apple with every 1,000 yen spent. For a list of markets to diarize, head over to our article on farmers markets in the Tokyo area.
Bonus cheapo tip: Look for “not quite organic” produce; these items aren’t certified organic, but are either from a farm that’s in the process of converting to organic, or at the very least are not blasting their produce with chemicals as indiscriminately as standard fare.
JA is short for Japan Agriculture Cooperatives, and as far as the cheapo healthy eater is concerned, they are a good source of “farm direct” food. These are perhaps the cheapest places I’ve found for fresh, organic fruit and vegetables. However, variety can be limited; you may be stuck with nothing but organic carrots to choose from, so don’t bank on doing your weekly shop solely at a JA outlet (unless carrot and ginger soup for breakfast, lunch and tea is your thing). See the handy map at the bottom of the article—we’ve pinned it with the locations of all the JA outlets.
Health food stores in Tokyo
Japan is a few years behind the health food boom that’s happening in the West, but there are a few health food chain stores, and most neighborhoods have some smaller independent stores tucked away in the back streets.
Health food shops here are usually not the cheapest option, but they generally make up for that with their variety. They are a good place to buy free-range eggs, dairy, juices, drinks, oils, grains, snacks, supplements and many other items for your pantry, including macrobiotic cookies, gluten-free soy sauce and fair-trade chocolate. Below are a few health food stores to investigate (think of it as a good chance to practice your Japanese).
A famous park, a former black market and a whole heap of museums—get to know Ueno:
- Natural House
- Yuuki no Sato 有機の里
- Waseda Natural 早稲田自然食品
- Mother’s Organic Market
- F&F 自然食品の店
- Natural Mart
- Abiofarm’s Market
Bonus cheapo tip: Many stores also sell bento boxes filled with vegetarian and/or organic goodies—the usual after-lunch bento box discount applies, and you can likely scoop a meal for half-price if you turn up after 2:30pm or 8:30pm.
Local markets, fishmongers and greengrocers
Rather than rely on supermarkets, scout out local “mom and pop” type stores selling fruit and veg, meat, fish and tofu. There’s likely one near your apartment or workplace. You’ll often find that they stock some organic produce and have really reasonable prices.
Bonus cheapo tip: Buy some fresh handmade tofu from your local “tofuyasan”; these shops are a dying breed with the supermarkets out-cheapoing them. But it’s a real treat, both for the higher quality and the fun experience of “old skool” Japan—check out the antiquated equipment most of them still use.
Regular supermarkets in Tokyo
We’ve written about Japanese supermarkets plenty before, so we’ll keep it short. What to remember: the big chains normally found near train stations are pricey, though the more poncy ones such as Precce or Seijoishi (成城石) will likely have an organic section. I have also spied organic produce in OK supermarket.
In general, the cheaper supermarkets are just fine for fresh fruit, veg, meat and fish. One of my favorite healthy lunches is buying some maguro (tuna) sashimi off-cuts, mustard sprouts and avocado and making a paleo power salad.
More than a supermarket: Donki
Yes, legendary discount store Donki is also known to stock organic produce from time to time—don’t bank on it, though. However, they do have a few other cheapo health items of note:
- Nuts and dried fruit
- Coconut oil (for bullet-proof coffee fans)
- Açai juice (perhaps just a health “snake oil”, but tasty at least)
- Imported goodies, though it’s questionable whether my editor would allow me to put chocolate on this list of “healthy items” (Editor’s note: allowed)
Finding free-range eggs in Tokyo
If you like your eggs free-range, or at least semi-free-range, look out for 放し飼い—”hanashi gai”. This means free-range (or is the closest term to free-range as per European standards). There’s also 平飼い—hiragai, which means the chickens can wander around, but does not specify whether they have access to the outdoors.
Sometimes you will not see this clearly marked on the packaging, just on a sign above it. Other times you’ll see a long descriptive label with words like “natural” 自然—it’s not always that clear.
Note: Free-range eggs are rather expensive in Japan, so expect to pay 50+yen per egg.
Finding gluten-free foods in Tokyo
In the past few years, it’s become a bit easier to find gluten-free products in Japan, particularly in the bigger cities. In Tokyo, you will sometimes see rice-flour breads at health food stores and even regular supermarkets—though the emphasis is on sometimes. As mentioned above, you can pick up gluten-free soy sauce at health food stores, as well as a few other products for your kitchen cupboards.
Soba noodles that are made with 100% buckwheat are safe (there’s no wheat in buckwheat), and mochi is generally your friend. Watch out for hidden gluten in all sauces and seasonings—wheat is surprisingly prevalent in a country where the carb of choice is rice. For expert advice, check out The Essential Gluten-Free Guide to Japan. For a tasty and safe meal, pop into Gluten-Free Cafe Little Bird in Shibuya.
Food-chain accountability: Where is this carrot from?
Happily, Japanese fruit, veg and produce in general is well accounted for and pretty much always labeled with where it was farmed. Here’s a quick guide to help you make sure you are eating local.
|東京||Tokyo||Very close||Yes, there’s farming in Tokyo!|
|埼玉||Saitama||Very close||Just north of Tokyo|
|千葉||Chiba||Very close||Just east of Tokyo|
|神奈川||Kanagawa||Very close||Just south of Tokyo|
|群馬||Gunma||Close-ish||Just above Saitama|
|長野||Nagano||Not too close||Off to the other side of Honshu|
|宮城||Miyagi||Not too close|
|福島||Fukushima||Not too close||Note this kanji if you’re dubious of the JP monitoring of radiation levels|
|北海道||Hokkaido||Not close||Usually good for potatoes|
|中国||China||Miles away||The cheap garlic is usually from China.|
Generally, all other overseas locations are written in katakana, e.g. アメリカ (America). You’ll find that a lot of the pork comes from the States.
The Internets: Tengu, Amazon, Rakuten and iHerb
A lot of health foods travel or store well, e.g. almonds, and often the cheapest way to source them is to buy in bulk online. However, given the sticky situation we’re in with climate change, buying local options with a lower carbon footprint is recommended.
Saitama-based Tengu Natural Foods offer a range of local products (and imports too, if you can’t do without them). Otherwise, you can try Rakuten or the Japanese version of Amazon. There’s also US-based retailer iHerb.
I’ve also come across a few organic veg + product delivery services:
A word on Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)
It’s my understanding that while a small percentage of people react to MSG, the widespread fear of MSG in Westerners is perhaps unfounded. But what do I know? Go and read the Wikipedia article if you want to become an expert.
However, if you’d like to keep it off the menu anyway, you need to look out for the label: アミノ酢等. MSG isn’t legally required to be labeled as MSG; instead the more generic “amino acids” label is used. This only means it might contain MSG, but in reality it probably does.
You will have trouble finding MSG-free produce, as people don’t generally care about it in Asia (it was discovered/invented in Japan over 100 years ago). Health food shops do tend to stock a few non-MSG alternatives, though.
Healthy eating in Tokyo: Going out on the town
If you need a primer on the various types of Japanese cuisine, listen to our podcast episodes here and here. In the meantime, here are a few recommendations for eating out with special dietary requirements.
Vegetarian and vegan
I don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of the vegetarian, vegan and Vulcan dining options in Tokyo, but below are several good suggestions.
Nagi Shokudo: Vegan restaurant near Shibuya Station, with a nice choice of dishes. ±1,000 yen for lunch. Read our full review here.
Mise LMA: Quirky little cafe/bar/restaurant close (ish) to Shinjuku. They make vegan dinner, vegan cakes, vegan breakfast, cold-brew high-grade green tea, and a variety of other tasty treats. Also host to a good-value farmers market on certain Saturdays.
Alaska Zwei: Hipster and vegetarian, they make their own pizzas too. Located about 10 minutes’ walk west of Nakameguro Station.
More veggie options: Happy Cow has close to 300 veggie listings for Tokyo.
Paleo + low GI options
Japan is the caveman dieter’s best friend. Whilst most of the world insists on a big dollop of carbs with every meal (pasta, rice, potato, corn), in many types of Japanese cuisine the starch can be skipped altogether. Here are a few tips.
Izakaya: The Japanese “pub”, or tapas as I prefer to call it, offers a huge range of dishes and the majority of them are meat, fish or vegetables. If you’re strict paleo, you’ll obviously want to skip the tofu dishes. Izakaya are absolutely everywhere—have a look at our beginner’s guide and get out there.
Meat eateries: Yakitori, yakiniku and shabushabu are club-wielding caveman compatible. Bonus cheapo tip: Yakiniku isn’t cheap, but if you go for a tabehodai (all you can eat), then a paleo worth his/her salt will get good value. Check out Piss Alley near the West Exit of Shinjuku Station for a range of “ghetto” yakitori shacks.
Sushi: Don’t forget you can skip the rice and just have the sashimi. If it’s a conveyor sushi place, order from the chef in the middle and just say “sashimi”. Here are a few budget sushi suggestions. You might want to check out our Guide to Sustainable Sushi and Other Japanese Food, too.
Hamburg and hamburger: Some may question the placement of the word “hamburger” in an article with “health” in the title. I have no qualms; in my experience a balanced diet is a healthy diet, plus this is the paleo section!
Nikushokudo is a great wagyu “hamburg” (i.e. burger, no bun) joint—fully paleo, and you can order massive portions.
Fish and rice, minus the rice: There’s a plethora of trendy cafes in the hipper districts surrounding Shibuya, and they serve decent lunchtime meals for 1000 yen. Many opt for variations on the standard Japanese fish, rice, miso soup combo.
Well, that concludes my brain dump on healthy eating in Tokyo, based on personal experiences over the last few years. Do bookmark this post and check back from time to time, as we’ll be keeping it updated with the freshest healthy cheapo tips and picks.
Think we’ve left something out? Post in the comments, and we’ll see what we can do.
This post was last updated by Carey Finn in July 2017.
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