From picking the best fish for dinner to learning the phrase for ‘no plastic bag please’, there are plenty of ways to make your trip to Japan a sustainable success.
While sustainable travel is often associated with developing destinations, Japan still has a lot of space for growth in environmental issues. During your travels, there are plenty of ways to reduce your impact on the environment and boost your contribution to the local community—often with a surprisingly small amount of effort.
Japan’s issues: As long as you recycle it’s fine, right?
It’s easy to think that Japan is a super eco-friendly country—there’s no trash on the streets, it’s sorted meticulously when it is disposed of and PET bottles are collected in mountaineous quantities. Looks good, right? However, all is not necessarily as it seems. The dangerous belief about this efficiency is that as long as it’s disposed of properly, it doesn’t matter how much you use.
The ‘reduce’ part of the common mantra has been lost somewhat. Wander into a supermarket and see the individual pieces of tempura in plastic boxes, watch as they’re wrapped in not one, but two different plastic bags at the till and see the mountains of polystyrene trays filling bins by the packing area. The national conscience hasn’t quite caught up. (Not to mention that the majority of the carefully sorted ‘burnable’ and ‘unburnable’ trash is all just burned anyway, just at different temperatures.) So, basically, don’t fall into the “recycling solves all” trap—waste reduction is key, and nowhere more so than in a country that doesn’t know it.
Of course, Japan has some great strengths too. There is an incredible focus on seasonal and local produce. The wabi-sabi aesthetic means beauty can be found in worn and damaged items. And the mottainai concept (aversion to waste) means there’s a growing movement to re-use items (although the second-hand trend is still far from common—no charity shops, but plenty of ‘vintage’ shops are popping up at least). Also, you’re bound to have noticed the incredible public transport system and popularity of hybrid or fully electric cars.
It’s a complicated place to say the least, but travelers can easily make a difference both on the amount of waste produced and on the awareness in shops and restaurants about the reduction of plastic. Here’s how.
Get your fill: 5 steps for guilt-free food
One of the easiest places to make a few effective changes is with your food—and it won’t mean missing out on anything at all.
1. Sushi stars
Top of most people’s Japanese food lists, sushi is a bit of a minefield for sustainability due to the struggling fish stocks that supply it.
When it comes to fish to avoid, Pacific bluefin tuna, eel and shark are the main ones as all three are in serious struggles thanks to overfishing. The list gets a lot more interesting when we cover all the things that are in plentiful supply though! Feast on crab, squid, mackerel, sea urchins, scallops, salmon and skipjack (a good option from the tuna family) among others. Thanks to fast reproduction rates, short life cycles and sustainable fisheries, these are usually great options for the sea and your tastebuds.
If you find yourself in front of a menu and uncertain, think of the “four S” criteria: is it small, seasonal, silver or shellfish? For more details on that and about sustainable sushi in general, check out our full guide to sustainable sushi in Japan.
2. Seasonal eats
Japan is big on seasonal produce, which means you’ll see ever-changing menus and get a good feel for what’s available throughout the year.
With most produce grown around Japan, this is good news for minimizing food air miles as well as reducing emissions through artificial greenhouse production. In summer you can keep an eye out for sweetfish, nagashi somen, and the bitter Okinawan speciality goya.
Spring brings bamboo shoots (takenoko), asari clams, seabreem (tai) and salty, sweet and sour plums.
In autumn you can enjoy sweet potatoes, chestnuts, persimmons, grilled pacific saury (sanma), matsutake mushrooms and special shinmai rice.
Finally, to get you through the cold months, the best tofu of the year is available, citrus fruits like yuzu, mikan and kaki are in plentiful supply, along with strawberries and daikon-filled bowls of simmering oden.
3. Shopping with the locals
If you’re staying in an Airbnb or kitchen-equipped hostel, you’ll no doubt be looking forward to cooking with some of the fantatsic fresh produce available. While it may seem easier to head to one of the nearby supermarkets, they’re not always a good option.
While foreign supermarkets are working hard to promote sustainaibility (removing all plastic from produce sections, only selling free-range eggs or switching to paper bags) that’s not really a thing in Japan. We have this guide to help you with finding free-range and organic meat and eggs to get you started.
For your fresh produce, we suggest heading to one of the city’s farmers’ markets—especially the weekly UNU event held in Aoyama. Run by a collections of farmers, the event has everything from veg to jams to high-quality eggs, as well as stalls that trade tshirts for produce (only on the first Saturday of the month).
Alteratively, take a wander through your local area and look for a greengrocer—there will always be one, selling veg by the bowl and usually run by an elderly local. While supermarkets and convenience stores are difficult to avoid 100% of the time, the more you shop local, the better. Plus you meet some great people along the way and support local businesses (rather than Walmart, who part-own Seiyu Supermarkets, for example).
4. Vegan and vegetarian options
If you are vegan, veggie or just looking to reduce you rmeat and fish intake, then Japan presents its own world of problems—but they can be overcome.
We have a guide to the rules and traditions that make it difficult – from ubiquitous dashi to secret ham, as well as some good kanji to look out for when out-and-about. In addition to what to eat (and what not to eat), we have some great suggestions for restaurants to try out in Tokyo, from vegan ramen to traditional course menus—plus some incredible vegan burgers to kill those fast-food cravings.
5. Minimising waste
While the food itself is important when it comes to thinking sustainably, so is the stuff that comes with it, and unfortunately that’s mostly plastic.
Japan is a big fan of disposable items—from chopsticks to bags to ice cream spoons and anything else you can spy on your convenience store counter. Instead, here’s an article about it and some tips to minimize single-use plastic waste:
- Buy a portable (ideally bamboo) chopstick and cutlery set so you can eat on the go.
- Carry your own shopping bag and memorize the phrase “Fukuro wa kekko desu” (I don’t need a bag, thank you).
- Get a reusable water bottle and avoid the temptation of all those vending machine drinks.
- Get a reusable coffee cup too and reduce waste when you get your caffeine hit of the day.
- Choose a nice bento box as your souvenir, perfect for leftovers and avoiding hanger-driven konbini stops during days of sightseeing.
A+ activities and experiences
There are some glaringly outdated blindspots when it comes to sustainability and ethical practice in Japan, and animal welfare is one of them. Put simply: Avoid the zoos. Unless you want to see forever-pacing polar bears, they aren’t going to leave you feeling warm and fuzzy inside. Unsurprisingly, the same can be said for the famous animal cafes. You know, deep down, that owls shouldn’t be up at 2 pm to be petted. Instead, we have some great alternatives including a few ethical versions that put the animals first, so your critter-cuddling dreams can still come true.
If you want a more hands-on experience, there are frequent river clean-up events dedicated to helping clean up Tokyo’s rivers. Elsewhere in Japan, Wwoofing is a great exchange program which trades labor for accommodation and food. The worldwide scheme allows visitors to get to know the community with a focus on outdoor work, with plenty of focus on organic agriculture and renewable energy.
If you’re looking to support the Tohoku region of Japan, the tour company Deeper Japan are a fantastic place to start. With experiences in Tokyo and Osaka, they also offer tours in Rikuzentaka, a town devastated by the 2011 tsunami. Partnering with local hosts, artisans and communties, their tour is run in partnership with local NGO Marugoto. You can try a homestay experience, oyster farming and a traditional kesen carpentry workshop too. While the prices aren’t affordable for everyone, if you have the opportunity, it’s a great way to enjoy a unique side of Japan and support its redevelopment.
Oku Japan is another sustainable tour company who focus on local experiences, communities and slow food during their tours. A member of the trusty Responsible Travel group, they are one of a few companies focusing on the impact of travel on the communities visited.
Shopping with a conscience
Souvenirs are a great way to remember a trip, but they can also support independent businesses and minimize waste if you choose the right ones.
One option is to choose something that you can use everyday, for example, a unique water bottle, reusable bag, chopsticks set or a coffee cup. The options these days are endless, with everyone from Starbucks to market stall operators selling these items. We have a guide to some of the best places to go for sustainable souvenir shopping in Tokyo, as well as online options from small businesses around the country (we suggest you check out Nozomi Project!).
Transport and travel around Japan
Transport is one of Japan’s best features when it comes to sustainable options, making it really easy to minimize your environmental impact. Public transport is a joy, with metro, over-ground and bullet trains to choose from as well as buses.
If you arm yourself with a smart card for transport, you can hop on and off without bothering with tickets (every little helps!) and save a little money too.
While relying on public transport in more rural areas can be difficult, it is possible (take it from a non-driver). So check your timetables, give yourself a little more time, and embrace slow travel. Alternatively, if you decide to rent a car in Japan, you can choose from hybrid or electric cars—with charging stations popping up around the country.
When it comes to short visits in smaller cities, bike rental schemes are a great way to have a zero-emissions day. Cities like Osaka, Kanazawa and Matsumoto all have good schemes and most hostels rent bikes for a few hundred yen a day.
Our video guide to the tuna auctions at the shiny new Toyosu Fish Market