Diary of a Vegetarian in Tokyo
I ate nothing but onigiri and edamame for five days and nearly lost my mind
A wildly distorted account of surviving on green beans, confronting the Meat Monster and being a vego in Tokyo
When I touch down in Tokyo this immense wave of hunger knocks me over like being hit by one of those rigid lunchbox-shaped cars that flood the streets here. My stomach feels like it’s eating itself so I drop my bags off at my hotel and brave this unknown outside world for some proper food instead of plane fodder.
As I make my way down the bustling streets I browse the tiny food set-ups. The first one seems to be selling a multitude of battered and deep-fried options. I see this figure emerge from the shadows, this voice whispering in my ear. It’s the Meat Monster, my id, trying to tempt me into pleasure and indulging in deep-fried mystery meat. I push him aside and he disappears into the night. I am too strong for him right now.
I use one of the four words I learned before arriving here.
“Bejitarian?” I ask.
The shop woman shakes her head and I move on.
I roam around for some time but give up and head to 7Eleven. Along the glistening white shelves are arrays of onigiri (rice balls). Salted. Grilled. Pickled plum. Holy hell, this is living. In my peripheral vision I can see a bright green, pyramid-shaped bag reflecting the light. My eyes dart. Edamame. I snatch two salted rice balls and a packet of soybeans and make my way to the cash register where I pay 400 yen ($5). Bargain. I head back to the hotel, sit down on my uncomfortable futon and demolish my meal.
Due to my inherent laziness, I pop down to 7Eleven to grab breakfast. My options are limited. Salad in plastic packaging, sliced apple in plastic packaging, choc-chip scone in plastic packaging. I opt for the edamame and two plum rice balls. Typical. I pray this doesn’t become my staple diet.
After spending the day in town I come across an Indian restaurant. I stroll in with high hopes, sit down and analyse the menu. ‘Pick your sauce: chicken, beef or pork.’ My options are now at zero and he has found me again, in a weaker state than our previous encounter.
“Think about how nourished you will feel, Charlotte. This curry is just what you need. You’re soooo hungry, Charlotte. The animal has already lost its life; you can’t do anything to save it. You need to eat to survive. It’s for your own good,” he says.
I try my best to resist but he’s right. It’s so tempting and I am so hungry. Curry would really hit the spot right now. I’m not technically eating animal flesh so it might be okay, right? It’s just derived from a carcass; it isn’t an actual carcass.
I envision my id and I sitting on a fence together. I have two options. I can jump off one side and land safely in the blossoming green meadows surrounded by my loving furry farm friends. Or he can push me off as I take the dangerous leap, the barbed wire fence slashing my skin before I smack down onto the cold, hard conveyor belt at the slaughterhouse, getting exactly what I deserve.
I storm out of the store hungry and pissed off but happy with my moral decision. I stagger to the closest 7Eleven for my second hit of the day.
It’s day three and I’m starting to fade at an alarming rate. My brain is static and foggy and I wake up feeling like I’ve run a marathon.
I decide to do some research to see if my very selective and restrictive diet could be disastrous for my body. I am trapped in a wormhole of articles and studies on the benefits and downsides of soy. One of the main takeaways is it can mess up my oestrogen levels and interrupt my menstrual cycle. Can I get a hell yeah? Aunty Flo’s a cow (sorry for the anti-animal language PETA) and I’d be glad to halt her bullshit for a while. Pass me the fricken soy, baby.
I read an article about Posh Spice’s diet consisting of unlimited strawberries and edamame, a seaweed shake, frozen grapes and a cupcake. If Posh can do that, well then surely I’m good to sub out the strawberries for rice balls, right? But then I remember I’m in Japan. For God’s sake, Charlotte, spice up your life! Stop being lazy and go find something else to eat.
Motivated and excited I go to the ramen place a few streets from my hotel. I pick up a menu and I am pumped and feeling good. This is it. My first real meal, I can feel it. Delicious and nutritious. I breeze through the menu and here I am, yet again disappointed. ‘We make our soup from pork bone.’ I see them frying up the slabs of meat on the grill behind the bar and I gag.
You can guess where I went next.
The staff at 7Eleven know me now. Every time I enter I keep my head down and leg it to the refrigerator section. I try to mix it up and spread my purchases across the two stores at opposite ends of my street so they don’t think I live a very sad, convenience-store-meal life. But they know. I know they know. I hear them laughing at me as they hide behind the hot-food shelf, chatting in a language I will never understand.
Some friends organised to go to an izakaya tonight, where I was limited to edamame and two measly deep fried cheese balls. A bit of calcium for these osteoporosis-bound bones. It didn’t really hit the spot but the minuscule variation was nice. I thought this frustration would push me over the edge. Karaage chicken and tempura circulated around me. My neighbours slurped and crunched, making orgasmic sounds as they demolished their meals. Oh, the proteins they must be getting. The carbs. The fats. I wonder what that’s like, to feel nourished.
“Charlotte, are you sure you don’t want some of this? It’s so good and you really should eat something,” my friend says.
Meat Monster nudges me.
“Go on Charlotte, give it a go. When in Japan, right? Your friends at home won’t know. We don’t have to tell them. It’s just between you and me baby,” he says.
I stay strong and order another round of edamame, slump in my chair and feel sorry for myself. Can I get a round of applause from the people in the back for my efforts, please?
I stroll down to Lawson’s – which is a different brand of generic convenience store – for brunch to try and mix it up. Yet again I gravitate towards the onigiri. Tuna, miso beef, fish eggs. I panic. Where are the vegetarian options? My head starts to spin. I take a deep breath and have a look around for the soybeans.
“Sumimasen, edamame?” I ask the shop assistant.
She shakes her head.
I can feel my chest tighten and my heart start to race like a pig in a slaughterhouse. Cheeks flushed, vision blurry, sweat starts to stream down my forehead. The walls start closing in and the food starts to fall off the shelves. Is this what a bad acid trip is like? I need air.
I go by the checkout on my mission to the exit and walk past the hot-food display. There I see it. The Meat Monster must have sent him. The cartoon chicken AKA the spawn of Satan in my harrowing drug-induced-psychosis eyes. Smack bang on the front of a red cardboard box, filled to the brim with the fried corpses of its own kind. Its big black bulging eyes stare into my soul. The smell of fried chicken wafts up my nose and knifes through me. Get me the fuck out of here. I run as fast as I can out of the konbini back to the hotel.
I lock myself in my room, stuck in this soul-sucking realm. Nothing is real anymore. The Meat Monster lives in the intersection between the real and unreal. What is fantasy and what is reality? I think I’m losing my mind. I can’t escape him. I have to find a way to cut ties. My memories of my time in here in meat-city start to dissolve. How did I get here? Who am I? I pass out.
I wake up from this literal nightmare and leave my room to head to my trusty ally, my safe house, the only place where I feel at ease in this city of evil. I take my daily dose and head into town.
After class my malnourished, shell-of-a-human-being body slowly drags its way through the city, trying to make my way to the train station so I can go home and drop dead on my futon. That’s when I see it. The glowing neon sign. VEGAN RAMEN. Like a moth to a flame, my limp body pulls itself up the stairs, fighting the Meat Monster’s weight on my shoulders.
My body collapses on one of the tables like a lifeless doll and with the last of my energy I point at the vegan ramen. Five minutes later it appears before me. I breathe it in, the smell alone enough to refuel my body. I devour it in minutes and close my eyes and bask in the nutrients.
I am looking forward to the next five days of nothing but vegan ramen.
Cover by Lan Pham