TOKYO >> With its minimalist design and semi-open kitchen, Vegan Store, a two-story “konbini” (convenience store) that opened a few months ago, is as unlikely a konbini as you will find. With an inventory and menu of exclusively vegan products, the store hopes to change the way vegan food is viewed in the capital.
According to a 2019 survey by Frembassy, a startup aimed at creating an accommodating food culture, only 2.8% of those surveyed identify as vegan, and only 4.8% as vegetarian.
Shoko Suzuki, store operator and CEO of parent company Global Meets, said Vegan Store fulfills a need. Suzuki’s decision to promote her business as a konbini and family restaurant was deliberate, designed to demystify vegan fare.
“I’d heard that many vegans in Japan … had difficulties following (a vegan) diet here, so ended up quitting,” Suzuki said. “At first I thought to open up in a so-called prime location like Azabu, then decided somewhere with many festivals (and tourist attractions) would be better so non-Japanese could spread the message that it is possible to be vegan in Japan.”
Similar to regular convenience stores, Vegan Store stocks a mix of domestic and imported grocery items, but only those that are 100% plant-based and free of gluten, onion, alcohol and MSG.
Deep-fried soy karaage substitutes for the usual chicken. Frankfurter sausages comprising okara (tofu dregs) and konnyaku (devil’s tongue) powder, flavored with vegetable bouillon, are juicy and toothsome.
There is Allernon, a rice flour-based, lactic bacteria-fermented yogurt substitute, and plant- forward chimaki (Chinese-style glutinous rice wrapped in bamboo leaves), made by a group from the Aizu region of Fuku-shima Prefecture. Unusual items include a konnyaku, konbu and coconut milk abalone substitute.
According to Suzuki, gluten-free cakes and desserts are particularly popular, as are frozen goods such as vegan gyoza dumplings and meat substitutes.
Those seeking a more substantial meal can eat vegan adaptations of omurice (rice omelette) — the recipe is a closely guarded secret — and gyudon (beef-rice bowls), plus other similar fare, in the restaurant on the second floor. There is also bento-style takeout in sturdy paper containers.
The restaurant works with local businesses and small organic farmers when possible.
Since opening, Suzuki said, the store has become a conduit for information on vegan topics, with educational seminars held on site by producers and others in the restaurant industry.
Although 75% of store customers thus far are Japanese, Suzuki is eager to attract more non- Japanese clientele. An in-store currency exchange machine is available to encourage tourists.
Tokyo resident Jess, originally from Wales, sought out the store to source vegetarian fare.
“It’s got (an) organic, authentic kind of feeling to it,” she said. “I like that you can see them cooking; it makes it even more appealing to try the actual food because you see that it’s freshly made here. That’s quite inviting.”