I don’t think the word ‘vegan’ exists in Japanese. While my English-to-Japanese phrase book does have an entry that explicitly says, “I am a vegan”, I think the literal translation of “wa-ta-shi wa gen-ka-ku na sai-sho-ku-shu-gi-sha des” is more along the lines of, “Bring me a salad, please.” Every time I showed that Japanese statement to a restaurant server and asked them to bring me food, they inevitable delivered a plate with lettuce, two cherry tomatoes, one black olive, one green olive, and lemon-sesame dressing. (Apparently this is the standard ‘house salad’ in Japan…?) While I enjoy raw vegetables, after my eighth serving of them in a mere two days, I began to crave a meal comprised of warm, filling food. So for our next dinner out, my sweetie did his best to locate a vegan restaurant in Tokyo. However, since neither of us know the city (and since we can’t read the local Japanese maps), those efforts were unsuccessful. Still, we had other resources available to us. I went to our hotel’s front desk, and asked the attendant (who spoke pretty solid English) if he knew of any vegan restaurants in the city. “Veegun?” he asked. “Is that name of restaurant?” I explained that no, it’s a style of food – and I wrote the word ‘vegan’ on a piece of paper. “Ah, okay,” he nodded, taking the piece of paper from me. “One moment please.” He hurried to a room tucked behind the main desk area, and was gone for over five minutes. When he returned, he had a single sheet of paper in his hand that was covered in Japanese characters. He asked me, “Veegun, is lots of vegetables?” I nodded my head, smiling broadly. “Yes!” I responded enthusiastically. He smiled. “Ah, okay! There is one restaurant, Ainsoph Journey,” he stated, handing me the sheet of paper. He then pulled out a city map, and traced the path from the hotel to the restaurant. While the route was semi-direct (just two main roads to follow), it looked like it covered a lot of ground. I asked the front desk clerk, “How far is it to walk to the restaurant?” He looked at me with a concerned expression, and said, “Fiv-tea.” I wasn’t sure if he looked concerned because he thought I was a lazy American who didn’t want to walk 15 minutes, or because he thought I was a reasonable human who wouldn’t want to walk 50 minutes (one way) for a meal. So I asked him, “One-five, or five-zero?” He answered, “One-five.” I responded, “Oh, okay! Fifteen minutes is fine. Thank you so much!” The attendant looked relieved, and smiled and nodded to me as I turned to collect my sweetie and leave the hotel.
Once outside, my sweetie successfully navigated us to the block where the restaurant was supposed to me. However, finding the specific destination was a challenge. All of the store front signs were in kanji (which we don’t know how to read), and every city block houses no less than 30 businesses (literally). My sweetie and I could have spent an hour trying to match the kanji on our map with all of the signs on that street, and still might have come up empty-handed. But I wasn’t going to let that deter us. Employing my resourcefulness once again, I found a server standing on the street at a nearby open-air restaurant. I smiled at her, and extended the piece of paper that the hotel desk clerk had given me (which presumably contained the name and address of the restaurant) towards the server. I asked the young woman, “Can you please help us find this?” pointing to the sheet of paper. She looked at the page, then whipped out her cell phone. After a flurry of swipes and clicks, she locked on the location of the restaurant relative to where we were standing. She tried to point directions to us, but quickly realized they were too complicated for us to easily follow. So she ducked her head into the kitchen of her restaurant, quickly told the chef something, and then started walking down the street, motioning for us to follow her. She was going to literally walk us to the restaurant; how amazing is that?! So, so nice!!
She got to the same block my sweetie and I had been moments before, and she also struggled to find the location. However, after a few minutes of reading lots of signs, she smiled, said, “Ah!” and pointed to a small door with the words ‘Ain Soph.Journey’ etched in tiny frosted letters. My sweetie and I never would have found it on our own. I turned to the young woman, smiled broadly, and said, “Arigato! You are a very nice girl, thank you, thank you!” “So so so,” she responded, the Japanese version of “of course, it’s no problem, you are welcome, it was my pleasure.” She turned and walked back to her post, and my sweetie and I walked into the vegan restaurant.
Once we arrived at the hostess station, a very pleasant server asked us in perfect English, “Do you have a reservation?” Uh oh. “No,” I replied. “Do we need one?” She nodded her head. “Unfortunately, we are completely booked up tonight. I’m sorry.” I looked at my sweetie, and we both shrugged our shoulders. We left the restaurant, and returned to the street.
Assessing our options, I said, “You know, we should go back to the restaurant where the young woman was working, and have dinner there! I have no idea what they serve, but that gal was so kind and helpful, we could at least have a drink, if nothing else.” My sweetie though that was a terrific idea, so we walked back to the small bistro we had been at just moments before.
When the young woman saw us seated at the counter, she looked very surprised, then smiled at us broadly – but also quizzically. “No?” she asked, clearly inquiring why we weren’t at the restaurant she walked us to. I answered, “They are closed,” and crossed my arms in an “X” (the universal symbol for ‘no more/closed’), then continued, “so we want to be here with you!” I motioned my hands back and forth between my sweetie and I for “we”, pointed towards the restaurant for “here”, and pointed to her for “you”. “Ah, so so so!” she nodded and smiled, clearly flattered that we wanted to dine at her establishment. She quickly brought us menus, which had both pictures and English descriptions – a big win! What’s more, the restaurant offered several dishes that were vegan! (Not intentionally; just coincidentally. Still, amazing.)
My sweetie ordered a sausage pizza, and I got an order of ratatouille and an order of grilled vegetables. All three of our dishes were fantastic. Hot, fresh, well-seasoned and perfectly cooked… yum.
At the end of our meal, I said to the young woman, “owari” (finished), then, “kanjo kudasai” (bill please). She nodded her head, clearly delighted that I attempted to speak some Japanese. A few moments later she returned with our bill, then timidly asked, “Where you from?” Apparently my willingness to speak mangled Japanese gave her the confidence to attempt some English. I smiled broadly at her, so proud of her efforts. “Minnesota,” I responded. “In the United States.” She nodded her head vigorously, and cried out, “Minnesota! I know, I know! I stay there seven year back for one mun [month], Minnesota shoe!” [For those not from the state, I am confident the girl was trying to explain that she had been to Red Wing, Minnesota.] I now nodded my head vigorously. “Wow, that’s amazing!” I exclaimed. “You know Minnesota! Wow!” She and I nodded our heads at one another and each smiled broadly at each other, clearly thrilled that we two strangers, from opposite sides of the world, had more in common than we realized.
After my sweetie and I settled the bill, we returned to the hotel. The front desk attendant was still there, and before my sweetie and I went to our room I approached the attendant and said, “Thank you for your help with the restaurant.” He responded, “You are welcome. Did you like?” I nodded my head and smiled. “It was wonderful.”