Friday, 27 May 2016

Vegan in Inawashiro, Japan

Not a single person who I've mentioned Inawashiro to has known where it is so this probably isn't going to be my most searched for or most shared blog post but it'll be relevant for any vegans coming to volunteer at Japan Cat Network, ski on Mount Bandai or to take in a slice of rural Japan. If it can help even one person then I'll feel like I'm doing my travel blogging job right.

Before coming up here I had no idea whether eating vegan would be a challenge or plain sailing. I suspected it'd learn towards the tougher end of the spectrum so I arrived with two tote bags filled with snacks, burger mixes, vegan mayo, chocolate, and margarine collected from various health food stores in Tokyo. Despite there being no veg friendly restaurants in the vicinity eating here hasn't been difficult at all. Luckily the Japan Cat Network kitchen is tooled up with gas burners, a microwave, an oven and two kinds of blender as well as some more unusual items like a takoyaki pan, and Japanese supermarkets always, always, always have tofu, rice, and exciting veggies so I was never gonna starve.

There's actually a 7/Eleven just across the road from the shelter so I've been able to find inari sushi, plain onigiri, ume onigiri, ume and sakura onigiri, Chipstar crisps, plum crisps, sweet sugared sweet potatoes, edamame, and tofu very easily. If you're planning a trip to Japan check out my Pictorial Vegan Convenience Store Guide to find out what you can eat at 7/Eleven, Lawson and Family Mart stores all over the country. A couple of weeks ago these vegan Soy Joy bars appeared on the shelves of 7/Eleven which was pretty exciting. Despite the name the majority of Soy Joy products aren't vegan but these are and whilst I didn't love the pink wrapped bar, it tasted really artificial, I was very into the one in the white wrapper which reminded me a little of shortbread.


There are two supermarkets in Inawashiro and York Benimaru is the better of the two. It's always well stocked and has a great produce department as well as must have items like soy milk, Kewpie egg free mayo, nori, potato starch, pasta, noodles, and almond meal. I made a couple of almond meal based cheeses when my vegan cheese cravings kicked in a month into my stay here - both the parmesan and the baked almond feta recipes from the Maple Spice blog are delicious, easy to make and work out cheaper than buying nut cheese back in the UK.

If you're anything like me you're going to want to whip up some Japanese dishes whilst you're staying in Japan and I found everything I needed to make tofu ankake, okonomiyaki, and takoyaki at York Benimaru.



I also found everything I needed (bar the nooch, thanks iHerb!) to make dishes like the Maple Spice lemony parmesan pasta (Yes, I'm in love with that blog!), tofu omelettes, and mac and cheese.


Alongside Japanese supermarket staples York Benimaru also stocks fun items like tots, accidentally vegan pancake mix, and vegan jelly.




There's a Daiso situated right next door to York Benimaru which is great for affordable sesame oil, vegan inari pouches (the ones sold at 7/Eleven contain fish), cheap(ish) nuts and, of course, cute stationary and hair clips.

If, like me, you plan to spend a long time in Inawashiro you might want to get yourself over to iHerb to pick up some necessities. There is no vegan chocolate to be found in this part of Japan so ordering some NibMor, Alter Eco and Vivani bars online was a must. I love how many reasonably priced Food Empowerment certified chocolate products iHerb stock. I also ordered Peanut Butter Puffins cereal, Tasty brand fruit gummies, Surf Sweets sour worms (which I'm saving until my Birthday in a couple of weeks!), conditioner, soap, nooch, Envirokids Choco Crisp cereal, and Clif bars. I only but their peanut butter bars, their chocolate containing bars are not on Food Empowerment Project's good list and I'm not such a big fan of their blueberry, apricot, or oatmeal raisin walnut bars.


One thing that I was surprised by when I arrived in Inawashiro is that the closest cafe to the shelter, Comaya Cafe, is a dairy free cafe. They do bake with eggs and sell meat, fish and honey filled items so questions still need to be asked but straight away I spotted that they sell vegan margarine which I didn't think I would be able to find outside of Tokyo or Sendai. Score! I didn't actually eat there because I need to save as much cash as possible for my Korean adventures (I fly to Seoul in a week!) but I'm sure they could make a vegan meal if you can explain what you can and can't eat in Japanese as no English is spoken.

If you need to spend time somewhere a little more bustling then the closest city to Inawashiro is Koriyama which is 45 minutes away by train. Koriyama has both a Starbucks and a LUSH in the station, Purikura machines to play with at the arcade above Tower Records, and Lawson and Family Mart stores if you need to switch up your onigiri game. The konbini opposite Starbucks in the station also sells the vegan Morinaga brownies and flapjacks which I'm a big fan of.


If you need to go a little further afield like Nick and I did when we took a little break from communal living you can get to Sendai from Koriyama in about an hour and a half by Shinkansen. Sendai is the nearest city with a vegan restaurant and it's well worth the visit. Anyone who's ever been to Tokyo has raved about T's Tan Tan and their Sendai branch is just as good.


They have a larger menu in the evenings featuring dishes like gyoza, soy meat ankake wth rice, and a few other things. I thoroughly enjoyed the soy meat ankake and it definitely inspired one of my cooking adventures at the shelter.

If you're considering coming to Inawashiro to volunteer at Japan Cat Network check out this post about my first couple of weeks volunteering and keep your eyes peeled for my next blog post to see some kitty pics and to read more about JCN. Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

A Short Break in Hong Kong

After exploring Taiwan and before travelling onwards to Japan Nick and I spent a long weekend in Hong Kong. It wasn't a city that had ever piqued my interest enough to book a trip there but it seemed like a somewhat logical stop between Taipei and Tokyo thanks to some cheap air mile flights so we decided to go for it.

We arrived bright and early and after catching the bus into town to our hotel in North Point we headed to our second stop, Manna Fast Slow Food. Manna are a healthy wrap, salad and juice spot located right in the swanky downtown area of Hong Kong. I was craving something carby and I'd heard great things about their wraps so it seemed like the perfect first stop. 


After perusing their menu for a few minutes, you can choose either a wrap or a salad with four fillings for HK$90 / £8 / $11.60, and wishing that the prices weren't so ridiculous when compared to Taiwan, I decided on a tofu and hummus wrap with avocado and rocket. When ordering you need to keep in mind that you can get any 4 toppings for your money, tofu, fries, hummus and falafel are in the same price bracket as lettuce, tomatoes, mint and sprouts!! That seems a little strange to me, who would choose sprouts instead of hummus when they cost the same?! I felt a little strange choosing rocket instead of fries but I thought that one salady item would make the wrap pretty great and I was right.


Despite all of my best plans I was not expecting Manna to have slathered a super spicy spread throughout my wrap so annoyingly, after one bite, I had to go and buy another one specifying that I didn't want any za'atar. This was especially frustrating as I'd googled Za'atar whilst waiting in line to double check that it wouldn't have chilli, I'd only eaten it a couple of times before and I couldn't remember! According to the internet Za'atar has thyme, oregano, marjoram, toasted sesame seeds and salt. No chilli! No paprika! Nothing that'll make my face break out in a rash and cause me to have intense stomach cramps and joint swelling for days or weeks on end. But this was so spicy that Nick could hardly eat his own wrap let alone mine as well so we figured it was worth spending the extra cash for me not to be allergic to my lunch! Once I had my non-spicy wrap in hand my hanger subsided and it was really freaking good, the flatbread itself was perfect and they were generous with all of the fillings. 

Our next stop was Green Common in Central because I'd heard a rumour that they had Miyoko's Kitchen cheeses in stock. Epic vegan cheese is kinda unheard of in Asia so there was no way that I was missing out on this splurge. At the airport whilst waiting for our flight to Hong Kong I perused my Vida Vegan Con Bazaar pictures desperately trying to remember what my favourite cheese was but alas they only had Sun-dried Tomato Garlic and Double Cream Chive (perhaps Loire Valley Fig doesn't travel so well?) so my decision was made. 


As I'm not a huge sun-dried tomato fan I went with the Classic Double Cream Chive and I was super pleased with my decision. It's so good! I was also excited to spot some Follow Your Heart Mozzarella shreds so we grabbed a bag of those as I had a pizza based plan in mind! We browsed around the rest of the store and were impressed with their wide range of imported American products, they had both Beyond Meat and Gardein, and they were all fairly reasonably priced given they they were imported from the US in cold storage. The prices of the British imports were wildly out of control through, they had Moo Free bars for the equivalent of £8 a bar so we left the chocolate on the shelf.

After our brief whirl around Green Common we stopped at Marks and Spencer's because well, we're Brit's in Hong Kong, we had to! After marvelling at the price of imported ready meals and margarine we grabbed a vegan baguette and some gelatine and beeswax free gummy sweets (vegan wine gums y'all!) and went on our way. Tiredness meant that it was time for one of my favourite travel activities - the bed picnic! 

The next day we were up bright and early and we decided that to offset the slightly ridiculous cost of food (compared with what we'd been spending in Asia up until this point) we'd ride the unbelievably cheap tram about the place for the day. It's a cool way to see some sights and if you get an upstairs window seat it's a little like taking one of those tourist busses.


After much walking, riding the escalators and popping into temples fuelled by anther Manna wrap we popped into our most local Loving Hut for dinner. The set dinner and lunch menus are pretty reasonably priced and you get rice, soup or tea and your choice of three mains for HK$48 / £4.30 / $6.20 . On our first trip we hit the jackpot with some barbecued chicken and on our second I had an amazing stewed tofu dish, braised aubergines, five spice mushrooms and a vegan egg.


I hadn't noticed this on day one but for HK$5 / 45p / 65¢ you can throw a vegan egg onto your meal! It was actually really good, very much like a non-dippy fried egg, the "yolk" and the "white" were different textures and I bet it would make an epic sandwich. I'm kinda regretting not getting a few of these to go and combining them with some M&S baguette and some Miyoko cheese for the ultimate filthy sandwich!


On our first smog-free day in the city we hopped onto the funicular and headed up Victoria Peak for some classic touristing. This was a classic HK experience in that when you get off of the tram you're in a mall and as you follow signs to the observation deck it becomes clear that you're headed towards an area where they're gonna charge you to look at the view! I can't tell you how many of these "stuck in a mall" experiences Nick and I had in the city, it began to get a little silly after a while. I'm not at all prone to getting lost but Hong Kong had me wanting to scream at Google Maps on more than a few occasions. Four stories up in the mall we made a quick turn around and started trying to find a way out - we were in luck with the third set of doors we tried and walked around to the free observation spot to the left of the mall. 



The view was gorgeous and were even able to enjoy it alone for five minutes before a tour group from a cruise ship arrived. They were actually quite cute and seemed to be having fun spotting their ship from the top of the peak! We soon got hungry though and as soon as I realised that the tram stop was close to Pure Veggie House I knew that we'd be getting our dim sum on. To say that I love dumplings would be a massive understatement, they're one of my favourite food groups, and dim sum is one of my favourite ways to dine. Nick and I had good dim sum in Taipei but this was a whole 'nother level. If the prices had been close to Taipei prices we'd have stayed there eating all afternoon. 


We ate gyoza, steamed buns, shumai, these little sweet flaky pastries and some big flat rice noodle things stuffed with mushrooms and greens. 


Both the shu mai and the gyoza were the best I've ever tasted and the steamed buns were delightful. Everything was basically perfect and I cannot recommend Pure Veggie House highly enough. It's on the pricy side hence the light ordering and the fact that we only dined there once but it's more than worth the visit. We walked down from the restaurant and then took a people watching break in Hong Kong Park. Like all of the parks we checked out in Hong Kong this isn't the place for kicking a ball around, it's more of a well manicured landscape garden than a park but it certainly seemed to be the place to head with the photographer you've hired for the day to take your family holiday snaps!


By that evening we were getting a little tired of city life and decided to take a day trip to Ping Shan to walk the heritage trail the next day. I was really glad that we did this, it was fun despite some of the attractions on the trail being things like an old well (a plaque where there was once a well!) but the more serene moments more than made up for them. 



Trail aside it was a great area to get to know as it seemed much more normal then the centre of the city which, I have to admit, I described on more than one occasion as an awful capitalist playground. Whilst we were walking the trail we saw school kids taking their lunch breaks, street vendors selling cheap eats and men heading to the mosque. Thanks to Happy Cow we also found Lotus Healthy Vegetarian a fantastic little restaurant where they serve up simple traditional dishes. The mock meats aren't vegan so stick to the tofu and vegetable dishes and you'll be good. I went with a really simple steamed aubergine and pumpkin dish with rice which was perfect. I adore aubergines and these were delightful.


The next day we did something completely different and headed to a yoga festival. For doughnuts. After getting lost in a mall and stuck on the wrong side of a highway for about 45 minutes we made it to the park where the little fest' was taking place. By the time we arrived (a little before lunch) there were only two doughnuts and a few cupcakes left - apparently yoga people get up early! 



If you've travelled half way across town to a yoga festival just for doughnuts then they'd better be good and thankfully Rebel Girl smashed my expectations outa the park. Their cupcakes were beyond decent but their doughnuts were uh-mazing. Chocolate with caramel can go either way for me, sometimes the caramel is just too much, but Rebel Girl got this spot on. If they'd had more I'd have spent hours lying in the park eating doughnuts! 

After getting our doughnut on (and finding our way back across than damned highway) we headed right across Kowloon to see a different side of the city. Mong Kok is Hong Kong's busiest district and the second most populated area on earth after the Dharavi Slums in Mumbai. Strangely whilst it did feel hella busy (it being a Saturday afternoon and all) it wasn't claustrophobic, the streets were teeming with people but the markets were fascinating enough that the crowds didn't bother me and because it wasn't that hot it was nowhere near as intense as the night markets I visited during Thailand's vegetarian festival last year.


After spending hours wandering around the streets soaking in the bustling markets and lively atmosphere we popped into Veggie Family for a spot of lunch. We were pretty hungry and the prices were really reasonable so we went big with our order and got an assorted mock meat plate to share.


That was obviously a fantastic decision, you can't go wrong with a mock meat plate and as soon as they put it down in-front of us I knew we'd made the right decision. The three types of seitan differed in both texture and flavour and I was very excited to see my favourite red pork taking centre stage. I love that stuff!

I don't remember the name of my main course but it was basically braised tofu with mushrooms and bok choy and it was beyond delicious. It was super saucy, the tofu was tender and the veggies were cooked perfectly. It stands out as a Hong Kong highlight for sure.


One of my other fave' spots in Kowloon was An Sin Vegetarian, another dim sum place that literally couldn't be more different than Pure Veggie House. There are no fancy table cloths or people refilling your tea here, this is hole-in-the-wall dining at it's best. There's a menu outside but of course we couldn't read it so after enquiring about eggs and milk we just pointed at the the things we wanted from the huge range of things we could eat.



I didn't get any pictures of the food I ate from An Sin because I mainly devoured their dim sum in the dark on the park bench opposite their shop like the classy lady that I am. We tried their perfectly greasy spring rolls, turnip cake, sesame balls, steamed pork buns, bean curd skin rolls and anything else that took our fancy. It was all amazing and so cheap, it didn't seem to matter how much food we were buying it always came to about HK$40 / £4 / $5

Lastly, we had to visit Pizza Express! Just in case you don't know Pizza Express are a UK based pizza chain with restaurants in practically every town. It was the place my family headed to celebrate every birthday or special occasion when I was a kid (and it's still the only place my dad and I ever meet up to eat!), it was the place my friends and I would go as students when we were feeling like pretending to be fancy and it was where Nick and I had many dates early on in our relationship - I think he just took me there so that I didn't realise that he pretty much only ate pizza! As well as the familiarity being hard to resist I'm a huge pizza fan and Pizza Express has always been good to vegans. They've had a well labelled allergen menu for years now, they let you bring your own cheese as long as it's in a sealed bag and they recently added a vegan pizza to the menu in their UK restaurants.


They actually have a vegetarian pizza on their menu in Hong Kong that's made with marinated Beyond Meat crumbles and that could totally be made vegan if you switched the cheese but alas, the chilli wasn't removable, so I just went with some of my favourite veggies - mushrooms, asparagus, olives and cherry tomatoes to top my pizza. It was delicious! I miss pizza a lot whilst I'm travelling in countries where it isn't easy to find. I'm kiiiinda fussy when it comes to pizza, I'm a-ok with cheeseless but the crust and sauce have to be reeeeally good for me to think that it's an acceptable option. Don't give me a cracker-like crust with a tiny smear of tomato puree and a couple of limp veggies and call it a pizza. The paring of a nostalgic UK pizza with one of my favourite American melty cheeses brought back tonnes of fond food memories. Getting to eat this halfway around the world was the perfect end to our long weekend in Hong Kong.