We had been moving around Japan quite frequently. This is the simultaneous blessing and curse of the Japan Rail Pass. Ours were active for seven days, so in order to see as much of the country as we could, it was a single day here, followed by a single day there, etc. We had an amazing time in Tokyo (much more fun than I had anticipated), and a fantastic time wandering the historically preserved Kanazawa. We took a train down from Kanazawa in the evening, making an overnight pitstop in Osaka, from where we would get up bright and early to get on the train to our next destination. One that I was particularly excited about: Hiroshima. It was around a two hour journey on the Shinkansen – this is your obligatory reminder to invest in a rail pass before getting to Japan. After the initial confusion of how we get to our hostel from the train station and checking in, it was approaching the afternoon. We were only here for one day, so we had to make the most of it. As we were sitting in our dorm room, preparing to head out I began to speculate if it would be possible for us to go out to eat here.
‘Nah,’ I decided. ‘Of course we had options in Tokyo, but we ate in Osaka only because we were with someone who could speak for us, and we kind of got lucky in Kanazawa. There’s no chance we’re finding food here.’ I looked into it regardless, and it turns out we definitely could eat here. I found out about Nagata-Ya, an okonomiyaki restaurant in the direction we were walking. But, hey, it’s going to be impossible to be vegan in Japan, right?
Okonomiyaki is sort of a grilled omelette/savoury pancake type food, that varies quite a bit in preparation and ingredients depending on the region in which it’s made. It’s generally well associated with Hiroshima, and as such we were having them Hiroshima style. We went in explained that we were vegan, and were immediately given their vegan and vegetarian menu. The choice on the vegan menu isn’t incredibly vast, so we both decided on what we were having pretty quickly, and I took a look around. There were tables in the restaurant, but I had my fingers crossed on getting to sit at the bar, which also served as the grill. All of the chefs were lined along the bar, flipping and spinning the food in front of them. One of them caught my eye and gestured for us to sit right across from them. Yus! This was, definitely, one of the coolest places we’ve been on our trip thus far. We were sat at the section of the grill reserved for vegetarian and vegan okonomiyaki, and watched the chef work. Each chef is working a different part of the grill, so you have one chef making your dish the whole time. Each part along the width of the grill seems to burn at a different temperature, and it is incredibly impressive seeing them flip from one part of the grill to another, back and forth for the entire preparation. This is not somewhere to come for a quick bite to eat. The preparation here is slow, but worth it. Even though, for the most part, the dish is thrown around, seemingly haphazardly, there is an incredible amount of care and consideration than goes into the preparation of this dish. This is very nice to see. The cooking would occasionally be interrupted each time a customer would leave the restaurant, as every chef would stand upright and boldly project a cheery ‘arigatogozaimasu!’, before going right back to work.
When the time came, the onomiyaki was placed in front of us, ready to eat. The preparation did nothing but build my excitement for it. My expectations were dangerously high. I was at risk for some serious disappointment. Everything up until now is an essential part of the experience of eating here, matched only by the food itself. It. Was. Amazing! The food sits on the grill in front of you, so that it never goes cold, and you are left to cut away slices to eat from your plate. We were brought a bottle of sauce that is made specifically to be vegan. The flavours were incredible. Pushing this place to provide one of the most exciting dishes, along with one of the coolest places. I really wish this place was entirely vegan, or that we found a fully vegan equivalent. However, the staff were really good at going out of their way to let us know that everything we were eating was definitely vegan. We took our time polishing our plates, praised the chef in our ever-improving Japanese, said our goodbyes, and received our chorus of arigatogozaimasu.
We left here and headed for Hiroshima Peace Park, with me talking about how good the okonomiyaki was the whole way there. It was into the afternoon by this point, and the day had become suitably rainy. I didn’t know what entirely to expect from the peace park, and what I found was overwhelming.
The area is a memorial to the people who lost their lives to the bomb, and as the name suggests, a beacon for compassion over violence. There are informational signs around the park detailing the history and explaining some of the features of the park, along with a museum and a number of statues and monuments. The most shocking feature being the remains of a building in the epicentre of the blast, still standing as a grim reminder of the atrocities of war. Juxtaposed to this are a number of features addressing the steps to be taken away from this, such as the Peace Bell. A large, deep bell in the middle of the park that visitors are invited to ring as a call for peace.
It’s difficult to describe my experience here. Suffice to say that even as someone who is in favour of complete nuclear disarmament, and who is currently involved in a six month journey centred around the idea of compassion, I was caught off guard here. Significantly more difficult to swallow than the okonomiyaki, but it definitely left a more lasting impression.
Thank you so much for going off the beaten track and sharing with us the sober memorial that is Hiroshima. Also, well done for venturing into an okonomiyaki place and actually getting a delicious vegan option! So good to know you can eat vegan in Japan!