But being a vegetarian in Japan is about as difficult as it might have been in America in the 1950's. Or gluten-free in maybe 1980, after people started adding gluten to yogurt and slim-jims but before anyone had ever heard of gluten. They use so much, it's invisible. They have no idea how much of it they eat.
I had intended to at least make the concession for shaved katsuo bushi (flakes of a certain type of cured, dried tuna), because they are used in about 95% of Japanese cooking. But my first day in Nagano, I had soba, which are buckwheat noodles you dip into a broth that includes a lot of katsuo. I could not believe how rotten and vile it tasted to me-- I could tell that there was lots of meat in that broth, and it had rotted for months. (It takes about 6 months for the katsuo to dry out fully, I later learned.) So I figure, if it's bad for the environment, and I don't want to eat it anyway, why bother?
I ended up eating a lot of things made with katsuo bushi or related fish things anyway. For instance, a dish I ordered at a bar called "smashed cucumber and plum", was smashed cucumber and sour pickled plum drizzled with soy sauce and covered generously with those shaved flakes. Pretty much any time I visited a friend's house, I'd be served miso soup. (It did taste rotten and fishy to me for the first several months.) Boiled vegetables are either boiled in a katsuo broth or soaked in one afterwards. Pickles and salads are sprinkled with the flakes.
Side note: if you have not eaten meat in over two years, katsuo bushi taste as bad as week-old roadkill smells. If you are Japanese, it tastes delicious, somewhat like chicken broth but with a fishy tang. If you have not eaten meat in over two years but are gradually getting accustomed to katsuo, it tastes more baconey than bacon, more chickeny than chicken, and more fishy than tuna. In the quantities that many of them use it in, it still tastes rotten to me.
Anyway, I finally decided about a week ago to just not worry about it. Being a meat-eater doesn't mean I have to eat meat every single day. But it would mean I could go out with friends easily, and I'd be able to go to Japanese places instead of Indian ones. It means I'd be able to get more than two or three recipes out of every cookbook I buy. It means I could have soba, which Nagano is famous for. It means that when I visit a friend's house, I can quiz her about the food she's prepared out of curiosity rather than suspicion. And if I travel, I will be able to eat easily in meat-loving countries such as China, France, or Italy, and honestly enjoy everything they have to offer.
I was not sufferring brain fog or thinning hair or weakness (any more than is normal for a night-owl who has to get up in the morning) or cravings. I swear I have never, ever craved bacon or hamburgers. I'm doing this for cultural reasons: it's so I can get along better with the people around me and the country in which I live.
So last Friday, there was a semi-formal work party at a nice restaurant. This almost always means massive amounts of meat, so whenever possible I called ahead and ask them to make me something specially with no meat and no fish and no shellfish. (The word for "meat" does not include fish, and shellfish are not fish either, so I had to specify all of them. The usual reply was, "Fine, but we can't cook without katsuo.") This time I only asked them to leave out the shrimp, because shrimp have the highest bycatch rates, and the beef, because beef has the worst feed ratio. I told this to the assistant vice principal beforehand, so right when food was served, he said, "Mark has an important announcement to make."
"Yes. I've given up vegetarianism. I'm going to eat everything." Massive applause all around. A few people asked for the reason; a few people congratulated me on finally being willing to learn about Japan's food culture.
Pretty much everything that was served had meat in some form. Slices of sashimi, raw tuna as soft and delicious as can be. Oysters baked with butter and garlic. Whole deep-fried shishimon, salty and fishy and somewhat crispy on the outside, and you couldn't even tell there were bones. Raw red spinach, tossed with crispy chicken skin and the rendered fat. Soup with bok choy, ramps, fish, and pork meatballs. Everything was so good! I can't believe I've lasted this long!
I don't intend to eat meat every day. But for every once in a while, I was missing out on so much!