Destination Vegan: Shizen, Japan

Destination-Vegan-Japan

In notoriously vegan-unfriendly Japan, Samantha Mythen tracks down Rowie Geraerts to chat about the little vegan haven she has established in the charming village of Nozawa Onsen.

Two hours by bullet train from Tokyo, you will find a plant-based cafe and yoga studio nestled in the valley of a bijou skiing village called Nozawa Onsen. Inside the cafe named Shizen (pronounced she-zen), you will find polished wooden floors warmed by the sun, soft-handmade furniture, forest-green tiled countertops, mustard yellow walls, and at least 50 happy house plants. 

Always busy in the kitchen, whipping up garden-fresh Buddha bowls and smoothies packed full of fruit and veggie goodness, is Shizen owner and yoga teacher Rowie Geraerts. 

Roving Days

Geraerts was born and raised in Melbourne. She first stepped foot in Japan in late 2019. After several seasons spent teaching yoga in India and hosting yoga retreats worldwide, Rowie decided it was time to settle down in Australia.

For one last hurrah, she tossed up the idea of a winter season in Japan.

Her friend and previous yoga student, Tyson, was living in Nozawa Onsen, where he and his partner had just opened a bar called Ivy. Tyson offered Rowie a job, the contract: “Ski all day and just work in the evenings.”

The only rub, Ivy was a wine and cheese bar and Rowie is fully vegan. But with some encouragement from Rowie, Ivy now features several vegan options on their menu including vegan cheese and dips.

When Covid-19 hit the world the following year, Rowie decided to hunker down and stay in Japan.

“I was right about settling down but I just wasn’t right about where I thought it would happen,” she says.

Rowie first experimented with veganism when she was 10 years old.

“My parents aren’t vegan, so I grew up in a very meat-heavy diet family,” she says. “But I think I was always naturally inclined to being vegetarian. I was always obsessed with veggie burgers.”

At 19 years old, Rowie moved to Byron Bay where many of her friends and colleagues had plant-based diets.

“I thought to myself, oh, I’d love to be vegetarian but I love meat too much.”

Rowie’s next stop a year later was Canada. She decided she needed a better reason to stand behind her choice to eat meat and dedicated time to learning about the animal meat industry. Reading books like Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer encouraged her to instead start eating as a vegan. 

“I haven’t eaten meat since then and it’s been 12 years,” she says.

Shizen was born out of Rowie’s desire to make a plant-based diet more convenient and accessible in Japan: “Because that’s the main hurdle when it comes to maintaining my vegan ways.”

Less than two percent of Japan’s population is vegan. When Rowie first moved to Japan, her diet consisted mainly of bread, rice, and Nozawana pickles — a Nozawa Onsen speciality.

“It was less eating meals, more eating snacks.” 

Perfect Imperfection

Although it is easier to find plant-based options in bigger cities such as Tokyo, much of Japan’s diet is based on seafood or meat. Many “vegetarian” options also have meat or seafood stock bases. Dashi, a variety of stock used in the majority of Japanese cuisine, is made up of bonito flakes.

After being a strict vegan for seven years, Rowie decided to move between being vegetarian and vegan when she traveled: “I remember going to the Philippines when I was a vegan and I couldn’t eat a thing.”

“Now I don’t mind if there’s dashi in my meal, or occasionally I will eat seafood. Some people are offended by this but for me, it’s all about wellness, balance, and listening to your body.

“If I was a strict vegan, I wouldn’t be able to go out anywhere in Nozawa Onsen with my friends. For me, enjoyment in life is important without sacrificing my values.”

She compares this to being nice most of the time and a grump every now and then. “As long as I’m living 90 percent vegan and then 10 percent of the time I allow eggs or dairy or fish in, I still would say that I’m ‘plant-based’.”

Rowie is less attached to the label of vegan, instead she adapts her plant-based diet depending on where in the world she lives.

“In Australia, I have zero problems being vegan, it’s easy, and I can go a little bit out of my way without it feeling like such an effort, especially because the rest of my life there is easy.

“But many things in Japan can feel like an effort and I don’t want the way I eat to be another effort. That’s why I’m more flexible.”

Creating a Vegan Oasis

Before settling in Japan, Rowie had daydreamed about opening a cafe and yoga space. During the depths of a Nozawa Onsen winter, she longed for a smoothie bar and a place to eat a meal packed with fresh vegetables. Something that would revitalise her health and boost her immunity. 

“This is one of the reasons why one smoothie at Shizen is called Gimme Greens, because all I thought was, I need greens, someone give me greens!”

Starting a business in Japan is a lot more accessible than elsewhere, especially with the lack of competition. In Melbourne, there are more than 50 yoga studios and hundreds of cafes offering plant-based treats. Nozawa Onsen was a blank canvas comparatively, and Rowie could make Shizen whatever she wanted it to be: A cosy oasis in glacial winter. A place to chill in balmy summer. 

“Japan is so far behind when it comes to veganism. It’s crazy that I’m the first vegan cafe in Nozawa,” she says.

Rowie found a space to run her yoga classes in the View Hotel; the windows of her yoga studio offer framed views of Japanese oak trees blanketing the mountains. And just last year, two rooms presented themselves; an opportunity for her to open Shizen. Rowie and friends began by opening the dark space, knocking down some walls and painting others, and letting the light in.

Shizen has just finished its first winter season in Nozawa Onsen. The name means nature in Japanese.

“I like the play on words too, she’s so zen, she-zen,” Rowie explains

The menu is packed with plant-based goodies. There’s freshly baked banana bread loaded with homemade coconut yoghurt and creamy almond butter. A rainbow array of smoothies are available. There are raw-pressed juices and lemon zest bliss balls. Vietnamese coffee is served with a hefty dollop of sweetened condensed coconut milk. 

Many of the eateries in Nozawa offer tasty deep-fried foods, known as tempura. But Shizen’s menu is based on what’s anti-inflammatory, with gluten-free options available.

“My focus with Shizen is about health and wellness. I think if your body is healthy, your mind is healthy and you’re more likely to make healthy decisions. It’s a cycle.”

The menu is everything Rowie loves to eat, and it’s not without its Japanese influences. 

“We put miso in the peanut butter smoothie because it makes it silky and give it this delicious caramel flavour,” she says.

Of the three versions of avocado toast on offer, one is spread with miso and topped with nori flakes. Tofu is used to make vegan feta to dress the classic avocado toast.

“I’m currently trying to connect with the local tofu factory here to provide Shizen with hard-pressed tofu so it saves on packaging.”

Her goal this summer is to source as many local ingredients as possible.

Having once missed out on a job at Boost smoothie bar when she was 14, Rowie is proud to now run her own smoothie business in Japan. She feels she’s offering something people want, in a space where that desire wasn’t being met — as opposed to in Australia where “you’re one of 100 people offering that same thing”.

“I feel as if people are having meaningful experiences with me and this makes me want to stay.”

Rowie’s Top Tips for Eating Vegan While Travelling

  1. Before departure, research, plan, and prepare!
  2. Happy Cow will be your best friend. It’s an app listing plant-based eateries and places that have those options on the menu. 
  3. Google Maps is also a great tool for searching for vegan options.
  4. In Japan, the convenience store known as a konbini is a great last resort for finding plant-based snacks.
  5. You have to decide to either stick to your vegan values and surrender to just eating a plain bowl of rice sometimes and be fine with that or be open and allow more flexibility with your diet. 
  6. Sometimes it’s good to fall off the wagon to remember why you’re on it.


Aotearoa Vegan and Plant Based Living Magazine
This article was sourced from the Winter 2023 edition of The Vegan Society magazine.
Order your own current copy in print or pdf or browse past editions.

Disclaimer
The articles we present in our magazine and blog have been written by many authors and are are not necessarily the views and policies of the Vegan Society.

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