Sustainable Travel Guide: Tokyo

Debating which ramen I should buy in a Tokyo supermarket, an older Japanese lady decided it was the perfect time to start a conversation. She spoke in very fast Japanese about how the Fukushima disaster has changed agriculture in Japan and means that a lot of food is now imported from overseas. She looked at her ramen choice and said ‘well this doesn’t come from Japan anymore. In fact, hardly anything in this supermarket comes from Japan anymore. It is not like it used to be.’

In her shopping basket, she showed me her meal plan for the week. From the Yakisoba she would get 2 meals, the seafood cup ramen would be a whole dinner and she would have an Onigiri (a rice triangle with seaweed on the outside) for lunch each day. She spoke about how the Japanese population is aging and how this is creating a massive labour shortage. It is also becoming a big issue for Government and they cannot afford to pay a decent pension for everyone. At one stage she looked at me and said ‘kawaisou‘ which means ‘you poor thing’ as she was worried for my future.
The question for me was why she started telling me all this!

These topics are top of mind for many others in Japan as well. I spoke with quite a few locals during my stay and their thoughts on the biggest social issues in Japan ranged from the aging population, to labour force impacts, to earthquakes, to overtaxing people and to the stagnating economy. It was pretty rare that people brought up sustainability as a serious issue, which shows that Japan has some work to go to build a culture that is focused on driving change that is good for people and the environment. Having said that, there are pockets of dedicated people who are truly trying to make positive change.

Sustainable food

Finding vegetarian food was so much harder than I expected as many of the traditional dishes have a meat base. I introduced fish into my diet as I couldn’t come to terms with potentially eating only white rice whilst in Japan. However, I did find some good places and a great site called Vegewel which has a list of vegetarian and vegan food in Japan.

Nagi Shokudo

I found out about Vegewel at an information desk at Shibuya station which led me to Nagi Shokudo. Delicious vegan food! I really enjoyed their soy meat and eggplant dishes. The sauce on the felafels was incredible!!

Nagi Shokudo lunch set (1200 yen – Approx $AUD16)

T’s TanTan Ramen

But by far my favourite place was T’s TanTan Ramen. Everything there is vegan, with an amazing purpose to change the way we eat so we can positively impact the world and our health. The broth was amazing and had peanut butter in it to give a rich, silky texture. I am getting hungry thinking about it now! It cost about 1600 yen for the lunch set which is about $AUD20.

Sustainable Living

The Common Factor…

What do takeaway food, supermarkets, convenience stores and cafes all have in common in Japan? They all use excessive plastic…!

Much of it is unavoidable as everything comes pre-packaged. I would recommend that you try and eat in at restaurants rather than buying from convenience shops or even supermarkets! The Tokyo Metro Government are active in promoting the 3 Rs- Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. However, it seems that the focus is really on recycling as it is impossible to reduce when literally all food sources are wrapped in plastic. Businesses who manufacture and sell this food need to step up so consumers can at least have options to make better choices.

Common supermarket scenes in Japan.

Japanese Hospitality

The Japanese are known for their hospitality and the owner of the hostel I stayed at was amazing! Yuri from Sumida Nagaya hostel was the most helpful person to guide me through my vegetarian eating and gave me other tips about how I can easily get around where the best places were to see cherry blossom. She also accommodated my food requirements when cooking for the hostel. Yuri is an amazing chef and the space is super homely and quiet. If you’re looking for a great place to stay in Tokyo, definitely check out Sumida Nagaya.

Clean Energy

After the 2011 Fukushima disaster, the Japanese Government created incentives programs to accelerate and diversify their energy mix. They offered 42 yen/kWh residential solar feed-in tariffs which is up there with the highest in the world (it has since dropped more than 10 yen).

Although Japan has leading solar cell technologies and is renowned for its amount of production in the world, the country still lags behind in its national target and support programs for the nation-wide promotion of renewable energy. As well, Japan’s self-sufficiency rate of energy supply is only 4 per cent, and it needs to improve its national system to increase the use of solar power generation for a more sustainable society.
On June 9, 2008, Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda said in his speech at the Japan Press Club that Japan plans to increase the introduction of solar power generation by ten-fold by 2020, and forty-fold in 2030. To achieve the target, the country aims to have 70 per cent of new houses installed with residential photovoltaic systems. (From Japan For Sustainability website).

Solar panels lined the train tracks on the way into Tokyo

Although I did see solar panels along train tracks on my way into Tokyo. I think Japan will win in commercial solar usage, not in residential. Apartments are popular in Japan which makes solar difficult as there is finite and often incompatible roof space.

Sustainable Business

Sustainable Development Goals

I noticed quite a few Japanese business people wearing Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) pins on the streets of Tokyo. When I asked some people how they perceive the SDGs movement in Japan, they say it is widely acknowledged but sometimes it is hard to move to action. The SDGs pin is seen as a badge of honour, but often there is not much more happening. The Japanese Government has been very strong in promoting the goals however it remains to be seen if there are incentives or benefits for Japanese businesses to act.
One area where the SDGs is driving action is for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. You can read the Planet B post here.

The SDG pin is a badge of honour in Japan

Startups

I went to a Tokyo Startup pitch night run by Venture Cafe. It was a great night and heard from about 10 startups who were a mix of nationalities calling Tokyo home. Their business ideas included video marketing, Manga on Twitter, using AI to find water irregularities and a hobby sharing platform.
There was not much advanced tech being used in many of the pitches except for Deep Liquid (below). Also, the only startup to mention their social responsibility was Acuri. They match people who want to share their skills/ hobbies. The platform has the opportunity to help build connections between older and younger people.

After talking with quite a few people at the pitch night and more broadly, it seems the startup market is quite nascent. Angel investors seemed to the ‘missing ingredient’ for the Japanese startup ecosystem at the moment and many startups find it hard to access early-stage finance as well as find enough time to work on it while they are still working full time.

Deep Liquid use AI to find irregularities in water at large water treatment facilities. They are solving a multi million dollar issue in a multi billion dollar industry.
Acuri work to connect people who want to share their hobby skills together.

Disrupting Japan

This is a really great podcast by Tim Romero that shines a light on the reality of starting a company in Japan. Corporate Japan still reigns supreme and it is culturally quite hard for startups to get moving. This ranges from issues with Japanese culture being afraid of failure and wanting to stick to ‘traditional’ ideas of the types of roles in business. He explores these concepts and more with leaders from across Japan’s startup ecosystem.

Check out the Disrupting Japan podcast here

Overall, Japan is a great place to travel for culture, food and scenery. However, there is a long way to go before it can be classed a sustainable travel destination. Let’s hope they get much of this sorted before the 2020 Olympics. Check out our article on the 2020 Olympics here.

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