In today’s episode, we’ll be talking to Alina. Alina has a vegan hospitality business based in Japan called Vegan Omotenashi.
Alina Teodorescu is the first consultant in Japan professionally trained by vegan hospitality, a training company created by Meredith Marin a former podcast guest who talked with us about Aruba.
Alina has been living in Japan since 2015, she is an influential part of the vegan community and knows the Japanese market well. Seeing firsthand the dining challenges as a vegan, she launched her consulting business, Vegan Omotenashi, in the summer of 2022 in order to provide support and education for businesses in the hospitality sector. Her mission is to encourage and educate restaurants and hotel chefs and staff all over japan to start catering to vegans, while also promoting new vegan-friendly products available in the country. As a result, traveling within Japan will get easier for vegan tourists, and tourism in Japan will be ready to serve a new market.
As you will discover in this episode, Alina has immersed herself in her host country and she is keen to share some of the wonderful aspects of Japanese culture with you, our listeners.
In this episode we discuss
- How Alina ended up in Japan and what she is doing now
- The location of Kyoto
- The differences between Kyoto and Tokyo
- Reasons why visitors would want to go to Kyoto
- Some amazing itineraries for 48 hours in Kyoto
- Etiquette to consider when visiting shrines and temples
- Alina’s restaurant tips and recommendations
- How to enjoy the best of Kyoto as a vegan.
Learn more about what we talk about
- 10 Must-Visit Kyoto Shrines and Temples for First Timers
- Gion Matsuri
- Japanese clothing
- Arashiyama Bamboo Grove – Inside Kyoto
- UZU Ramen
- Higashiyama District
- Shojin Ryori: Japan’s Sophisticated Buddhist Cuisine
- Kansai region
- Rent a kimono or yukata at Okamoto in Kyoto
- Gion – Kyoto Travel – Japan Guide
- Nijo Castle
- Yasaka Shrine(close to Gion)
- Ain Soph Journey(vegan matcha pancakes, matcha tiramisu etc):
- Kiyomizu-Dera(especially in autumn)
- Nanzenji (JP only)
- Itadakizen (ramen, sushi)
Other World Vegan Travel content connected with this episode
- Handy Japanese Language Guide for Vegan Travelers to Japan
- S4 Ep17 | International School Teaching to Travel the World | Nina Radcliffe
- S3 Ep 9 | Aruba – A hidden vegan’s paradise | Meredith Marin
- S2 Ep15 | Developing More Empathy Through Long Term Travel | Lucas Spiegel
- S2 Ep 12 | Vegan Travel Highlights of Tokyo and Yokohama | Lauren Lasko
Connect with Alina
Hello, Alina. Welcome to The World Vegan Travel Podcast. I’m so excited. You are here with me today.
Alina: Thank you for having me.
Brighde: All right. Now we are gonna be talking about a topic, Japan and specifically shrine geisha, green tea, and stories from Kyoto. As I was talking to you before we press record Japan is a very interesting destination for our travelers. We haven’t run a trip to Japan yet, but we have got a lot of people on the waiting list.
So I’m sure a lot of people are gonna want to listen to this podcast as well. So before we get started with the content, Alina I would love it. If you wouldn’t mind telling the audience. Why is it that you are an expert in Japan because you actually live in Japan, but you have not Japanese? So can you tell us a little bit about that?
Alina: Sure. I have been born in Romania. I’m Romanian, and I have been studying Japanese since quite an early age, quite a young age since I was about 14 years old. . And after I finished my studies in Romania my biggest dream at that time was to come to Japan. So I applied for a scholarship and I managed to come to Kobe university in Japan to continue my studies.
That was about seven years ago. So I decided to remain in Japan after I finished my studies at Kobe university. And in 2020, I started working in Tokyo, in a Japanese company.
Brighde: Okay, so your Japanese must be pretty good by now.
Alina: Yes I don’t want to say that by myself, but. Yes. Often people tell me that they couldn’t make the difference and they thought that maybe I’m half-Japanese or something like that.
Brighde: That really is quite a testament to the amount of effort that you’ve put into learning this quite difficult language, so well done you, that’s so amazing. All right. You have a little bit of a connection with the tourism industry as well, correct? Could you tell us a little about that?
Alina: Yes. Before I came to Japan I actually finished my university in Romania. But after finishing my studies there and before coming here, I had about one year because in Romania university finishes in June or July and the next year university starts in April in Japan. So I had about one year and I needed to do something with it.
I joined a travel agency in Romania and I was working at the desk at first, but after that, I took tour guide training. So I became a tour guide. I was guiding Japanese tourists in Romania. It was a very very short time, but it was very enjoyable and a very rewarding job.
Brighde: I could imagine would’ve been a real opportunity for you to practice Japanese, because if
I have got my timeline right, you hadn’t been to Japan by then, correct?
Brighde: So I’m just trying to imagine myself in a similar situation. If I was tour guiding people in a language I’d only study at university and not live in the country. Because of the level of language acquisition that you need to have in order to be able to talk about history and culture and all of these things, managing a group in a way that’s very nice. Yeah, I think you must have very advanced language skills. It’s really amazing. All right. Not only are you an incredible bilingual trilingual person with at least three languages and living in Japan and I love everything Japanese, but you are also vegan and you are doing some
interesting things in the vegan space.
Could you tell us about those?.
Alina: Yes. So I became vegan actually, after coming to Japan after about one year of living in Japan and actually at first, I was more like a pescatarian and after that, I switched to vegetarian and after that, to vegan, and later to buy all the house products and cosmetics also vegan. It took a while to get there.
It took about three years until I became fully vegan. And I tried to do, whatever I could because, in Japan, vegan is still not so popular. So I tried to spread the word through social media and but that was it was just social media. I felt that I wasn’t doing too much. Last year I took a vegan hospitality consulting training conducted by Meredith Marin, which I think you had on the podcast some time ago.
Brighde: Yes. She talked about Aruba.
Alina: Yes. So I’m trying to do vegan hospitality consulting here in Tokyo and all over Japan. Since I’m the only trained consultant in Japan at this moment. So I’m trying to start my own business on this and to help restaurants, to serve vegan customers, and hoping to make Japan a bit more vegan friendly.
Brighde: Fantastic. Congratulations and good luck with all of that.
Alina: Today is my last day at my office. and I’m quitting my job this month and I’m starting full-time next month in my new business.
Brighde: That is really exciting. Congratulations.
Alina: Thank you.
Brighde: All right. So let’s talk about the topic, which is Shrines Geisha and Green Tea Stories from the cultural heart of Japan Kyoto. So Kyoto, where is it located in Japan?
Alina: It’s quite in the central part of a bit, a little bit more south from the center.
Brighde: How far is it from Tokyo?
Alina: I think it’s about 800 kilometers.
Alina: If I’m not mistaken.
Brighde: And from what I know, Kyoto is very much an important cultural heart of Japan. And my partner said when he lived in Japan, he actually lived in Kyoto for about 18 months or so. And he really enjoyed his time there. What is so special about Kyoto? What’s going on there that’s so interesting?
Alina: Japan is often seen as the country of contrast. And one of the contrasts is between different areas, especially between areas, which are Kyoto and Osaka and Nara and Canto area, which is represented by Tokyo and its surroundings. Kyoto is quite different than Tokyo. A few things are different. For example, the dialect, and the language are quite different. If you speak a little bit of Japanese, you will make the difference between the Kansai dialect and the normal Japanese, and also Kyoto is the traditional capital of Japan.
There are lots of temples and shrines and traditional culture, and the colors of the city are also predominantly brown even convenience stores which usually have colorful colors such as bright blue or green. They are painted brown, in Kyoto to fit in with the colors of the city. People in the Kansai region in Kyoto and Kansai region, in general, are a bit, little bit more talkative and friendlier. They tend to joke more and they are just more relaxed than in Tokyo, for example.
Brighde: Why is it that travelers would want to come to Kyoto?
Alina: They can experience a lot of traditional Japanese culture. For example, it’s easy to rent a kimono or yukata if it’s summer and walk around on the streets and visit temples, and take pictures. Even the Japanese do that too. They come to Kyoto. For sizing and they wear traditional clothing and walk around.
It’s very normal to see that on the streets. And also there’s no wrong time to visit Kyoto because in each season there is something to see in spring you can enjoy the cherry blossom season, and it’s very beautiful. It’s pink, everywhere. And in autumn, you can see the maple leaves, which are in beautiful colors and there are also lots of festivals. You should check the dates before going to Kyoto and see if there’s any festival during your stay. But also you should be careful because it can get pretty crowded during big festivals. And I remember going to the Gion festival which is the biggest festival in Japan. And they were carrying very big and heavy, portable shrines on the streets.
And everyone was walking also along with, on the streets to see them. But it was so crowded that I was walking with my friends and at some point, I lost my friends in the crowd. Like I, I think I tried to take a picture and I was just, it was just one moment when I wasn’t paying attention and I lost my friends.
I couldn’t meet them after that. I don’t really like crowds, so I tried to get out of the crowd and I had to get home really early. I couldn’t enjoy the festival. Um, I think it would have been fun to watch it from above, from a tall building. But I also read that it’s impolite to watch the gods from above, so maybe it’s not a good idea.
Brighde: Yes. From what I’ve heard, there are a lot of rules around etiquette in Japan. yeah, I’m sure
a traveler might make some mistakes with that. Maybe we can talk about etiquette a little bit later. So during the cherry blossom festivals, as you said, it’s probably very, it is very busy. So is it hard to find accommodation during that time? Is it a lot more expensive at that time?
Alina: If you book in advance, it should be fine, but you should book may be at least three months in advance. Just to make sure. Yeah. If you try to just do a quick last-minute trip, it might be difficult.
Brighde: So another thing that you have some knowledge about and experience about is the Japanese tea ceremony. So would you mind telling us a little bit about that? And of course, we don’t have pictures. We are just an audio podcast here, but maybe you can explain a little bit about this ritual.
Alina: Um, Actually, I haven’t been to any tea ceremony since I came to Japan. I actually joined maybe once, while I was in Romania. Because other countries tend to do this kind of traditional ceremony to show to those that are interested. But in Japan, I never actually had the chance to do it, but I do like green tea and Kyoto is the perfect place to try matcha this strong green tea. And it comes in lots of different prices and different types. And the difference is how fine the powder is. So they are very different depending on the price and the quality you can choose, whatever works for you, but even the lowest quality is still very good. And. That’s about it. It’s a good place to try it in Kyoto because there are lots of drinks and lots of sweets with matcha, but maybe most of them aren’t vegan, unfortunately.
Brighde: How do people enjoy matcha tea? I’m sure they don’t just have to go to tea ceremonies to enjoy them. Is it something that’s served In cafes or in people’s houses? How is it served and where is it served?
Alina: Yes, I think lots of people just buy it to use it at home. There, there is like a small bowl and like a special…
Brighde: Like a whisk
Alina: Yes, exactly. There’s a whisk and it, you just put like a little bit of tea with hot water and just whisk and that’s all you need to do.
Brighde: So normally people would go to cafes, would travelers be able to identify a place that would serve green tea?
Alina: Yes, there are, especially in Kyoto, they are all over the city. It’s very easy. You can find it almost anywhere and the best way to enjoy it is with a little bit of something sweet, the little Japanese dessert, usually it’s served with rice cakes, Japanese rice cakes, which are sweet or some traditional sugar candy or something like that.
And it, because it’s bitter, so it’s good to serve with something sweet.
Brighde: Are you talking about mochi?
Alina: Uh, yes.
Brighde: Okay. Of course, I have tried mochi before. I actually really like it, even though it’s very sticky and gluggy it’s really quite tasty and I’m pretty sure it’s always vegan correct?
Alina: Yes usually, but it depends on how you feel about sugar because sugar sometimes might be used like bones in the process
Brighde: sure. Sure. Okay, Kyoto is also a city of shrines. So which ones are the most beautiful how do they play a part in Japanese people’s lives and maybe the etiquette for going into shrines as a non-Buddhist non-Japanese?
Alina: Yes. So in Kyoto, you can find shrines and temples, that are from the two main religions in Japan, Shinto, and Buddhism, temples are Buddhist and the shrines are Shinto. And in Shinto, people believe that there is God in every object or element of life. And you can differentiate shrines by their gates Torii at the entrance, which are usually red, and orange in color. And in Buddhism, they have like massive gates, which are usually from wood. And someplace I would recommend it’s the Higashiyama area, which is in the east eastern part of Kyoto. It’s very famous for having lots of temples and shrines, especially the Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine shrine. This one has lots of Torii gates, lots of these oranges, red, orange painted gates. There are a lot of them and it’s very nice and interesting to take pictures there and it’s a very popular place. And for temples, I would recommend It’s the Golden Temple translated. And it’s popular since it’s covered in gold leaf and however you should prepare not to be very impressed by its size because it’s a little bit smaller and most people if you look at pictures before going you imagine it a little bigger. So some people are a little bit disappointed by its size, but it’s still impressive. And it’s still a very nice place to visit.
Brighde: I spent quite a few years living in Thailand and throughout Southeast Asia. And there are quite a few things that travelers should know about before they go inside in terms of etiquette, in terms of not causing offense, I’m sure it’s similar in Japan as well, but would you mind outlining what some of those things are?
Alina: So usually there aren’t many places where you actually go inside. People just align in front of the shrine or temple and they pray, they put their hands together and pray, maybe throw in a little coin. It’s usually a five yen coin that is thrown because it said that one brings luck. And it depends at shrines usually you make a bow and clap twice and they make another bow.
Brighde: So you don’t have to take your shoes off because you are outside. In Thai temples, for example, you must take your shoes off. You must make sure that
you have covered shoulders and ideally covered knees clothing. shouldn’t be too tight and you should not put your feet toward any Buddhist statues. So it’s not so strict as that in Japan.
Alina: Yeah. Sometimes you can go inside the temple and at that time, usually you take your shoes off like everyone else is doing. But there aren’t any strict rules regarding your clothing or anything like that. Of course, it’s good to go as covered as possible in any religious place, but there aren’t any strict rules about that.
Brighde: So there are so many amazing things to do in Kyoto. I think normally when people go to visit Kyoto, they probably have maybe Two days to pack as much in as they can. So why don’t you, if you don’t mind if I were going to Kyoto for two days, what would be my itinerary? What would you recommend that I do?
Alina: There are so many things to do and to see in Kyoto then probably two days wouldn’t be enough. I would recommend the least three or four days. However, I think most people do only have one or two days. So I’d recommend it. Not to try to go too far in one day because Kyoto is a big city you probably will get around by bus that’s the best to get around in see different places. And it does take time to get from one point to another, for example, to get to the east part of the west part of Kyoto so maybe you should try to do one day the east part, and one day the west part. I try to combine too many places that are far from each other. So one day you could see the bamboo forest, for example, which is called Arashiyama.
It’s in the Western part of Kyoto and around it, maybe you can find some food for lunch, some traditional shojin ryori which is temple food which is traditional, since Kyoto has so many temples, you should definitely try it. You can find it also at restaurants, not only at temples and you should try to book in advance and also make sure that it’s vegan because at restaurants they usually use fish stock.
Brighde: Is it like temple food?
Alina: Yes, it’s composed of many small dishes a small soup and a tofu dish, and some seasonal vegetable dishes some tempura, maybe, and pickles as well. It looks very colorful and it’s all very balanced.
Brighde: All right. So we’ve got lunch sorted out. What’s next after lunch?
Alina: You can continue visiting some temples in the area. You can also go to Kinkakuji which I mentioned earlier. It’s also around it. So it’s quite close.
And after that, maybe dinner
Brighde: do you have a personal recommendation of where to go for dinner?
Alina: For dinner, you might need to go a little bit in the central part or a little bit in the south part depending on what you’d like to eat. There are some ramen vegan ramen shops in Kyoto as well. And one place which I recommend is called UZU Ramen. And if you’re looking for something a little bit less not less traditional, but traditional combined with the modern experience you should go to this place.
It is designed by team lab, which is a digital art company that designed several digital art museums. And I’ve only visited their shop in Tokyo, but the one in Kyoto is a little bit more spacious, so I’m sure it’s a good place. And you go into a dark room and there is digital art reflected on tables and there mirrors around yeah, it’s very interesting. And not only the atmosphere but also the ramen was very tasty. The one I had in Tokyo didn’t have many vegetables, but I thought it was the best ramen I ever had.
Brighde: Everyone’s favorite comfort food is ramen. It’s just so good. I love ramen. I know I’m not alone in that. Okay, great. And what about entertainment in the evening after dinner? What kind of things do travelers like to do when they are in the evening? Is it bars or live music or shows?
Alina: Yes. I’m sure you can find those two or you can go geisha hunting. In, Gion, which is the geisha district. Usually, they go out in the evening around five or six or so because they have shown. So they get out of their houses and go to the restaurants where their clients are. So you might have the chance to see a real one there.
Also, it is not very polite to go too close to them or try to put your camera in their face. That’s a lot of people are doing that and it’s not very nice, but yeah, you can see it from the distance and just enjoy the experience.
Alina: And there is also there’s quite a big river. in the city. And you can, and there are lots of bars more traditional and old places to eat, but they’re also not vegan friendly, unfortunately, but you can go there for a drink and just enjoy the view of the river
Brighde: I guess have some sake or some Japanese beer We’ve had a wonderful first day. What about day two? Maybe breakfast. We didn’t talk about breakfast. Maybe the hotel doesn’t include breakfast. What would be a great way to have breakfast?
Alina: Oh, that’s quite a tough one because not many Japanese cafes are open for breakfast, so it’s definitely better to choose a place where you can eat breakfast in the hotel or you can also just grab something from the convenience store, but it won’t be as pleasant.
So you can go and visit the temples and shrines around Higashiyama on the east side of this time. The one that I was talking about earlier Fushimi Inari it’s on the east side and each temple and shrine is different. So it’s just fun to take the day and do a tour of the temples and shrines. And also there are some streets that are more traditional with lots of souvenirs so you can easily just spend one day just visiting half of the entire area.
Brighde: Oh, I can’t wait until our trip to Japan finally happens.
Alina: There’s quite a Vegan community in the Kansai region in Osaka and Kyoto. There are some vegans there and they used to have more meet-ups but I think since COVID there, aren’t so many events currently you could go on Facebook if you want in advance. And just tell people that you’re going. Ask if anyone is willing to meet up or even organize a meetup, I think people would be quite open to this. Yes. So yeah, you can go on Facebook because they are online at this time.
Brighde: I met with a friend who’s Australian, but we were in Thailand and at that time, I was one of the organizers for the Bangkok Vegan meetups group. And I would organize and generally speaking 10 people might show up. And my friend, Michael, he went to Japan and he went I can’t remember exactly where it was, and it was just a random meetup, nothing special. There were 80 people there. So I think vegans in Japan maybe really love to meet up and hang out. So definitely I think that’s a great idea. Alina goes online. See if there are any meetups around. make some new Japanese vegan friends
Alina, you’ve just created your website, it’s in Japanese. So how might people follow you and, what is your website?
Alina: So my website is Vegan Omotenashi. And I’ve just created it. For now, it’s just for Japanese potential Japanese customers for my hospitality business, but in the future, I’m actually thinking of adding a travel blog also in English. And I hope to do something useful also for people who come to visit. For vegans, especially because there are lots of travel podcasts about Japan, but I couldn’t find too much about traveling in Japan as a vegan. So I’m trying to create it while I’m traveling and trying to discover more vegan-friendly places Omotenashi means hospitality in the Japanese language. And it’s the Japanese way of doing hospitality the way where they do their best to serve the client the best they can. My idea is that hospitality should be inclusive of vegans.
Brighde: I agree with that. Fantastic. Thank you so much, Alina, for joining me on the podcast.
Alina: Thank you.