When Justin and I flew to Tokyo for our honeymoon, it was my first international flight in six years (and Justin’s first ever!) and our inaugural flight traveling as vegans. I had heard so many horror stories about eating on international flights (and Japan, in general) as a vegan, so to say I was nervous is a bit of an understatement. Making matters worse, I had never heard of ANA, which turned out to be the largest airline in Japan, prior to booking, only selecting them as our carrier because of their reasonable pricing, so I had no idea if they were even capable of serving vegetarian food, let alone full-blown vegan meals. We somehow lucked into a direct flight both ways, but, with about fifteen hours in the air, it certainly wouldn’t be ideal to subsist solely on our trusty go-to, Cool Mint Chocolate Clif Bars. Seeking input on what to expect, I had scoured the Internet prior to our flight for advice but only found a couple of paltry TripAdvisor reviews. So if you’re similarly clueless as to what’s coming your way on an international flight with ANA, don’t worry; I got your back.
I called ANA’s hotline to order our tickets and confirm a vegan meal had been placed. After an insignificant wait (maybe five minutes?), a pleasant woman, who spoke perfect English, walked me through the process of selecting our flight, seats, and meals. When I asked for a vegan meal, she seemed a little bit perplexed and asked if I meant vegetarian or if I wanted their “strict vegetarian” selections. I indicated that Justin and I both did not eat meat, dairy, or eggs and she confirmed that I should order a strict vegetarian meal. I was bit worried she didn’t quite understand what I was asking for, but after chatting about our honeymoon for a bit, she told me she had actually tried veganism recently and had eaten a vegetarian diet for many years. Thus, I felt like I was in safe, veg-friendly hands.
After the booking process, I was pretty stoked to find out that our ANA flight arrived in Haneda Airport, which, until recently, only handled domestic flights. Located right outside downtown Tokyo, it was super easy to hop aboard a subway and make our way to our Airbnb in Shinjuku; after a 15-hour flight, it was beyond awesome to land someplace so centrally located. Had we arrived at Tokyo’s other airport, Narita, some 50 miles east of Tokyo, our journey to our Airbnb bed would have been at a minimum an hour and a half longer. So, if you can, I would definitely try to swing a flight that lands in Haneda to make your arrival in Tokyo as easy and convenient as possible.
In the Air
On both legs of our trip, a flight attendant, shortly after boarding the plane, confirmed our names and our vegan meal order, and placed a green sticker on our chair backs to indicate our selection.
Here are the meals we received in flight, which we received both a couple of hours after take-off and before landing:
Our first dinner consisted of mostaccioli with a savory mushroom marinara sauce, two types of steamed veggie mixes (I believe mostly squash-based), a very simple side salad with oil dressing, a dinner roll with vegan butter, and a packet of Craisins.
Our breakfast the following day consisted of a chickpea-based curry over cabbage-wrapped rice; sections of mandarin oranges and grapefruit; a roll with strawberry jam; and the ubiquitous Craisins
Our second dinner consisted (again) of mostaccioli, this time with a cabbage and squash based marinara sauce; grilled veggies (peppers and squash); a simple side salad with oil dressing; a dinner roll with strawberry jam and vegan butter; and apple and orange slices
Our final breakfast consisted of a rice-based dish, with sauteed mushroom-green bean mix on one side of the tray and a lentil-red pepper mix on the other; a roll with jam; and a small side of tropical fruit
Despite my not-great photographs (when we went on our trip, I hadn’t known I was going to be launching a vegan travel blog!), the food was actually pretty decent! Although all of the meals tended toward blandness, everything was reasonably warm and fairly tasty, with a wide selection of dishes for each meal. Honestly, given our challenges of finding breakfasts in Japan, the breakfasts we had on ANA were downright yummy. If you (like me!) enjoy your food with some kick, though, I may recommend trying to track down some hot or soy sauce packets from the airport food court to bring aboard to kick the food up a notch. Furthermore, as someone who finds it virtually impossible to NOT finish my plate, you are given a LOT of food- I remember landing in Tokyo and feeling stuffed to the gills upon disembarking (...which did not stop me from eating a ridiculous amount of food there).
Besides your meals, you are also given snacks intermittently throughout the flight. Shortly after boarding, everyone is given a rice puff snack (that was accidentally vegan!) and some type of snack-sized sandwich. On the flight to Tokyo, a flight attendant had (unbeknownst to us) removed our green sticker from our chair mid-flight, so we were given a ham sandwich (which we gave away to a very grateful Japanese man across the aisle). The original flight attendant, who had given us our Sticker o’ Veganism saw that our sticker, had been taken down and gave us a veggie and hummus sandwich. So, watch out to make sure your veggie sticker stays loudly and proudly on your chair back throughout the entire flight.
Ultimately, sticker drama aside, my fears of starving and being eaten by wild wolves mid-flight were all for naught.
Having not traveled internationally for a while, I was certainly excited about the prospect of unlimited free alcohol throughout the flight. But, as a lady who GUZZLES water (seriously, you will never NOT see me with a refillable water bottle in my purse), I was a bit worried I was going to turn into a dehydrated shriveled raisin while traveling to and from Tokyo. And, unlike my food-related worries, this fear was a bit closer to reality.
So here’s the lowdown- pre and post-meal (thus, a total of four times throughout the flight), an attendant will come around and offer you a beverage, whether alcoholic or otherwise (I believe there is wine, beer, some spirits, limited soft drinks, green tea, and water). Between these trips, you will be offered hot green or kaga-houji-cha (roasted green) tea (which is, by the way, DELICIOUS). And, of course, at any time, you can call over a flight attendant and order a drink. All in all, this sounds like ample opportunity for hydration.
HOWEVER, despite the fact that I had my trusty refillable water bottle with me AND the fact I ordered water every time an attendant came around, I spent most of the flight feeling like my mouth was the Sahara desert… largely because the provided cups are a step up from Dixie cups (I am guesstimating the cups held a measly 6 oz. of fluid). This seemed common throughout Japan, with comically tiny water cups only being filled up once at the beginning of a meal (by the end of our Japan trip, I would preemptively request that a waiter bring over a pitcher of water at the beginning of the meal). So if you are a kindred thirsty human, I would highly recommend adding a large refillable water bottle to your packing list to bring with you on the plane and ordering water as early and often as possible. You and your future hydrated self are welcome.
Other Tips and Words of Advice
Our flight on ANA was all around fairly pleasant, with incredibly courteous flight attendants. Did you hear about when a rail company in Japan publicly apologized when a train departed twenty seconds early? Something similar happened on our outbound flight- while we were on the tarmac, an attendant announced that, due to some back up on the runway, our flight would be slightly delayed. Justin and I shot knowing glances at one another, assuming that a “slight delay” might actually turn into a couple of hours of being stuck on the runway. The announcer immediately came back over the intercom, indicating that we should be leaving within the next five minutes- definitely, DEFINITELY much shorter than we anticipated and ultimately, our plane took off prior to the scheduled departure time.
The model of planes we took had my favorite kind of set-up- two seats by both windows with an aisle running down each side, separating the middle row of seats. Snagging one of the two-seat window rows, Justin and I both got to sit at our ideal seat- I got to rest my head by the window, while much taller Justin got to sprawl out a bit (as much as a tall dude can sprawl on an airplane) into the aisle. Plus, with the two aisle setup, you can get up and occasionally do a lap around the plane, when it gets to the point in the flight where you’re no longer sure if your legs work anymore. Win win!
The entertainment onboard was pretty decent, with several new releases (I may have watched the Big Sick both to and from Japan), tending toward superhero blockbusters, and older classic films (it was an excellent opportunity for me to watch the three-hour long Green Mile for the first time) that you can watch on your private screen in the seatback in front of you. If your taste veers more independent or cerebral films, however, I may recommend downloading some content from Netflix or HBO Now for your inflight entertainment (...or you know, you could go the prehistoric route and read!). Regardless of your cinematic predilections, if you have time (which, of course, you will- you have 15 hours to do nothing!), you should watch some of the informational videos ANA offers tourists about Japanese culture and laws. My favorite video had a pretty hysterical set-up where an American tourist, upon landing in Japan to visit his friend, immediately wanted to go to a tool store so he could purchase a knife to protect himself against any would-be Japanese assailants. The Japanese friend quickly informed the American that Japan is a very safe place and it was not only unnecessary, but illegal, to carry dangerous weapons around Japan. Lesson learned: Americans have a really great world reputation of being fond of unnecessarily shanking people.
Our trip was not entirely smooth, however. While our outbound flight started pleasantly, it got hot mid-flight- as in SUPER hot (at a minimum, it had to be about 83 degrees aboard). I am one of those perpetually freezing individuals, but, on this flight, had it not been illegal, I would have gladly stripped down to my drawers to have a more pleasant experience; the stuffy heat also made the aforementioned dehydration issue that much more pronounced. This phenomenon generally seemed to be pretty universal in public spaces in Japan (we referred to subway stations as “nap machines” as their enveloping warmth and quietness lulls even the most alert travelers to sleep), but the stifling warmth on the plane led to such discomfort that it was impossible to catch some shuteye. Our inbound flight, on the other hand, was an appropriate temperature, though, so when dressing for your flight, I would advise to wear light layers, with some heavier clothing on top. And if you have a similar experience to us, don’t be afraid to ask for ice (... lots of ice).
Besides the sweltering heat, we could not, for the life of us, get our chairs to recline on our outbound flight. We chalked it up to either some supremely bad luck that neither of our chairs happened to work or that our lowly coach seats were not accompanied by the pleasure of reclining. Sitting on an 83-degree plus plane whilst at a 90 degree angle definitely isn’t the most conducive to sleeping on a 15-hour international flight. On the way home, however, we realized that our chairs reclined the whole time, we were just using them wrong- instead of reclining the back support portion, the seat of the chair slides forward, thus moving the chair into a supine position. If you have one takeaway from this article, it is to never assume your airplane seat doesn’t recline prior to attempting to scoot that booty forward.
All in all, I left our ANA flights a bit sleep-deprived, but stuffed with decent plant-based food and thousands of miles closer to adventure. Despite our mishaps, I would definitely recommend and fly with ANA again, due to their great service, attention to detail with respect to our vegan meals, and reasonable prices.
What was your experience like flying to Japan? In your experience, what's the most vegan-friendly airline? We have several international trips coming up and I’m a bit nervous to try flying as a vegan on so many new airlines, especially on some of the budget ones, like Wow (our carrier to and from our trip to Dublin, Paris, and Amsterdam AND Iceland later this year).
Also, any tricks on how to fall asleep on long international flights?
We also have several flights that land to our destination in the morning, so, as someone who generally struggles with sleep problems, I'm eager to hear any advice on how to successfully go unconscious whilst in transit. Leave me your tips, tricks, horror stories, and everything in between below!