Sushi. It’s the dish that defines Japanese cuisine around the world. For many of us, our first bite of sushi was also our first taste of raw fish. For the Japanese, the consumption of fish is part of everyday life and the average person consumes about 70kg of fish per year. It has even been linked to a long life expectancy – of which the Japanese people have the longest!
Raw fish huh? The thought of this might make some plant-based food fanatics squirm. But there is a lot more to Japanese cuisine than just sushi. In fact, the varied, fresh and unprocessed diet of the Japanese people can cater for our vegan and vegetarian friends – if they know what to look for!
So lets get down to business! Is vegan and veggie food easy to come by in Japan? What restaurants should I visit and what dishes should I order? Poppy, who leads a predominantly vegan lifestyle, travelled to Japan with us in 2016. We got in contact with Poppy to ask her about her experiences and to give us some advice for future travellers. Keep reading!
The vegan and vegetarian lifestyle in Japan is uncommon. The people that do choose to eat a plant-based diet, often choose to for the health benefits rather than for ethical or religious reasons. But there is still plenty of vegan food on offer if you know what to order. Not to mention there are loads of vegan and vegetarian restaurants popping up all over Tokyo and other big cities.
Poppy was surprised to discover that fresh fruit and vegetables seemed hard to come by in the grocery stores. After some investigation she discovered that this was generally down to the Japanese terrain and how difficult it is to grow fruit and veg successfully on top of tectonic plates!
So what exactly can I order? Here is a quick round up:
Yaru Soba – This dish of chilled buckwheat noodles, popular in the summer months, is served on a bamboo tray with nori, spring onions, wasabi and a soy sauce broth for dipping!
Tempura – Deep-fried veggie deliciousness! Need I say more?
Sushi – It’s not all fish! Although veggie sushi is less easy to come by in Japan compared to the UK, there are still plenty of delicious vegetarian sushi options out there, and some dedicated veggie sushi restaurants too.
Okonomiyaki – a Japanese savoury pancake that’s cooked on a hotplate right in front of you! It usually contains meat but you can easily ask for it to be made vegetarian.
Ramen – Sorry everyone. If you are a ramen fan you might struggle in Japan. Most ramen in Japanese restaurants contains dashi, a type of fish stock that definitely isn’t vegan. However if you are desperate for your noodle soup fix you can head to T’s Tan Tan near Tokyo station who specialise in vegan ramen. Woohoo!
Tofu – There are so many variations out there and they are all so delicious! Take a look at Poppy’s Instagram snaps! Poppy’s favourite dishes in Japan were silken tofu, udon noodle soups and an aubergine chilli (which you have to ask for without the pork!) that are pictured below. She even found soy ice cream!
Kyoto is nicknamed the city of 10,000 shrines and it has loads of temples too! And lots of temples means lots of Zen Buddhists and a lot of Zen Buddhists means loads of vegan food! There are dozens of vegan restaurants all around Kyoto serving up everything from Mexican food to the more traditional Shojin Ryori – an essential dining experience for any plant-based food lover.
So what exactly is it? Shojin Ryori is a type of cooking practiced by Buddhist monks in Japan. Each meal comprises of a number of small dishes, from soups and rice to pickles and tempura. The emphasis of this style of cooking is on nature and simplicity – much like Buddhism itself. Chefs try to reduce waste as much as possible. They will avoid wasting the skin and leaves of a vegetable and make sure every component is used in the dishes. They even make sure they use as little water as possible to cook each dish. The delicious meals they serve up are not only vibrant and nutritious but the meal itself offers the diner an incredible cultural experience. I would highly recommend it!
Poppy found that there were plenty of vegan restaurants in Kyoto suitable for budget travellers. She recommends visiting Togaden for a cheap and delicious vegan meal. The restaurant serves a selection of tofu tasting menus for around 1,200 yen.
“They prepared the tofu in lots of different ways that tasted amazing (I’m sure even those that have had a bad experience with tofu before would love it!) They also do tofu cheesecakes, which they have both on their menu and in their little tofu store downstairs to take away!”
There is also a vegan café called Veg Out, just a short walk from the hostel in Kyoto. It’s surf themed and serves vegan breakfasts, lunches and dinners with a range of coffees and cakes to take away too.
Visit the supermarket – Poppy did admit that she struggled to eat vegan food for the whole trip and did have the odd vegetarian meal. If you are having a quiet evening, she suggests you go to 7eleven and pick up a vegetable soup (often with tofu in!) and a bag of edamame beans to eat back at the hostel for dinner. Most of our hostels provide bread for toasting at breakfast with jams and peanut butter. Sometimes Poppy would make a sandwich to take site seeing- a great budget traveller tip!
Do your research before your trip. Familiarise yourself with the dishes you’d like to try and research restaurants in the areas you will be visiting – there is a lot of information on the worldwide web!
Download the HappyCow app to help find veggie and vegan restaurants near you whilst you are in Japan.
It doesn’t hurt to ask! Learn a few simple phrases to get by. (Or get your adventure leader to help you out!)
Niku wa tabemasen = I don’t eat meat
Watashi wa bejitarian desu = I’m a vegetarian
Kono ryori ni niku ga haitte imasu ka = Does this dish contain meat?
Stock up on snacks! There may be times when you’re starving but there are no vegan snacks about. Make sure you bring some snacks with you just in case you are caught short and ravenous. Here are some Japanese vegan snacks!
Visit Coco curry house for your Katsu fix – This Japanese fast food chain has some vegan and vegetarian options – phew!
As the capital city, Tokyo has a long list of vegetarian and vegan dining options. Check this out – the best vegetarian restaurants in Tokyo!
Bonus! Love juices and smoothies? Find a great list of vendors here!
Feeling hungry? Want to eat Japanese food right now? Take a look at our budget Japan tours and book today!