Before I left to go to Japan at least 10 people warned me that it would be difficult to find vegan food; even that I might be really hungry the whole trip. Though I was aware of the liberal use of fish products in Japanese cuisine, I had no idea that I might encounter a frightening shortage of vegan food. I had my ticket, and I was going to the #1 country on my list of countries-to-visit, but I started feeling anxious about the decision to embark on a journey in a place that was supposedly vegan unfriendly. I imagined myself sadly walking past restaurants packed with laughing full-bellied patrons; I envisioned myself alone at the grocery store picking up Japanese sweet potatoes, and brown rice, that I would have to make in the tiny quarters of my Airbnb apartments––lost in translation, alone, hungry, and sad.
Then I went to the world wide web and typed in HappyCow.net
Happy Cow is a website I’ve used many times to find vegan eats around the world. It’s like the veggie Yelp. It’s user driven, and there are photos, reviews, directions, hours of operation, and notes like “there is no English menu here”. It’s a truly invaluable resource (I have the app on my phone) for vegans who like to travel.
When I searched Tokyo and Kyoto on the Happy Cow website I was surprised to find so many strictly vegan restaurants. Being that Japan is a Buddhist country, I knew the naysayers had to be wrong. There had to be some compassionate souls––beyond the monks––on the island. I guess the non-vegans don’t know about Happy Cow, and thus don’t know about the many vegan restaurants in their midst. And perhaps their starving vegan friends weren’t yet hip to this great site/app. I shed a tear for them.
What did I find on Happy Cow?
What I found using the Happy Cow app, plus searches on TripAdvisor, were a number of delicious vegan restaurants catering to many different tastes. There was the shojin ryori inspired take out spot in Akihabara, and the world fusion place in Ikebukuro. Though I didn’t make it there, there were noodles in Tokyo station (T’s Tan Tan), and lots of opportunities to find bliss in the many kinds of mochi.
I admit, Japanese cuisine does contain a lot to fish products. On my first day there I accidentally ate a kelp jelly that contained bonito and scallop extract…whatever that is. I also had some pickles in Kyoto at Nishiki market that probably contained bonito, and not knowing the language makes it hard to double check the ingredients. However, I didn’t starve in Japan. On the contrary, I ate very well. I even have a suitcase full of goodies to show for it. Japanese food has always been a favorite of mine, and now I love it even more.
So! Let’s talk about where you, my fellow vegan eater, can find delicious nourishment in Tokyo and Kyoto. I can’t wait to share these yummy bites with you!
Ain Soph Soar
Located in Ikebukuro, a whole city unto itself, Ain Soph Soar is an oasis within the madness of the area. It’s clean, charming, and romantic, and just steps away from Ikebukuro’s 7-story arcades, bars, and shopping. I came for dinner and ordered the tomato soup, hambāgu with rich miso sauce, and chocolate cake with ice cream for dessert. I also had a couple of glasses of rose (just a few hundred yen a glass). The food was tasty, though not Japanese style, which I happened to be craving that night. Still it was filling and warmed me to the core. Though not very sweet, I could have eaten 5 of those chocolate cakes!
My Airbnb hosts were so friendly and hospitable, like Japanese people are. I was staying in their Ikebukuro apartment, not at their house, yet they still took time to show me around and take me to lunch at T’s. The food was super flavorful and delicious! I ordered the special pasta, which came with a creamy white soy based sauce, and veggies (though I wish there had been more of them). I ate every bite, and nearly licked the plate! For dessert I had their chocolate scone. D.E.L.I.C.I.O.U.S! So good that I had to take a kabocha scone home, and then I regretted now ordering a dozen. To make things even better, T’s restaurant is located in a part of Tokyo less traveled by tourists called Jiyugaoka. It was a nice refuge from the tall buildings and crowded streets of central Tokyo, and there is still plenty to see and do there––mostly shop!
Mochi from Asadaya in Akasaka
Perhaps this should be #1 on my list. I am obsessed with mochi. I’m desperatly in love with this heavenly soft and chewy vegan rice cake. All of the mochi I ate in Japan was special, and there are so many different types. My favorite was the grilled mugwort mochi––yomogi daifuku––found in Kyoto (details down in the Kyoto section below). But it’s all really amazing.
I filmed a cooking show in Tokyo with Japanese cooking show host Ryoya of Peaceful Cuisine, and the guys in charge at the studio brought us mochi from this place. Many people die during New Years celebrations from asphyxiating on mochi, and I understand why. The stuff is so good, you just wan to inhale it. So be careful and pace yourself!
There are other Japanese desserts that happen to be both vegan and incredible. My other favorite is kintsuba, which I found in Kyoto. Traditionally the Japanese use a ton of rice and adzuki beans in their sweets. No eggs or dairy necessary. Still, if you come across something with chocolate it’s probably not vegan. You can always ask to make sure. Pull out that Google translate app, and ask, “does this have egg or milk in it?”
Brown Rice Café
I’m so glad one of my Instagram followers recommended this place to me. It’s in a posh and convenient area near Shibuya, and a nice stroll from the must visit Harajuku neighborhood. The main drag that it’s off of reminds me of 5th Avenue in NYC, with it’s high end stores, and fancy buildings.The restaurant is gorgeous, modern, and sleek. You feel like you’re someplace special here. The staff is friendly and helpful (despite the language barrier), and the food is delicious. I had the clean and well-balanced lunch set, which featured a miso soup, pickles, crave-worthy tofu, and steamed veggies. I left feeling nourished and energized. Next time I’ll order the curry. It looked so good!
Komaki Syokudo & attached market
Shojin ryori is Buddhist temple cuisine and is always vegan. Though monks eat very simple on most days, on occasion they will have more elaborate meals like the ones you’ll experience if you eat at a shojin ryori in Japan (more on that below). Akihabara is located inside a gourmet grocery store just steps away from the Akihabara train station and the craziness of this anime filled neighborhood.
In shojin ryori the cook strives to waste nothing. For this reason the cuisine utilizes things like tofu pulp from making milk, and other odd goodies. The food here is so interesting and delicious. My favorites were the tofu pulp, rice balls, and the curry. Oishi!
This eatery is definitely no frills, but the gourmet market it is located in is very nice, and worth a tour once you’re finished with lunch.
I ended up cooking for myself most of the time in Kyoto. For breakfast I would have oats, or rice with kabocha squash. For dinner and lunch I’d whip up a clean and delicious meal with an assortment of the mysterious greens I found at the markets. Japanese kitchens are miniscule, and make NYC kitchens look huge. I only had 1 burner in each place I stayed, so I cooked a large amount of rice and soba, and kept it fresh in the fridge until I needed to use it for a whole dish. I highly recommend staying in an Airbnb if you like to cook. Japan has so many amazing spices, noodles, and produce and it’s a joy to try them out right away. If you use this link you’ll get a $25 credit on your first Airbnb booking! Now, on to the food…
I ate at this sweet café on my first night in Kyoto. It’s not centrally located, but it’s so worth the trek (short train ride, and long walk). I ordered the chickpea curry, and was blown away. The flavors were so rich, bold, and exotic. My meal came with rice, fried tofu, and veggies. I loved every bit of it. The menu also had some extremely yummy looking pizza on it. Sadly I didn’t make it back for round 2.
There is a mini grocery store above the restaurant. You can purchase fresh produce, teas, beans, rice, sauces, oils, and more. And it is kind of fun that they make you remove your shoes before coming into the grocery part. Oh, I love Asian culture!
Shigetsu: Tenryu-ji Shojin Ryori (or Syojin–ryouri Sigetu)
Perhaps my most interesting and exciting meal in Japan was the shojin ryori at this place. First thing it has going for it is it’s stunning location adjacent to the majestic Tenryu-ji temple right under the Ashiyama mountains. Guests eat in large communal rooms, and sit directly on the floor (though alternative seating is available if needed). No shoes are allowed in the restaurant, so make sure you wear nice clean socks (goes for all of Japan). Like all shojin ryori you simply order the set you’d like––I opted for the lunch set for 3,000 yen), and a drink if you want one. Before you know it you’re presented with a large tray of beautiful food.
In shojin ryori (and much of Japanese cooking) balance of flavors is key. On your tray you’ll find something sweet, sour, bitter, salty, light, and hot. Though I couldn’t tell you what half of the dishes on my plate were, the pickles, mochi, and greens with a cramy miso sauce were my favorites. Each dish is served on a very small bowl or plate, and there is a ton of food. 30,000 yen may seem like a lot of money for lunch, but the experience and quality of food is well worth the price. I can’t wait to do it again.
Sake Bar Yoramu
Yes, I’m putting a sake bar on my list of favorite places. Like most Americans my experience with sake is very very limited. I’d had some nasty sake at restaurants, and I knew there had to be a lot more to this rice wine stuff. I found Sake Bar Yoramu on a Google search, and was especially excited to go because the owner/bartender/chef Yoram speaks English––he’s actually Israeli.
Yoram seems to be a quiet and thoughtful guy, and he really really REALLY knows his sake. Oh, and he’s vegetarian! Though he insists people not come to his bar for the food, you’ll find a menu of vegetarian nibbles that make the perfect accompaniment to the sake. For 1500Y Yoramu will hook you up with 3 different sakes. I don’t know what I was drinking, but I know they were all fantastic. To eat, I had the tofu aged in miso. Blissdom!
Kyoto Yaoichi Gourmet Grocery Store
I walked into this place and nearly fainted from joy! There are loads of green veggies, fresh fruit, roots, tubers, herbs, edible flowers, and prepared food everywhere you look in this beautiful store. Aside from the fruit (all fruit is pricey in Japan to protect farmers), this fancy store is really quite reasonable. Still, I managed to spend about $80 there within a couple days. I did buy a good deal of expensive imported vegan chocolate though.
If you’re going to cook for yourself, which I did a lot, then this is the place to shop. You can find anything you’re looking for: great bread, bulk goods (cheapest for rice and legumes), American and other foreign products, teas, a bar, a coffee shop, and even a kitchen wares section.
However, it does have one strange quality, the people working there, especially in produce are yelling things constantly. Click here to listen to the madness. I have no clue what they’re saying, but stay in the store for long enough and it starts to sound nuts!
Mochikiya in Nishiki Market
Man oh man. You already know how much I adore mochi right? Well, this place is a whole mochi restaurant. Located about halfway through Nishiki market, you won’t miss it because there are people grilling mochi right out front. Either stop and take some to go, or go inside and grab a table. I did a little of both. When I dined in I ordered the 3 mochi combo. One was dusted in yellow soy powder, the other wrapped in seaweed, and the third was topped with red beans. It came with a little extra mochi too, a cold jelly with red bean paste on the inside.
This place is super easy to find in the market, but you should also make your way to near Gion, where you can find min mochi on a stick dipped in a sweet soy sauce, flat crepe like mochi, and a couple and red bean or sweet potato squares surrounded by mochi. Vegans certainly cannot go wrong with these fantastic Japanese sweets.
Nishiki market has been operating for hundreds of years, and is a must-visit spot on my list. You’ll find a wide assortment of pickles (most not vegan), sweets like mochi, produce, kitchen ware, and other things I’ve never encountered before. There’s a good deal of fish and seafood for sale, but very little red meat. Unlike other countries, you won’t find dead animals handing on display, or be assaulted by the smell of stinking flesh here. I wish we had places like this in NYC.
Camellia Tea Ceremony in Higashiyama
Next to shojin ryrori a tea ceremony is the next best traditional activity you must treat yourself to. Camellia is located in a 100 year old Geisha ryokan on one of the town’s most beautiful streets. When you enter the building you feel like you’re transported back in time.
For hundreds of years green tea, which came to Japan by way of China, has held a very special place in the culture. The best green tea, uji matcha, comes from the Kyoto region, so going to a tea ceremony here is extra special. In this sacred ceremony you’ll get to observe and try out the crucial steps it takes to get from tea powder to heavenly elixir. I made sure to bring home lots of uji matcha so I can attempt my own ceremonies back in NYC.
Make sure to grab some mochi on a stick from the vendor on the street level right below Camellia. After that make a right turn, and be on the lookout for a woman making my other favorite sweet, kintsuba. Photo below J This stuff comes in a variety of different flavors, so go nuts!
Clearly I didn’t have any real issues being vegan in Japan. I just arrived back in the states yesterday, and I already miss it terribly; I would love to go back again next year in the spring.
I hope these tips help you to plan your future Japanese adventure. If you have any recommendations for places to visit there, please post in the comment section below. Let’s show the world that the vegan community in Japan is indeed alive and well!