Kyoto is a vegetarian heaven in a notoriously difficult country for those who don’t eat meat or fish. In Japan fish broth is in everything, and can be difficult to avoid without eating in purely vegetarian restaurants. Luckily there are plenty of these in Kyoto, as Japan’s ancient capital has a long tradition of shojin ryori or Zen Buddhist temple cuisine, which is entirely vegan. It is also some of the most unique, bewildering and delicious food we have ever eaten. As vegetarians it can be hard to delve into a country’s culture through its food, so we were grateful to the Kyoto monks for giving us the opportunity to do just that in Japan.
As in Buenos Aires you don’t want to just wander the city and choose any old restaurant. To be entirely free from animal products it’s best to visit one of the city’s excellent vegetarian restaurants, some of the best can be found in Kyoto’s temples. In this Kyoto food series we’ll be sharing some of our favourite vegetarian restaurants. In Part 1 we focus on our cheapest and most expensive meal in Kyoto.
Mikoan is an utterly atypical Japanese restaurant serving up great value, delicious vegetarian meals. It’s hidden down an alleyway and when we entered the narrow space we hesitated, feeling like we were entering someone’s home. There are only about 10 seats on stools at the counter, behind which one woman, casually dressed in a baggy tshirt and unusually inattentive for the Japanese, cooks up a feast on a two burner table top hob in the small kitchen.
The restaurant is as far from Japanese Zen style as you can get. The homely space is cluttered with a piano, guitars, piles of books and CDs, cats lazing around, and posters for old events on the ceiling. The counters are crammed with condiments, empty bottles of sake, cat statues, cutlery and piles of papers stacked at one end. Jazz plays softly in the background. We arrived early and there was just one elderly Japanese man at the counter, chatting rapidly away to the owner who nodded along. A quiet, young Japanese couple turned up a while later.
The menu is mostly in Japanese but a few things are written in English. There’s a set meal for 850 yen (US$11) at lunch, 1000 yen (US$13) at dinner and vegetable curry for 800 yen (US$10.55). We opted for the set dinner and watched as it was lovingly cooked to order. We had no idea what we’d be eating, and in fact we both got different sets so ended up with eight different dishes to try, as well as rice and miso soup.
Of all the vegetarian restaurants we tried in Kyoto I enjoyed the food at Mikoan the most, and it was the cheapest. Other meals we ate were more challenging with unusual dishes that were sometimes more interesting than delicious (at least to our tastes), but the meal at Mikoan was simple, accessible and wonderful.
The first set included refreshing somen, thin white cold noodles with thinly sliced cucumber and carrot in a tangy dressing; cold pumpkin; spring rolls; stir fried vegetables and a miso soup with melt in the mouth tofu and vegetables.
The second feast was pickled spicy green vegetables; beans sprouts in a vinegar dressing; cold sauteed greens and bean curd; deep fried tofu and the same miso soup. A balanced, healthy and satisfying meal.
The Mikoan website is in Japanese only. From Shijo dori in downtown Kyoto head south onto Teramachi dori, and look out for the Family Mart shop and the bookshop just past that. Look for the red awning and a sign in English by a small alley and head down there.
Open 5-11pm weekdays and from 12pm on weekends.
Kyoto is the place to try shojin ryori at its source – in one of the city’s many Zen Buddhist temples. The meals are quite expensive but worth it for an interesting and delicious multi-dish feast. We went to the Shigetsu restaurant within Tenryuji temple in the Arashiyama neighbourhood in the western hills – you can combine lunch with a day visiting the temples and monkey park in the area.
In stark contrast to Mikoan we removed our shoes and entered the dining room – a large tatami mat room with no tables or chairs and views of the temple’s garden. For a while we had the huge empty space to ourselves. We ordered the cheapest lunch set (3000 yen/ US$40, plus 500 yen/ US$6.60 entrance to the temple grounds) and were served eight dishes plus rice and green tea on a red lacquer tray.
It was difficult to identify what everything was, as some of it was completely new to us. Here’s what we ate, to the best of our knowledge!
Goma dofu with wasabi. This cold sesame tofu is one of the most common dishes in shojin ryori. It’s actually not tofu at all as it isn’t made from soymilk but from sesame paste, water and kuzu a thickening powder. It certainly has a different texture from the tofu we are used to as it’s soft, creamy and melts in your mouth. It’s a refreshing dish on a hot summer’s day.
Nasu Dengaku. Eggplant is grilled until soft and melty with a sweet caramelised miso topping. Our favourite dish.
Yuba (sheets of soy milk skin) is served with green beans and mushroom on top of Fu (wheat gluten).
An unusual assortment of items that at the time we had no idea what they were. We have since learned that the brown cube at the front is konnyaku known in English as Devil’s Tongue. It’s a jelly like substance made from the root of the tuberous plant konjac. It doesn’t have much flavour but is valued for its texture, which we find rather strange. The fan shaped white item in the middle is daikon radish, and in front is a sweet simmered chestnut. There is also some pickled ginger and a pickled myoga (the pink ginger flower bud).
Within the leaf wrapped parcel we found a rubbery green substance that was tricky to eat with chopsticks and rather difficult to consume. We had no idea what it was or whether it was supposed to be a dessert or not as it was quite sweet. Later we discovered it was nama-fu or raw wheat gluten, an important part of shojin ryori and wagashi (traditional Japanese confectionery). It seems to have many forms, and was unlike anything we had eaten before.
Pickled cabbage and ginger. Tsukemono (Japanese pickles) are an essential part of a Japanese meal and usually one of my favourite parts, providing a tangy contrast to some of the more subtle dishes.
Mushroom and cucumber salad in a sesame sauce. Sesame is often used in Japanese vegetarian food and this combination works really well. Like tofu, we weren’t too fond of mushrooms until we came to Japan where they are all delicious.
A cold, creamy soup with pumpkin.
It’s worth having the experience of a traditional temple meal at least once. It’s certainly a culinary adventure with dishes ranging from exquisite to odd. As vegetarians though we loved the opportunity to try random things knowing that it was all meat-free, something we don’t often get to do.
Shigetsu is located within the Tenryuji temple in Arashiyama. We took the 15 minute train ride (230 yen) from Kyoto to Saga Arashiyama and walked to the area’s sights from there. It’s open for lunch only.
In Part 2 of our exploration of Kyoto’s weird and wonderful world of vegetarian cuisine we share more of our favourite places to eat. You can also get more tips on being vegetarian in Japan in our survival guide.
What is your favourite place to eat in Kyoto? Leave a comment and tell us.