The Weird and Wonderful World of Vegetarian Cuisine in Kyoto: Part 1

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

Mikoan vegetarian restaurant Kyoto

Mikoan vegetarian restaurant

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 kitchen behind the counter at Mikoan, Kyoto

The kitchen behind the counter at Mikoan

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.

Music corner at Mikoan

Music corner at Mikoan

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.

Mikoan set dinner

Erin’s set dinner at Mikoan

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.

Mikoan dinner set

Simon’s set dinner at Mikoan

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.

Mikoan Kyoto

Entrance to Mikoan is the alleyway on the left.

Shigetsu

Simon at Shigetsu

Simon at Shigetsu

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.

Shigetsu Dining Room

Tatami mat dining room at Shigetsu

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!

Sesame Tofu at Shigetsu

Sesame Tofu

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, Shigetsu

Nasu Dengaku, eggplant with miso

Nasu Dengaku. Eggplant is grilled until soft and melty with a sweet caramelised miso topping. Our favourite dish.

Yuba and Fu at Shigetsu

Yuba and Fu

Yuba (sheets of soy milk skin) is served with green beans and mushroom on top of Fu (wheat gluten).

Konnyaku at Shigetsu

Konnyaku and other items

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).

Nama Fu at Shigetsu

Nama Fu

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.

Pickles at Shigetsu

Pickled ginger and cabbage

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 sesame salad, Shigetsu

Mushroom and sesame salad

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.

Soup at Shigetsu

Soup

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.

Trail Wallet

What is your favourite place to eat in Kyoto? Leave a comment and tell us.

29 thoughts on The Weird and Wonderful World of Vegetarian Cuisine in Kyoto: Part 1

  1. I love this post! As a vegetarian and foodie, it’s really great to see such a variety of vegetarian food on offer in Kyoto. It’s somewhere I had never considered visiting before but it looks like it’s worth it just for the culinary adventure!

    Keep up the good work!
    Robyn x

    • Glad you enjoyed the post Robyn. Japan as a whole isn’t the easiest country for vegetarians but Kyoto has some amazing vegetarian restaurants. Every meal we ate was different but always beautiful and interesting. It’s definitely worth a visit and luckily it’s a wonderful city anyway.

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  6. Thanks for this. I’d love to sample the laid-back ambiance at Mikoan and all the amazing dishes at Shigetsu. I’d especially like to know how to make the Goma Dofu. Good luck with your continued travels!

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  9. We just dropped by Mikoan this evening after having read your write-up around a week ago. What a place! Totally unique and a wonderful, cosy, atmosphere! We loved the semi-decorative clutter, soft jazz, and the small shrine with bottles of alcohol on either side up behind the counter (plus the Guinness pump draped in Buddha beads)! The owner, it turns out, is a jazz pianist, and she kindly gave us a demonstration of her impressive talent on the piano! She’d encouraged us to enjoy the instruments at our leisure, and told us she likes people to jam there if they want to. She also seems to be familiar with the sanshin, an Okinawan string instrument which she pulled out to show us! Such a wonderful lady. Thanks for the write up – doubt we’d ever have visited if we hadn’t seen your article, and now we can’t wait to go back :) great food too. A 5 star place!

    • So glad you made it there and enjoyed it Chris! It is a wonderful unique place. Shame we missed the owner’s piano skills and Simon would have loved to have a go himself. Next time!

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  11. Hi there,

    Thanks for writing a such a thorough article.

    I will be visiting Kyoto this month and choose to stay near Kyoto Station as it will be convenient to move around.

    I searched but couldn’t find a proper vegetarian restaurant near Kyoto station.

    Could you guide me on this.

    Thanks in advance.

  12. Ohhhh god. Miko-an is, I swear, my favourite restaurant in Japan. We’ve been dreaming about returning to this place for years. Thanks for the photos – took me back.

  13. I was wondering do we need to reserve place for the meal at the temple in advance or can we just drop in at lunch time? What were the lunch timings? Thanks!

  14. Hi there! thank you for this articles, these photos are amazing, im planning to go to japan to work as a chef in a vegetarian restaurant, Mikoan seems to be an amazing place, I serched on the web page but i coul not find the email adress, did you save any email adress of those restaurants?
    Best regards

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  16. Thank you for the wonderful details. I am a student from India and here in japan for 6 weeks. I am a vegetarian and its difficult to get food here which is completely veg. Your website helped a lot. Luckily, the people here where I am studying helped me find vegetarian restaurants. The food is amazing and mostly consists of vegetables

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