Japan was a culinary adventure for us in a country where food is prepared with love and the quality of ingredients and skill in presentation is world class. Kyoto was the perfect place to venture into the weird and wonderful world of shojin ryori or Zen Buddhist vegetarian cuisine. We sampled beautifully presented food that we had never heard of before, and our limited Japanese skills meant we often had no idea what we were eating. In Kyoto’s vegetarian restaurants at least we could be assured that it was meat-free.
In Part 1 of our exploration of Kyoto’s vegetarian restaurants we shared details of two of our favourite places to eat – the homely Mikoan was the cheapest, and elegant Shigetsu within the Tenryuji temple was the most expensive. In Part 2 our culinary journey continues. Here are some mid priced options (yes, Japan is expensive)– one further afield in Kurama, a tofu restaurant that isn’t strictly vegetarian, and one of our best meals – that we cooked ourselves.
If you are looking for an escape from the city then one of our favourite half day trips was to Kibune and Kurama in the mountains north of Kyoto. It had all the elements of a great day out – an easy beautiful train journey, a stroll around a few quiet villages, a short but strenuous forest hike from Kibune to Kurama, a visit to the gorgeous Kurama-dera temple and to top it off, a delicious vegetarian meal.
The hike finishes at Kurama-dera and just outside of the entrance is Yoshuji a cosy Japanese farmhouse with an irori (fire pit) in the centre that serves up all meat-free shojin ryori. If you are on a budget you can get a bowl of noodles for 1050 yen (US$13.50), but we were addicted to Japanese feasts so went for the cheapest set lunch the Hana-Syoujin Zen at 2100 yen (US$27). Our legs were given a break as the seating is tables and chairs rather than Japanese style on tatami mats. Our table overlooked the garden and hills beyond.
As always the set meal was a balanced, healthy and wonderful meal. It always seems like a lot of food, but Japanese food is light so we never felt over-full. It’s not common to have a menu in English so the one here helped us understand what we were eating, and we learnt that the weird flavourless jelly we’d eaten at Shigetsu was konnyaku.
Here konnyaku was served like sashimi with a dark miso sauce. The sauce was tasty but we couldn’t get used to konnyaku‘s jelly texture. We appreciated the beautiful presentation though! The white flower is made from naigamo yam.
Alongside the all important bowl of rice we also ate:
A soup of mashed wild yam topped with seaweed. Due to its sticky texture it’s best served mixed into the rice.
Mashed tofu with boiled wild plants was delicious and I even managed to recreate something similar at home for a quick and easy meal.
Goma dofu or chilled sesame tofu – a common dish in shojin ryori, although as we explained in Part 1 it isn’t actually tofu but a mix of sesame paste, water and a thickening powder.
Wonderfully delicate cold mushrooms including enoki mushrooms topped with grated daikon radish. I have never enjoyed mushrooms as much as I have in Japan.
Tsukemono (Japanese pickles) are an important part of the meal and I always love the crunchy texture and salty, sweet and sour flavour that provides a contrast to the more delicate flavours of the other dishes. These hajikami shoga, pickled ginger stems were particularly good.
Miso and tofu soup. A meal wouldn’t be complete without it. Chopsticks are used to eat the ingredients and the broth is sipped direct from the bowl.
Yoshuji is halfway up the stairs leading to Kurama-dera on the right hand side (or left as you come down as we did after hiking from Kibune). There is an English menu outside. Open from 10am-6pm.
We wanted to try one of Kyoto’s famous tofu restaurants but surprisingly most aren’t vegetarian. Although little meat is used fish broth is considered an intrinsic part of Japanese cooking and it can be very hard to avoid. In our limited Japanese we explained we were vegetarian to the staff at Tosuiro but were told some of the dishes in the set meal would contain fish broth. We hesitatingly agreed as we were trying to be flexible but it did temper our enjoyment of the meal and we avoided some of the dishes like the soup that would definitely include fish broth. With this in mind we wouldn’t recommend Tosuiro to strict vegetarians but if you eat fish then it’s a fascinating meal. [Update: A reader has informed us that it's now possible to get a completely vegan, fish broth free meal at Tosuiro if you reserve a day in advance.]
As in most traditional Japanese restaurants we removed our shoes at the door and were taken upstairs to a small tatami mat room with space for three other couples. We sat on cushions at low tables and ordered the cheapest set lunch, the Machiya Zen for 2250 yen (US$29). We waited as nine different courses were served in elegant, colourful ceramic dishes, almost all tofu in its various forms.
Creamy goma dofu (sesame tofu) with a dab of wasabi. Simple and delicious.
Beautifully presented, melt in the mouth yuba (soy milk skin) served on ice with a little ginger.
Yudofu is brought out simmering within a wooden pot. We had to wait five minutes until it was cooked and then served ourselves this smooth, creamy tofu with greens and soy sauce.
Yudofu is served with chopped spring onions and grated ginger, the tangy flavours enlivening the simple tofu.
Firm tofu served on sticks dengaku style. It’s coated with a sweet miso sauce and grilled until it caramelises and becomes golden and slightly charred.
I admit, at this point after five different types of tofu I was a little tofued out, so this artful plate of tempura was a relief. Of course alongside the lotus root and chilli tempura there was a tofu tempura wrapped in seaweed but it was wonderfully gooey.
We were sure we must have reached the end of the meal but no, more dishes were brought out.
Inarizushi – rice wrapped inside fried tofu.
A colourful plate of tsukemono, Japanese pickled vegetables.
We were also served a tofu and miso soup, but were happy to skip this after eating all of the above.
Finally to end the meal a plum sake sorbet.
Although it wasn’t our favourite meal in Kyoto it was one of the most interesting we have ever eaten. Who knew that tofu came in so many forms?
Tosuiro has two branches in the Gion area. We went to the Gion branch but we didn’t have a view so you might want to visit the one in Kiyamachi (very near Gion) as there are tables overlooking the river in summer. It’s open for lunch and dinner but you’ll pay more in the evenings. [Update: you can now get a vegan fish broth free meal at the Gion branch if you reserve a day in advance. Your hotel can help with the reservation.]
Uzuki Cooking Class
One of the best meals we ate in Kyoto was actually one we cooked ourselves, under the guidance of our cooking teacher Emi Hirayama. We attended a private class at her home to learn more about Japanese food and she was happy to teach us vegetarian dishes.
Japanese food includes many ingredients that we were unfamiliar with so the class was very helpful for introducing us to things like yuba (soy milk skin tofu), koyadofu (freeze dried tofu), naigamo yam (a sticky vegetable that we often found in our meals), and Japanese seasonings like various soy sauces, miso (fermented soy bean paste), and mirin (sweet rice wine). We were then better able to identify what we were eating in Japanese restaurants, and navigate our way around supermarkets to cook for ourselves. But most importantly we got to eat the delicious meal at the end.
Read more about our Japanese cooking class experience.
Kyoto Uzuki Cooking Classes take place in Northeast Kyoto for 2-4 people (individuals may join another group). It costs 4000 yen (US$52) for three hours.
This is the final part in our exploration of Japanese vegetarian food in Kyoto. We found the food culture in Japan fascinating and were thankful that shojin ryori made it possible for us to enjoy it too. Make sure you don’t miss Part 1 where we shared two more of our favourite restaurants and our vegetarian survival guide to Japan.
Leave a comment and tell us about your favourite Japanese food.