Being a vegetarian in Japan can be difficult, but with some effort and pre-planning can also be very rewarding. Although we despaired at times of finding a veggie-friendly meal, and fish did turn up in our food on occasion, we also had some of the most unusual and delicious meals we have ever eaten. We loved the foodie culture in Japan and found the food to be high quality, beautifully presented and healthy.
Here are our tips for surviving Japan as a vegetarian.
Learn Some Japanese
Not many Japanese people speak English and learning a few phrases is essential to making your needs as a vegetarian understood. Don’t be too worried though – although learning to read Kanji takes a lot of time, the spoken language is easier to pick up that I expected.
You could try telling people that you are vegetarian (“Watashi wa bejitarian des”) but they probably won’t understand exactly what this means. It is better to be clearer and instead say “watashi wa niku toh sakana wo taberarimasen” which means I don’t eat meat or fish. We found this phrase very useful and succesfully used it in restaurants to get a vegetarian meal.“Taberarimasen” means “I don’t eat” so you can add any word in front of that.
A few other useful words and phrases:
yasai – vegetables
tamago – egg
katsuobushi nashi de onegai shimas – without bonito (fish) flakes please
…arimas ka? – do you have…?
nan des ka? – what is it?
oishikatta des – that was delicious. This always made people smile.
arigato gozaimas – thank you
sumimasen – excuse me
It is often possible to find meals without meat or fish in them, or at least the restaurants are willing to adapt meals for you, but the biggest problem is that fish stock or dashi is used in many dishes. Soups and noodles in broth in non-vegetarian restaurants will definitely contain it, and you’ll need to decide whether this bothers you or not. We tried to avoid it as much as possible but there were times when we didn’t have much choice so decided to be flexible about it. I have heard that it is possible to ask for noodles or soup to be made with just miso instead, but we found communicating this to be difficult.
If you want to completely avoid fish stock then it is best to eat in only vegetarian restaurants but this will limit the destinations you can visit in Japan. In Kyoto this isn’t a problem, but in smaller towns it will be much more difficult.
Although you could use the recommended phrase above and turn up in any Japanese restaurant and hope you get a meal, we found it much more enjoyable to eat stress (and dashi) free at vegetarian restaurants. So do some research online on sites like Happy Cow and plan ahead where to eat.
If you get stuck, like we did in Nara when the vegetarian restaurant I had researched was closed, try looking out for Indian restaurants. We ended up finding a lovely little place that did great vegetarian curries at reasonable prices.
See the bottom of this post for some of our favourite vegetarian restaurants in Japan.
Luckily there are plenty of vegetarian restaurants in Kyoto, as Japan’s ancient capital has a long tradition of shojin ryori or Zen Buddhist temple cuisine, which is entirely vegan. You would really be missing out if you didn’t spend time here, especially as there is so much to do with 2000 temples and shrines to explore plus many interesting other attractions.
Set meals at vegetarian restaurants are a great way to explore Japanese food as you don’t have to worry about being able to read a Japanese menu and you can be sure that everything is meat-free. We had some incredible meals in Kyoto – our favourites were at Mikoan and Shigetsu and Yoshuji. We also learnt a lot about Japanese cuisine and ate an incredible meal by taking a vegetarian cooking class.
Eat in Temples
Shojin ryori or Zen Buddhist temple cuisine is the beacon of hope for a vegetarian in Japan. The monks make it possible to enjoy delicious, healthy, creative, Japanese meals and be sure that it is all vegan. The food was unlike anything we had eaten before and we loved having the opportunity to try something new. The best places to eat in temples are in Kyoto and in the mountain temple town Koya-san where you can even spend the night in a temple. I did see some temple restaurants in Tokyo but the prices were far higher than elsewhere when even in Kyoto it isn’t cheap (we paid 3000 yen/$39 each).
Stay in a Ryokan
A great opportunity to try homemade kaiseki, a gourmet, multi-course traditional Japanese meal is in a ryokan or traditional inn. We stayed in a minshuku, a cheaper family-run version and had a fantastic feast for dinner and breakfast. We booked through Japanese Guesthouses which has a range of options all over Japan. You can request a vegetarian meal but they won’t guarantee that dashi is not used. It’s a pricey but uniquely Japanese experience that we do recommend.
Read our comparison of different accommodation options in Japan.
We had a house sit in Kyoto and an apartment in Tokyo for part of our trip so were able to self cater. This helped to save money and take a break from worrying about where to eat. Supermarket prices aren’t cheap (Japan is an expensive country) but we found the array of fresh noodles and tofu to be delicious and reasonably priced. Add some vegetables and you can make an easy stir fry.
Vegetarian Friendly Japanese Food
These are some vegetarian Japanese meals and snacks to look out for. Be aware that anything that includes broth is likely to be fish dashi unless you are eating in a vegetarian restaurant.
Tempura (deep fried vegetables in batter) are served on top of rice. Ask for vegetables only or point to it if there is a picture menu and it makes a great, quick meal. There are some expensive tempura restaurants but we went to Tenya a cheap tempura chain where it cost 550 yen (US$7). Our meal included tea and miso soup (which we skipped).
Tsukemono or Japanese pickled vegtables are an essential part of a Japanese meal and always included in set meals. I love the crunchy texture and salty, sweet and sour flavour that provides a contrast to the more delicately flavoured dishes. In a worst case scenario you could always order tsukemono and rice for a simple meal.
Cold soba (buckweat) noodles are popular in the summer served on a bamboo tray with nori seaweed, spring onion, wasabi, and a soy sauce broth that we skipped as it probably had dashi in it. If this doesn’t worry you then go ahead and dip the noodles in.
Soba or Udon Noodles
Noodles in broth are found everywhere. Choose from soba (buckwheat) or udon (wheat) and a range of fillings. If you explain you don’t eat meat or fish you should be able to get a vegetable only version, although the stock will likely be fish. To avoid this order zaru soba (above), cold noodles that don’t come in broth.
Miso soup is a part of every set meal including breakfast. Sometimes it contained tofu and vegtables. Chopsticks are used to eat the ingredients and the broth is sipped direct from the bowl. We only ate ours in vegetarian restaurants where we knew they hadn’t used dashi.
Okonomiyaki is often described as a Japanese pancake or omelette. Although it usually isn’t vegetarian it can be adapted to be and in fact in many okonomiyaki restaurants you can make your own on a hotplate at your table and choose your own ingredients.
We tried Hiroshima style okonomiyaki which includes noodles in the batter along with eggs, lots of shredded cabbage and beansprouts, and is topped with a type of Worcestershire sauce and herbs. We found a tiny okonomiyaki restaurant in Hiroshima called Rie where we sat on stalls in front of the large hotplate and watched the friendly owner cook our food to order.
Unusually she spoke English so seemed to understand our request for a vegetarian version. We watched as she piled up the ingredients and realised too late that the grey stuff she added was dried fish. [Update: a reader has let us know that this is actually probably tororokonbu or grated kelp, a seaweed which would explain the fishy taste. Good to know it wasn't fish after all!]
We tried to pick it out the best we could but it did somewhat ruin the otherwise delicious dish for us. So be aware of this when ordering okonomiyaki and try to stop them adding any kind of fish.
Eggplant is grilled until soft and melty with a sweet caramelised miso topping. Nasu dengaku is delicious comfort food that we ate at Shigetsu temple restaurant in Kyoto.
Gohei mochi are a specialty of the Kiso Valley area that we were lucky enough to sample in the small, traditional village Tsumago. They are grilled rice dumplings served on a stick in a sesame and walnut sauce. Very tasty. Don’t miss them if you are in the area.
Grilled rice balls in a soy sauce glaze are served with tofu, cold greens and pickles on the side. They are quite plain but still a good vegetarian option. We ate yaki onigiri at an izakaya (Japanese pub).
Onigiri (rice balls) are found at every convenience store and supermarket and make good cheap packed lunches. The problem is the labels are in Japanese so it is difficult to see which ones are vegetarian – umeboshi (pickled plum) and gari (ginger) are the most common. I just asked a nearby stranger in pigeon Japanese “Dore umeboshi des ka?” and she pointed out the right one.
Red rice and azuki bean balls are another tasty packed lunch you can pick up from a convenience store. The packaging is clear so it’s easy to identify without reading Japanese.
Oyaki are a speciality of the Nagano prefecture and we tried them in Matsumoto. Wheat buns are filled with different vegetables – we tried pumpkin (kabocha).
Pumpkin croquettes can be found in the deli section of supermarkets and some restaurants and make a delicious, cheap vegetarian meal. We heated ours up at home and served with a salad.
This raw salad dish turned up in a few of our meals. Naigamo yam is rather unusual, and wasn’t like the dense, heavy yam that we are familiar with but instead light, crunchy, sticky and watery. The main flavour came from the salty nori seaweed and hot wasabi that it is served with.
Konnyaku is 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 found rather strange. It often features in shojin ryori (Buddhist vegetarian) meals. In the photo above konnyaku was served like sashimi with a dark miso sauce.
Who would have thought that Japan would be the first country in a very long time that we’ve eaten in a burger restaurant? I’d describe Mos Burger as a fast food chain, but the Japanese are rather proud of it and a local pointed out that the food is made to order and brought to your table unlike in McDonalds. They also sell themselves on being healthy and have one vegetarian burger on the menu.
I had heard that the carrot and burdock burger in a bun made of rice was called Gomoka Kinpura but that didn’t seem to work when I ordered so it’s best to point to the picture menu. It is surprisingly good and cheap at 300 yen (US$4) but it isn’t that filling so we were glad we had fries and onion rings with it. It’s a decent, quick meal when you can’t find anything else.
We picked up a crunchy, chilli-covered rice cake at the Nishiki market in Kyoto.
Vegetarian Tofu Dishes
There is plenty of tofu in Japan and it is much higher quality than anywhere else in the world. There are even restaurants that only serve tofu in different forms for multi-course meals. Be careful in tofu restaurants though as they aren’t usually vegetarian and even if they can make it vegetarian for you they will probably still use dashi. We tried many of these tofu dishes in Kyoto’s shojin ryori restaurants.
This chilled 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. It’s usually served with a dab of hot wasabi.
Yuba is made from the thin skin that forms on the surface of boiled soymilk – it sounds weird but is delicious, creamy and light.
This freeze-dried tofu originates from the temple-filled Mount Koya. It is reconstituted in water and becomes springy and sponge-like, absorbing the flavours it is cooked in.
A tofu and vegetable hotpot that is simmered at your table.
Firm tofu served on sticks dengaku style. It is coated with a sweet miso sauce and grilled until it caramelises and becomes golden and slightly charred.
Vinegared rice stuffed in fried tofu pouch. We didn’t eat at any sushi restaurants in Japan, as the vegetarian options are limited, but if you do find yourself in one then look out for inarizushi. We tried this at Tosuiro tofu restaurant in Kyoto.
Our Favourite Vegetarian Restaurants in Japan
In Kyoto we recommend Mikoan for a tasty, good value vegetarian meal, Shigetsu for a splurge at Tenryuji temple, Yoshuji in Kurama for a great day out, and Tosuiro tofu restaurant for a beautiful and unusual meal but only if you don’t mind dashi.
In Nara Ragamala is a good value vegetarian Indian.
In Koya-san you can get shojin ryori meals for dinner and breakfast by spending the night at any of the temples – we stayed in the cheapest temple Haryoin. We also ate the set lunch at Bon On Shya International Cafe on the main street which is vegetarian but serves international food rather than Japanese.
In Hiroshima we enjoyed a few delicious healthy meals at the Vegan Cafe in Shanti Yoga studio. We were the only tourists there and the food was a mix of international and Japanese. [Update: we have heard the cafe is now closed].
To find out how much we spent on food in Japan see our post How Much Does It Cost To Travel In Japan?
What are your vegetarian tips for Japan? Leave a reply and let us know.