Being a vegetarian in Japan can be difficult, but with some effort and pre-planning it can also be very rewarding. Although we despaired at times of finding a veggie-friendly meal, 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.
In 2017 we returned to Japan and found that the situation for vegetarians has improved since 2011. There are now more vegetarian restaurants as well as traditional Japanese restaurants offering vegetarian options (with handy English menus). I have updated this guide (originally published in January 2012) based on our experiences.
Here are our tips for surviving Japan as a vegetarian:
- Tips for Vegetarians in Japan
- Vegetarian-Friendly Japanese Food
- Vegetarian Tofu Dishes
- Our Favourite Vegetarian Restaurants in Japan
Tips for Vegetarians in Japan
Learn Some Japanese
Not many Japanese people speak English (although this is improving) 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. I used the Pimsleur Japanese audio course.
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 tabemasen” which means I don’t eat meat or fish.
We found this phrase very useful and successfully used it in restaurants to get a vegetarian meal.“Tabemasen” 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
Print a Vegetarian or Vegan Card
On our second visit to Japan we found it was much easier to explain what we couldn’t eat by showing restaurant staff a card we’d printed from Just Hungry—they have options for a variety of dietary requirements. We used the vegetarian card that said we couldn’t eat meat, fish or dashi (fish stock) and it saved us from dashi a number of times (this was always the hardest thing to explain verbally).
Buy a Japanese Data SIM Card
I highly recommend taking an unlocked phone to Japan and buying a data SIM card when you arrive. We bought one from the Umobile vending machine at Tokyo Narita airport. Being connected will make it easier to find vegetarian restaurants using Google Maps and Happy Cow and it also allows you to use Google Translate.
Use Google Translate
Packaging in convenience stores is almost entirely written in Japanese so it’s difficult to know the ingredients of a snack or rice ball. We used Google Translate’s image feature to translate ingredient lists on packaging just by pointing our phone’s camera lens at it and pressing the camera icon in the app.
The instant translate view doesn’t always work, so for a more accurate translation take a photo of the packet and highlight with your finger the text you want to be translated. This works for restaurant menus too, although we found most places we visited had English menus.
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 dashi 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, it’s best to eat in only vegetarian restaurants but this will limit the destinations you can visit in Japan. In Kyoto or Tokyo this isn’t a problem, but in smaller towns it will be much more difficult.
Although you could use the recommended phrase or vegetarian card 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 or Japanese places with vegetarian menus. 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 for Indian or Italian restaurants.
See the bottom of this post for 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 Shigetsu and Yoshuji. We also learnt a lot about Japanese cuisine and ate an incredible meal by taking a vegetarian cooking class.
Eat Shojin Ryori 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.
It’s not just limited to temples though, as we saw shojin ryori offered in traditional restaurants in many places around Japan including Nikko, Takayama, and Kanazawa. We had a fantastic fucha ryori meal, which is a version of shojin ryori with a focus on tea, at Bon in Tokyo.
Although it can be expensive—our lunch at Bon was 5000 yen ($44) each—it’s worth splurging on shojin ryori at least once as it’s an experience as much as a meal. Lunch is usually much cheaper than dinner.
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. In Tsumago 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.
Booking.com also lists ryokans in Japan—just tick the Ryokan button in Property Type in the filter list. We used them to book our stay at Hotel Musashiya, a lovely ryokan overlooking Lake Ashi in Hakone, where you can see Mount Fuji. The first ryokan we booked in Hakone wouldn’t cater for vegetarians (luckily we had free cancellation), but Hotel Musashiya were happy to and served us an incredible meal in our tatami room.
You can request a vegetarian meal at ryokans but they won’t always guarantee that dashi is not used. It’s a pricey but uniquely Japanese experience that we highly 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.
You can find plenty of private rooms and apartments with kitchens on Airbnb.
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, is the easiest vegetarian Japanese food to find. Most tempura restaurants have a vegetable option or you can ask for vegetables only.
We had tempura donburi, tempura on top of rice at Tenya a cheap tempura chain where it cost 550 yen ($5). Our meal included tea and miso soup (which we skipped).
For a more upmarket but still reasonably priced tempura meal, we enjoyed Tsunahachi in Shinjuku, Tokyo where we had a vegetable only version of their 1700 yen ($15) lunch set. They also have branches in Kyoto and Hokkaido.
Tsukemono or Japanese pickled vegetables are an essential part of a Japanese meal and are 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 (buckwheat) noodles are popular in the summer served on a bamboo tray with nori seaweed, spring onion, wasabi, and a soy sauce dipping sauce that we skipped as it has dashi in it. If this doesn’t worry you then go ahead and dip the noodles in.
In Tokyo we enjoyed soba with a sesame dipping sauce and tempura at Itasoba Kaoriya in Ebisu.
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. Udon restaurants may also have a cold broth-free version.
On our second visit to Japan we were excited to discover that a few places now offer vegan ramen, so we could enjoy this classic noodle soup for ourselves. T’s Tantan is an entirely vegan ramen shop in Tokyo Station with tons of options as well as instant ramen to take away. Our upcoming guide to vegetarian restaurants in Tokyo will have more of our favourite ramen finds.
Miso soup (often with tofu and green onions) is part of every set meal including breakfast. Chopsticks are used to eat the ingredients and the broth is sipped directly 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 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 bean sprouts, 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!]
In Tokyo we loved the tomato and cheese okonomiyaki at Zen in Shinjuku. They have a vegetarian section of their English menu that explains the ingredients of the different types of okonomiyaki and we got ours without dashi by showing our vegetarian card.
Okonomiyaki is made with egg so is no good for vegans.
Curry is really popular in Japan and is quite different from the Indian version but still tasty. Many Japanese curry places will offer a vegetable curry but it’s likely the roux was made with meat.
For an entirely vegan curry head to Coco Ichibanya, Japan’s largest curry chain, and look for the separate green vegetarian menu with a range of different curries. It’s not available in all their branches (here’s a list in Japanese) but we had it in Tokyo at the Shinjuku Station West Exit branch on Memory Lane and at one near Shibuya Station. It’s a cheap and tasty meal.
Vegetarian sushi is not easy to find in Japan but it is possible. Look out for kappa-maki (seaweed rolls with cucumber) and takuan-maki (pickled daikon radish roll). You can also find sushi rolls made with umeboshi (pickled plum), natto (fermented soybean), and egg. Inarizushi is rice stuffed in a tofu pocket—just check it wasn’t made with dashi.
We had excellent sushi at Komekichi Kozushi in Nikko which has lots of vegetarian options.
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 is a speciality of the Kiso Valley area that we were lucky enough to sample in the small, traditional village Tsumago. They are delicious grilled rice dumplings served on a stick in a sesame and walnut sauce. Don’t miss them if you are in the area.
Another variation of the rice ball on a stick street food is dango, which we tried in Nikko and Takayama. The dumplings are smaller and are brushed with miso or soy sauce.
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.
Plain and umeboshi (pickled plum) are the most common vegetarian onigiri. I asked a nearby stranger in pigeon Japanese “Dore umeboshi des ka?” (which one is pickled plum?) and she pointed out the right one. Umeboshi packaging is usually pink and plain ones are clear. You could also use Google Translate (see above).
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.
Other Convenience Store Snacks
Convenience stores in Japan are amazing and perfect for stocking up on snacks for a train trip (sadly bento boxes in train stations are not going to be vegetarian). As well as onigiri, you can find inarizushi (sushi rice in a tofu pocket), edamame beans, boiled eggs, french fries (which were not as bad as you’d think), fruit including bananas and cut pineapple, salads, plain cooked noodles, and lots of rice crackers and crisps.
7-11, Lawsons, and Family Mart are the most common convenience stores and you’ll find one on every block in cities. Family Mart has English writing on their salty snacks so it’s easier to find plain crisps and avoid the many shrimpy things.
Oyaki is a speciality of the Nagano prefecture and we tried it 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.
Be careful of croquettes though—Simon bought a potato croquette from a stand and it turned out to have chunks of meat in it.
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.
Mos Burger is 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 McDonald’s. They also sell themselves on being healthy and have a number of vegetarian burgers on the menu—point to the picture menu to order.
The kinpira rice burger is made with sauteed vegetables and seaweed inside two rice buns. It was surprisingly good and cheap at 340 yen ($3), 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.
Mos Burger now also offers soy patty burgers. I don’t think any of the burgers are vegan.
Rice crackers (senbei) are available everywhere from market stalls to convenience stores. Just make sure you don’t buy a packet containing dried fish or shrimp. We picked up this crunchy, chilli-covered rice cracker 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 a vegetarian meal for you, they will probably use dashi. Sorano is a good tofu restaurant in Tokyo with vegetarian options marked on the menu. 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. It’s a local speciality in Nikko.
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 sushi rice stuffed in a fried tofu pouch. We tried this at Tosuiro tofu restaurant in Kyoto and Komekichi Kozushi sushi restaurant in Nikko. It’s also sold in convenience stores.
Our Favourite Vegetarian Restaurants in Japan
Tokyo has many options for vegetarians. Our favourite vegetarian restaurant is Bon, which serves exquisite multi-course fucha ryori in beautiful tatami rooms. We loved the vegan ramen at T’s Tantan and Ramen Ouka. Milk Land in Shinjuku does an excellent value vegetarian lunch set. Zen is a vegetarian-friendly okonomiyaki place. Read our guide to vegetarian restaurants in Tokyo for more details.
In Kyoto we recommend 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 (book in advance and request no dashi).
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 Shanti Yoga Vegan Cafe. We were the only tourists there and the food was a mix of international and Japanese.
Heinraku is a wonderful small restaurant in Takayama run by the friendliest lady and has pages of vegetarian options on the menu—I loved the Hida miso ramen. Sukuya is a good place to try a vegetarian version of the local speciality hoba miso—vegetables and tofu cooked with miso paste on a magnolia leaf.
In Kanazawa we struggled to find Japanese vegetarian meals so ended up eating Western food. Taste and Scent is mostly vegetarian and has a good value set lunch with rice and various salads. Slow Luck is a tiny place focused on using vegetables in creative ways and has a vegetarian menu. The food was Italian-inspired and utterly delicious including a pesto, potato and mascarpone pizza and grilled vegetables with an incredible pesto dip.
See our 2 week Japan itinerary for more details about what we ate in Nikko, Takayama and Kanazawa.
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If you are a travelling vegetarian don’t miss our other vegetarian survival guides.
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