Being a vegetarian in Japan can be difficult, but with some effort and pre-planning it can also be very rewarding. We’ve had some of the most unusual and delicious meals we have ever eaten there.
We love the food culture and find vegetarian food in Japan to be high quality, beautifully presented, and healthy.
Since our first visit to Japan in 2011 the situation has much improved. There are now more vegetarian and vegan restaurants as well as traditional Japanese restaurants offering vegetarian options (with handy English menus).
I update this guide regularly (originally published in January 2012) based on our experiences on multiple return trips.
Here are our tips for surviving Japan as a vegetarian:
- Tips for Vegetarians in Japan
- Vegetarian 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 restaurants may be willing to adapt meals for you, but the biggest problem is that fish stock or dashi is used in many dishes.
Soups, noodles in broth, and dipping sauces in non-vegetarian restaurants will likely contain dashi, and you’ll need to decide whether this bothers you or not.
On our first trip to Japan 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.
On more recent trips we’ve found it easier to avoid dashi. The best way is to eat at a vegetarian restaurant—this is easiest in Kyoto, Tokyo and Osaka where there are lots of options.
We’ve also found that non-vegetarian restaurants are increasingly offering dashi-free options, but you do need to hunt these places out in advance.
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.
It’s best to do some research online on sites like Happy Cow and plan ahead where to eat. See the bottom of this post for our favourite vegetarian restaurants in Japan as well as our guide to Kyoto vegetarian restaurants.
If you get stuck, like we sometimes have when the vegetarian restaurant I researched was closed, try looking for Indian or Italian restaurants which always have meat-free options.
Bakeries are also a good place for a snack. The Vie de France chain is found in many train stations and has options like margherita pizza slices, cheese rolls, garlic bread, and pastries. We’d rather eat a Japanese meal, but when that’s not possible it has stopped us from going hungry.
Visit Kyoto, Tokyo or Osaka
Japan’s three major cities for tourists are the best places to find vegetarian Japanese food and the options are growing all the time. See our recommended restaurants in each of these cities below.
They all have lots of entirely vegetarian or vegan restaurants. We especially love the healthy and affordable set lunches that most of these places offer featuring rice, miso soup, pickles, and an array of tofu and vegetable dishes.
Vegetarian set lunches 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.
Kyoto is especially worth visiting, as Japan’s ancient capital has a long tradition of shojin ryori or Zen Buddhist temple cuisine, which is entirely vegan.
That’s not to say you should only visit the big cities. There are many amazing places to visit in Japan and you can find vegetarian options in smaller towns. It’s just nice to be able to sample the wider array of veggie-friendly restaurants in the cities for at least part of your trip.
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.
These multi-dish meals are beautifully presented and use seasonal ingredients. They usually include various types of tofu, an array of vegetables, rice, pickles, miso soup, and more unusual items such as the jelly-like konnyaku (made from the konjac plant).
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 ($47) 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. Meals are usually served in your room and they are some of the best meals we’ve had in Japan.
Not all ryokans cater for vegetarians, so check with them before you book or see if the reviews mention vegetarian meals. Make sure you specify no dashi.
We use Booking.com to find ryokans in Japan—tick the Ryokan button in Property Type in the filter list to find them.
We used them to book our stay at Hotel Musashiya, a lovely ryokan overlooking Lake Ashi in Hakone, where you can see Mount Fuji. They are happy to cater to vegetarians and served us an incredible meal in our tatami room.
We also had a couple of delicious meals in our room at Morizuya Ryokan in Kinosaki Onsen, a small town a few hours from Kyoto or Osaka where you can hop between the town’s seven onsen (hot spring baths) in a kimono.
Staying in a ryokan is pricey, but it’s a unique experience and one of our favourite things to do in Japan.
Read our comparison of different accommodation in Japan for more details.
We usually stay in an Airbnb apartment for at least part of our trips to Japan. Self catering helps save money and we get a break from worrying about where to eat.
We found the array of fresh noodles and tofu in supermarkets to be delicious and reasonably priced. Add some vegetables and you can make an easy stir-fry. We’re also a fan of T’s Tantan instant ramen pots when we’re in Tokyo for a quick meal.
The best places to stay in apartments are the bigger cities like Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka where there are plenty of options. Search on Airbnb here.
Take a Cooking Class
Taking a vegetarian cooking class in Japan is an excellent way to learn more about Japanese cuisine, make sense of the confusing ingredients, and learn what you can and can’t eat as a vegetarian. Plus they are a lot of fun and you’ll get to enjoy a delicious meal.
We loved this Kyoto cooking class with Uzuki. Emi teaches small groups of 2-3 people in her own home and offers many vegan options.
Next time I’d like to try this vegan ramen cooking class that’s listed on Airbnb Experiences and has fantastic reviews. It’s in Ibaraki which is 12 minutes from JR Osaka station or 20 minutes from JR Kyoto station by train.
Other options are this ramen and gyoza cooking class in Osaka with vegan and halal options.
Vegetarian 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 or the menu says it doesn’t use dashi.
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 Tendon Tenya, an inexpensive tempura chain. We skipped the included miso soup as it contains dashi.
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 lunch set. They also have branches in Kyoto and Hokkaido.
Fuji Tempura Idaten in Kawaguchiko (near Mount Fuji) was another good spot with a vegetable-only tempura option.
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.
Soba or Udon Noodles
Noodles in broth are found everywhere and are made from soba (buckwheat) or udon (wheat) with 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 based. 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.
In Kyoto there are a couple of udon restaurants that make vegan udon—we especially love the curry udon at Mimikou.
An increasing number of ramen shops in Japan now offer vegan ramen, so you can enjoy this classic noodle soup without meat.
The best place to try ramen is T’s Tantan, an entirely vegan ramen shop in Tokyo Station with tons of options as well as instant ramen to take away.
Ramen chains that have vegan ramen are Chabuton, Kyushu Jangara Ramen, and Afuri. Our restaurant guides to Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka list more options (see below).
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 eat miso soup in vegetarian restaurants where we know they haven’t used dashi.
Okonomiyaki is a type of Japanese savoury pancake made with a base of egg and milk batter and shredded cabbage plus other ingredients.
Although it usually isn’t vegetarian, it can be adapted to be by using vegetable fillings. It’s not usually vegan-friendly unless you try it at a vegan restaurant.
In Tokyo we love 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.
In Osaka, Okonomiyaki Chitose can do a vegetarian version (including one with noodles) if you ask.
Curry is really popular in Japan. It’s 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 a cheap and tasty meal and you can customise your level of spice and ingredients.
The vegetarian menu is not available in all their branches, but most of them seem to have it these days. The easiest way to check is to search the reviews of your nearest branch on Google Maps and see if the vegetarian menu is mentioned.
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.
Eggplant is grilled until soft and melty with a sweet caramelised miso topping. Nasu dengaku is a delicious comfort food that we ate at Shigetsu temple restaurant in Kyoto.
Gohei mochi is a speciality of the Kiso Valley area that we sampled 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 usually in Japanese, so it is difficult to see which ones are vegetarian. Family Mart and 7-Eleven now have the names in English, which makes things much easier.
Plain and umeboshi (pickled plum) are the most common vegetarian onigiri. Umeboshi packaging is usually pink and plain ones are clear. You could also use Google Translate (see above).
I have also asked a nearby stranger in pigeon Japanese “Dore umeboshi des ka?” (which one is pickled plum?) and she pointed out the right one.
Red rice and adzuki 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 picnic or 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, pickled vegetables, boiled eggs, french fries (which were not as bad as you’d think), fruit including bananas and cut pineapple, salads (but be careful of the ingredients and dressing), plain cooked noodles, and lots of rice crackers and crisps.
7-Eleven, Lawsons, and Family Mart are the most common convenience stores and you’ll find one on every block in cities. Family Mart and 7-Eleven now have English labels on their salty snacks so it’s easier to find plain crisps and avoid the many shrimpy things.
We were tempted by the tubs of spicy cucumber at 7-Eleven, but unfortunately they contain fish sauce.
In Natural Lawson, the healthier version of Lawsons, you might have more luck finding vegetarian-friendly snacks. They also stock the vegan T’s Tantan instant ramen. They aren’t as common as the other stores though.
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 was light, crunchy, sticky, and watery. The main flavour came from the salty nori seaweed and hot wasabi that it was 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 sautéed vegetables and seaweed inside two rice buns. It was surprisingly good, but it isn’t that filling so we were glad we had fries and onion rings with it. It’s a decent, quick and cheap 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 and Tosuiro Gion in Kyoto can do a vegan set if you order in advance. We tried many of these tofu dishes in 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 soy milk 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 soy milk—it sounds weird but it’s 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.
It’s easy to be vegetarian in Kyoto. We recommend Shigetsu for shojin ryori at Tenryuji temple. We love the vegetarian set lunches at Hobodo Cafe, Veg Out, and Padma.
Mimikou does delicious vegetarian curry udon and Gyoza ChaoChao has a vegetarian gyoza menu.
For more of our favourites, see our vegetarian Kyoto guide.
Osaka is very vegetarian-friendly if you plan in advance. There are an increasing number of vegan restaurants including Green Earth, Rocca, and Cafe Atl.
You can try local specialities at Self Tacoyaki Bar Iduco, Matsuri, and Okonomiyaki Chitose.
See our vegetarian Osaka guide for more delicious options.
In Koya-san you can get shojin ryori meals for dinner and breakfast by spending the night at a temple.
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.
If you are heading to Lake Kawaguchiko to see Mount Fuji, you can find a few vegetarian options.
Fuji Tempura Idaten has a vegetable tempura set (skip the miso soup) and Peace Kawaguchiko has a vegetarian hot pot and a few noodle soups. We also had a break from Japanese at the excellent Pizzeria Onda.
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.
Although Japan can be challenging as a vegetarian if you just wander into any restaurant, with some planning you can find some amazing meat-free meals. The delicious food is one of the reasons we keep returning to the country. I hope this post helps you enjoy it as much as we do.
For more Japan tips see our post on planning a trip to Japan for everything you need to know.
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