Tips For Vegetarians & Vegans Visiting Japan

My Experience:

Japan has been one of the most difficult countries to find vegetarian and vegan-friendly food that I’ve ever visited!

I’m pescatarian (so I eat fish) and I still struggled to find suitable options. This really surprised me, especially that a modern mega-city like Tokyo seemed to have less vegetarian options than most small towns in Ireland! 

Many vegetarian foods are commonly eaten in Japan, like: tofu, tempeh and pulses. The problem is that these foods are usually mixed into dishes which also contain meat. Although this can be frustrating for a vegetarian or vegan, with my Dietitian hat on I do quite like that these foods are on a level playing field. So rather than the ‘all or nothing’ approach that many people in the West have, it isn’t seen as a choice between meat or vegetarian food, both can be mixed together.

Meat is very popular in Japan, especially pork and beef, which were basically used like a condiment.

For example, there was often no mention of meat on a menu, but then the dish would arrive with meat in it, and this seemed quite normal. It was like it went without saying that all meals contain meat, so it doesn’t even need to be mentioned.

When we did find vegetarian-friendly restaurants these often had a faddy undertone, being branded as ‘clean eating’, ‘paleo’ or ‘macrobiotic’. I usually try to avoid these type of places out of principle, but I didn’t really have that option in Japan. And to be fair, the food was often really nice, with better portions of vegetables and salad compared to other restaurants we visited.

We found that vegan restaurants were more common than vegetarian restaurants, and there wasn’t much of an awareness about the different types of vegetarians. Many people were confused by the concept of a vegetarian who eats dairy and eggs; which I can understand if you think about the reasons for being vegetarian from an animal rights point of view. On the other hand, vegetarian seemed to be a very flexible concept to others who assumed that small amounts of meat or pork broth aren’t important.

The History Of Vegetarianism in Japan:

Japan was traditionally a mainly vegetarian country, although small amounts of seafood were eaten. This was related to the Shinto and Zen Buddhist religions, social taboo, the belief in reincarnation and farming practices.

At various stages in the past, killing animals for eating was actually banned in Japan.

The first cow was officially slaughtered in Japan in the 1850s, at the time when Japan opened its borders to trade with the West. Then in 1872 eating meat began to rise in popularity when the Emperor began to eat meat, and the Japanese Government also promoted its nutritional benefits and its role in encouraging the Westernisation of Japan at that time.

There does seem to be a trend back towards vegetarianism (see here for more information about this), but this much more gradual than the current situation in the west.

For more information about the history of vegetarianism in Japan see here and here.

Tips For Eating Out:

  • We very rarely managed to stumble upon a vegetarian restaurant, so I would definitely recommend doing your research before you leave the house (if like me hunger affects your concentration, this should also be done before you get too hungry so that you can make decisions about where to go!).
  • For finding vegetarian and vegan friendly restaurants use apps and websites such as: HappyCow, TripAdvisor and Google Maps (e.g. search for “vegetarian food near me”).
  • If booking a meal or a stay in a Ryokan (a Japanese Inn) which provides food, it is best to tell them about your dietary preferences in advance.
  • Translation apps such as Google Translate and WayGo are really useful for deciphering menus and food labels (you only get 10 free translations per day with Waygo though). There is an excellent feature on Google Translate which allows you to use the camera on your phone to scan text while translating it at the same time, it’s like magic!
  • Useful phrases include:
    • Watashi wa bejitarian des – I am vegetarian
    • Watashi wa niku o tabemasen – I don’t eat meat
    • Watashi wa …. o tabemasen – I don’t eat….
    • Nan des ka? – What is it?
    • Niku – meat
    • Chikin – chicken
    • Sakana – fish
    • Nyuseihin – dairy
    • Yasai – vegetables
    • Tamago – egg
    • Katsuobushi – bonito (fish) flakes
  • You could also carry a card which explains you are vegetarian, or one with pictures of what you do and don’t eat. You can download cards like this to print from this site. This would also be a good idea for anybody who has a food allergy or intolerance. 
  • For noodle dishes like ramen, try to find dishes with miso based broths (as these are usually pork or fish based otherwise).
  • Macrobiotic or ‘macrobi’ restaurants can be a bit faddy, but these usually have good vegetarian and vegan options as meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy are discouraged on this diet. You can check out this post and video for more information about the Zen Macrobiotic diet.
  • Shojin ryori is a traditional type of vegan meal which is associated with Buddhist monks in Japan. This is often served at temples, especially in and around Kyoto.
  • Restaurants which specialize in soya based foods have lots of vegan and vegetarian friendly options including: soya meat, tofu, tempeh, yuba (tofu skin), edamame beans etc.
  • Tempura vegetables with rice or noodles is a handy vegetarian option.
  • If you are stuck, look for an Indian, Italian and Middle Eastern restaurant, as these reliably had vegetarian options available.
  • If you are willing to be flexible by accepting there may be traces of meat, or by picking around the meat it can make life easier. But of course this decision will vary between people. 
  • Making meals yourself is probably the safest way to make sure you aren’t eating any meat.

Vegetarian Options in Convenience Shops:

  • Staple foods can be found in convenience shops such as Family Mart, Lawsons and 7 Eleven. Options include: rice, noodles, bread (usually only white bread), cereal, milk, soy milk, cheese, yogurt, eggs, edamame beans, miso soup and a limited range of fruit and vegetables (usually bananas and sometimes cherry tomatoes, apples, chopped or tinned pineapple, frozen fruit and vegetables)
  • We found a ready made vegetarian soba meal in Family Mart (see the picture above)
  • Vegetarian sushi options include: Inari-zushi (sushi rice wrapped in sweet deep fried tofu skin), cucumber and pickled plum (umeboshisushi, you can also get pickled plum onigiri (rice ball)
  • If you eat eggs: egg sandwiches, egg sushi
  • If you eat cheese: pizza wraps and cheese wraps
  • If you eat fish: sushi and different types of onigiri, like grilled salmon and tuna mayo 

Vegetarian Restaurants I Visited:

Chain restaurants:

  • CoCo Ichibanya – a good range of vegetarian katsu curry is available here
  • Mos Burger – a soya based veggie burger is available here

Tokyo:

  • Ain Soph in Shinjuku – a macrobiotic type restaurant which serves lovely set meals and amazing desserts like vegan cheesecake and pancakes
  • T’s TanTan – tasty vegan ramen
  • Tendon in Tenya – soba and tempura
  • Kamukuru in Shinjuku – vegan ramen
  • Afuri in Harajuku – vegan ramen which looked lovely but was a bit bland
  • Hemp Cafe Tokyo – tasty vegan options

Osaka:

  • Base Island Kitchen – delicious vegan tapas
  • Mizuno Okonomiyaki – vegetarian okonomiyaki(a grilled savoury pancake) available here 
  • Gyozaoh – vegetarian gyoza (fried savoury dumpling)
  • Shugetsu Shogetsu – vegetarian ramen
  • Dotonbori Kamakura – vegetarian ramen
  • Craft Burger Co. – have a tasty tofu burger on the menu
  • Protein Lab Osaka – lots of annoying faddy nutrition messages on the wall, but made nice bowls of rice with soya meat, salad and seasoning

Fukuoka:

  • Rota Cafe – a macrobiotic cafe, makes nice vegetarian burger and set meals
  • Flygdu Mér – Middle Eastern food
  • Ume No Hana – soya based restaurant
  • Tomato based ramen in the Ramen Stadium

Others:

  • In Onna (Okinawa): Tsubaki – an izakaya which has some vegan and vegetarian soya based foods as well as salads and a savoury pancake
  • In Hiroshima: Art Elk Cafe – a macrobiotic cafe, serve lovely set meals which include vegetable tempura
  • In Nara: Kuppila – lovely vegan food

Vegetarian Restaurants I Didn’t Have a Chance to Visit:

  • LIMA – Shinjuku
  • Akasha tokyo
  • Slow Food and Wine KiboKo
  • Ripple (in Shin-okubo near korean town)
  • Katsu midori in Shibuya and Ikebukuro (sushi)
  • Torikizoku (yakitori – mochmochicheezu is nice and contains cheese)
  • Kushiaage (fried veggies – same fryer as meat + fish though)
  • Nagi Shokudo (vegan)
  • Kyushu in Harajuku (ramen)
  • chien fu Ropongi
  • Yasaiya Teppanyaki and Yasai Kabukicho(Griddle cuisine)  
  • ?Mr and Mrs green in Fukuoka
  • Evah dining (in a mall) in Fukuoka
  • Ims restaurant and cafe on 13F in Fukuoka

 

Although it can be challenging to find vegetarian options in Japan, it isn’t impossible. It just takes some preparation, so I hope that you found this information useful!

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If you are interesting in finding out more about food in Japan then check out:

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Read: The Zen Macrobiotic Diet
Read: Green Tea vs. Matcha
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Read: The History of Low Carb