The Vegetarian's Guide to Japan - Part 3 (Restaurants)
While we've covered convenience stores, supermarkets, and the basics for vegetarians and vegans living or traveling in Japan in previous articles, in this article we discuss perhaps the most important place to find yummy food in Japan for travelers – the restaurant of course!
Japan is known for its great range of veggies used in its traditional meals. Even Japanese dishes that include meat as a main ingredient can usually be easily altered to be vegetarian or vegan (take sushi for example – based around fish, but easily adaptable). While you may be in Japan to try the local and traditional cuisine, the most easily accessible vegetarian meals in Japan come from an unexpected place – the Indian restaurant. Many a desperate vegetarian traveler in Japan has found solace in the simple veggie curry of an Indian restaurant in Tokyo – the variety of meat-free mains and side dishes as well as the great taste means that these restaurants are the best option if you are looking for an easy veggie meal without the negotiating ('no meat, no seafood, no sausage, no dashi') and are not fussed about not eating a traditional Japanese meal. If you are in Tokyo, we suggest Nataraj, a vegetarian Indian chain restaurant with five stores in Japan (we highly recommend the mango lassi). They also occasionally have belly dance performances which you can choose to have with your dinner. If you are still reluctant to try Indian and want to persevere in finding vegetarian Japanese meals, there are still some great options for you not just in Tokyo, but around Japan.
Shojin Ryori (literally 'devotion cuisine') is Japanese traditional Buddhist cuisine involving no meat or fish. This age-old veggie cuisine is usually found in expensive ryokan (Japanese traditional inns) and is typically beautifully presented. Granted, you probably will not know what most of the things on your plate are, but they will probably taste like nothing you`ve ever tasted before, and if you ask your host, they will most certainly strive to explain the dish to you. This is a great way to experience traditional Japanese cuisine without having to worry about the 'secret meat' so often found in Japanese meals. A great place to try out some shojin ryori is Mount Koya (Koya-san) in Wakayama Prefecture if you are willing to make the journey from Tokyo. This town is made up of temples, and you can even stay at a hotel overnight. As a temple, not only can you indulge in shojin ryori, but you can also watch the morning chanting session (be aware that you will need to wake up super early, however, and chances are that the temple will be freezing! Nevertheless, it is a great experience).
Looking for something in-between traditional and easy to find? Why not try out Japan's famous fast food chain 'Moss Burger'. Yes, we're not kidding, they actually called it 'Moss Burger'. While it sounds a little worrying, we can guarantee you will find some delicious food here. Unfortunately the large majority of the burgers include meat patties (you can ask for them to remove the patty if you are not worried about the meat touching the other ingredients), but there is a particularly interesting traditional-flavoured burger – the vegetarian rice burger. That's right, the burger is not made of bread, it's made of rice! While this may sound a little off-putting, it`s actually surprisingly delicious, and the traditional flavor of the burger is guaranteed to not taste like any burger you`ve had overseas before. The only downside to this rice burger is that it is a little small, so pick up two for lunch – they only cost a few hundred yen and are delicious and filling.
For a less traditional burger, try out a tofu burger at 'Freshness Burger' (yes, another strange name, we know). While unfortunately the burger is not vegan, it is great for vegetarians. There is also a delish bean burger available at some Freshness Burgers. Recently, however, these vegetarian burgers have been difficult to find at some chains, so don`t be too disappointed if you can't find them at your local Freshness Burger.
None of these options float your boat? Why not try a sushi train? While of course sushi is known for its fish-based ingredients, there are plenty of great vegetarian and vegan options available. Instead of heading to a small local sushi train or restautant, where they will probably focus on fish-based sushi, try out a sushi chain store like Kappa-zushi, where they have more options on their menu. We recommend kappa-zushi (cucumber sushi), inari-zushi (rice enclosed in a sweet tofu pocket), and corn-mayo gunkan (corn and mayonnaise sushi) in particular.
There are also some great veggie events in Japan which are a lot of fun and have lots of delicious vegetarian and vegan cuisine on offer. Check this for some more information on Tokyo's biggest vegetarian food event.