The Vegetarian’s Food Guide to Japan
For the vegetarian traveller, Japan is a veritable paradise. With a diet traditionally rooted in a diverse range of plant-based foods, vegetarian-friendly dishes and delights can be found on just about every menu across all 47 prefectures. So, with so many flavours to savour, where do you start?
What can I eat?
Before you dig into that delicious bowl of vegetarian ramen, one key thing to note with Japanese food is that many dishes are prepared with dashi; fish stock. It can sometimes be tricky to know if a fish or meat based stock has been used, so we’ve provided some help further below to help you ask if you’re ever unsure.
Not all sushi is topped with raw fish or seafood! The next time you’re in the mood for some sushi, try tamago nigiri (grilled egg), inarizushi (fried tofu filled with sweet rice), kappamaki (cucumber rolled sushi), or for the more adventurous palate, natto temaki, a hand roll filled with sticky fermented soybeans.
Kushimono, or skewered food, is a favourite all over Japan and a staple menu item for most izakaya (casual Japanese dining and drinking bar restaurants). Lotus root, mushrooms and green capsicum are, as the name suggests, served on skewers and served with a rich dipping sauce. Kushiage (deep-fried skewered ingredients) offers exactly the same thing, only fried!
*Vegans take note: kushiage may include egg.
Tempura isn’t restricted to prawns. Enjoy delicately battered pumpkin, sweet potato, green capsicum, mushroom, eggplant, okra and carrot tempura! Perfectly paired with a crisp Japanese beer which is also vegetarian-friendly!
Tofu in Japan is a big deal. A vegetarian’s best friend, tofu comes in endless delicious forms in Japan! Ask for hiyayakko (silken tofu served cold with toppings like ginger, green onions and soy sauce – without the katsuo-bushi dried bonito flakes) in the summer, yudofu (hot tofu cooked in broth) in winter, or anytime of year enjoy miso-glazed tofu or goma dofu which is actually made from sesame rather than soybeans.
Shabu Shabu—a type of Japanese hot pot—is the perfect winter meal to warm hungry vegetarians. Involving cooking tofu and mixed vegetables in a steaming broth (be sure to check a kombu (seaweed) or shiitake (mushroom) dashi is used), Shabu Shabu is a great option for vegetarians as you cook it yourself and can monitor exactly what goes into your pot.
The iconic pancake from Osaka, okonomiyaki is a type of cabbage-based (sometimes also with egg noodles) pancake cooked on a hot plate and topped with a rich savoury sauce—again, just be sure to ask for no katsuo-bushi!
*Vegans take note: Okonomiyaki usually includes egg.
The ubiquitous onigiri (usually triangular formed rice-balls) are a cheap, on-the-go option for travellers and are readily available at convenience stores and supermarkets. Often wrapped in nori (dried seaweed), they are filled with a variety of ingredients such as kombu seaweed braised in soy sauce, sauteed takana (mustard leaf) and umeboshi (pickled plum).
If you like pickles, then you’re in the right country with a huge range of tsukemono available in Japan. Colourful, sometimes tart, sometimes sweet, and always packed with umami, they’re often served with rice as part of a set meal. Some tsukemono you’re likely to come across include fukujinzuke (sweet red pickles often served with curry), shibazuke (purple pickled cucumbers and eggplant which are sour and taste of shiso),and takuan (crunchy and tart yellow daikon radish).
Where can I eat?
Although the options above are readily available nationwide, there are places/establishments in Japan that specialise and have a long tradition in exquisite vegetarian/vegan dining.
Zen Buddhist temples
Shojin ryori or Zen Buddhist temple cuisine is unlike any other vegetarian/vegan on this earth. Utilising fresh, seasonal produce to create simple, yet sophisticated courses, the monks prepare delicious, meat-free meals that are beautifully presented. The best place to experience shojin ryori is undoubtedly during an overnight stay at a Buddhist temple known as shukubo, which can be found in places like Koyasan (Wakayama), Kyoto and Nagano. Due to popular demand, shojin ryori is also offered in traditional restaurants all over Japan.
The macrobiotic diet is a natural style of eating which originated in Japan. Macrobiotic cuisine is plant and whole grain based and does not contain animal products, so it’s suitable for vegans. The idea of the diet is to bring wellness and balance to the body through the ‘yin and yang’ energy of foods. Macrobiotic restaurants can be found throughout Japan, but especially in larger cities like Tokyo.
Tips & tricks
There are a few things you can prepare before you land in Japan to ensure things go smoothly at the restaurant or store.
Learn some lines
Not all menus will come with pictures and not all restaurants will be able to communicate in English. Learning a few phrases can make ordering less intimidating and ensure you get exactly what you’re after.
I am a vegetarian.
Watashi wa bejitarian desu.
I don’t eat meat or fish.
Watashi wa niku to sakana wo tabemasen.
Print it out
For more complicated requests e.g. asking what dashi is used or detailing specific dietary requirements, consider using a translator and printing out cards. Some establishments will be happy to accommodate, but for a smooth holiday we recommend doing your research in advance to find places that do cater to vegetarians.