As a vegetarian who has always wanted to visit the Land of the Rising Sun (at least for most of my adult life), I have held back from planning a trip thanks to my palate. When I think of Japan, I think of fish, a side of meat and then some more fish. While my reservations have not been uncalled for (Japan's diet is primarily based on seafood, and vegetarianism is an abstract, if at all present, concept there), I have always been a little premeditated in my judgement. Research and conversations with friends have led me to understand that with the right vocabulary, enough planning and knowledge, there's a lot to eat and enjoy in Japan--whether you are a vegetarian or a vegan.
Here's to vegetarian sushi!
The language may not be your friend in Japan, but technology still can be. Download the Happy Cow app to keep you going on your mission to find vegetarian food. This would act as your food bible for eating out as it lists out all the vegetarian (and vegan) restaurants in a city.
Safe To Order
You can safely order edamame with salt as a snack at a restaurant or any eggplant-based starters, which are abundantly available. Look for vegetable yakitori, which are skewered and grilled vegetables (such as shiitake yakitori) or vegetable tempura, which are batter-fried vegetables.
Zaru soba or soba noodles, which is a dish of broth-less buckwheat noodles, are also a good, filling option to order, and of course, when in Japan, there is a whole world of tofu-based dishes to order. Shokin ryori are completely vegan-based Buddhist meals that are popular in Kyoto.
And if all else fails, you can always rely on the Japanese sweet tooth to give you a swirl of matcha-flavoured ice cream and plenty of desserts to order
Stay Away From
Apart from the obvious suspects such as meat and fish, there are a few deceptively vegetarian-looking ingredients you should look out for. Dashi, which is a fish stock, is the base of most dishes prepared by restaurants in Japan. Even the innocent soy sauce or other dipping sauces usually have a dash of dashi in it. It is also used in almost all soup and noodle dishes, and you would have to specify this at a non-vegetarian restaurant or especially look out for all vegetarian restaurants.
You should also beware of dried bonito flakes (tuna fish flakes) as well. These usually end up being on top of salads or other starters
Restaurants To Visit
Tourist-friendly cities are equipped with more restaurants serving both vegetarian and vegan food options. One of the national fast-food chains to keep an eye out for is Mos Burger, which has both vegetarian burgers such as soy patty burgers, rice burgers, etc.
In Tokyo, for example, vegetarians shouldn’t miss out on T’s TanTan, a rare vegan restaurant that has several options for delicious vegan ramen (pick the golden sesame ramen), dumplings and more—with a menu in English! It has outlets in Tokyo station and Ueno station. Another chain to get a light snack for vegetarians is Trueberry, which is a health juice bar and smoothies, with veggie snacks such as vegan taco rice, vege rolls, etc.
Kyoto has the most number of vegan and vegetarian restaurants in Japan. Some of the more famous ones are Mumoketeki Café, Vegans Café and Restaurant and Choice, among several others.
Looking for vegetarian sushi? Visit Komekichi Kozushi in Nikko and Gonpachi Shibuya in Shibuya to enjoy your fill.
1. Remember the following phrases or carry a printed sheet with Japanese translation for the following:
I am a vegetarian/ vegan: Watashi wa bejitarian/beegan desu
2. Try and go to tourist-friendly places where there are menus available in English (the fewer lost-in-translation scenarios, the better)
3. Visiting non-Asian cuisine restaurants such as Italian, Lebanese and Indian restaurants as they will have more vegetarian options for you
4. Visit convenience stores called konbinis and stock up on up ready-to-eat snacks. You can pick up vegetarian rice crackers, rice balls called onigiri with vegetarian fillings, as well as tofu pockets called inari sushi, for example