A Quick Guide To Eating Vegetarian And Vegan Food In Japan

Worried you won't be able to eat much when visiting Japan? Fret not and read on
The Kanazawa Omicho Market
The Kanazawa Omicho MarketWikimedia Commons: dconvertini

As a vegetarian who has wanted to visit the Land of the Rising Sun for a long, long time, I 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 mostly an abstract concept for them—I have always been a little premeditated in my judgement.

Research and conversations with friends have made me realise that with the right vocabulary, enough planning and knowledge, there's a lot to eat and enjoy in Japan whether you are vegetarian or vegan. 

A vegetarian pizza in Tokyo
A vegetarian pizza in TokyoFlickr: Marico

Safe To Eat

First things first, make technology your friend in this quest. Download the HappyCow app and use it as your food bible for eating out. It lists all of the vegetarian and vegan restaurants and cafes in a city.

When you're out and about, 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 is skewered and grilled vegetables (such as shiitake yakitori), or vegetable tempura, which are batter-fried vegetables.

A shōjin ryōri meal
A shōjin ryōri mealFlickr: tokyofoodcast

Zaru soba or cold soba noodles are brothless buckwheat noodles. They are a healthy and satiating option. Of course, when in Japan there is a whole world of tofu-based dishes to order. Shōjin ryōri is the traditional dining cuisine of Buddhist monks in Kyoto and it's fully vegan.

If all else fails you can always rely on Japanese desserts to give you a swirl of matcha-flavoured ice cream.

Matcha ice cream with chocolate sauce
Matcha ice cream with chocolate sauceFlickr: Marico

Be Vigilant

Apart from the obvious suspects such as meat and fish, there are a few deceptively vegetarian-sounding ingredients you should look out for.

Dashi is fish stock and forms the base of most Japanese dishes. Even innocent soy sauce and other dipping sauces usually have a dash of dashi in it. It is also used in almost all soup and noodle dishes so you should check with the staff first when eating at a vegetarian or non-vegetarian restaurant.

Beware of dried bonito flakes (tuna fish flakes) as well. They are usually added on top of salads or other starters.

A Mos Burger salad
A Mos Burger saladFlickr: Surinna

Restaurants To Visit 

Tourist-friendly cities are slowly opening both vegetarian and vegan food options to cater to travellers with diverse diets. One of the national fast-food chains to keep an eye out for is Mos Burger, which has vegetarian burgers such as soy patty burgers, rice burgers, etc. 

In Tokyo, 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. It's menu is in English and it has outlets in Tokyo station and Ueno station.

If you're in the mood for vegetarian sushi visit Yonekichi Akira Sushi and Gonpachi Shibuya to enjoy your fill.

Noodle soup and curry with vegetables at T's Tantan
Noodle soup and curry with vegetables at T's TantanFlickr: Pete Birkinshaw

Kyoto has the most number of vegan and vegetarian restaurants in Japan. Some of the more famous ones are Mumoketeki Café, AIN SOPH. Journey and CHOICE.

Final Tips

A Japanese konbini
A Japanese konbiniFlickr: Yuya Tamai

1. Remember the following phrases or carry a printed sheet with Japanese translation.
'I am a vegetarian/vegan'

Watashi wa bejitarian/beegan desu

2. Try to go to tourist-friendly places where menus are available in English.

3. Visit 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, and tofu pockets called inari sushi, for example.

Getting There

Travellers from India can reach Japan via direct flights from major Indian cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru to multiple airports in Japan, including Tokyo, Osaka, and others. Flight durations range from seven to 10 hours. Indians need to apply for a Japanese visa prior to flying.

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