Non-Running Travel Recap: Adventures of a Vegetarian in Japan!

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Sooo I’m still not allowed to run after my bulging disc diagnosis.  But I’m trying to have fun anyway.  The latest: a trip to Japan!  My husband had wanted to see Tokyo and Kyoto for years, and before traveling to anywhere new that I wanted to go (like the TMB, planned for September!), we decided to check this one off his bucket list.  I was interested in experiencing Japan but I had one major concern: the food.  My husband eats most meats and fish, but as my readers know, I am a vegetarian.  The Japanese diet is very meat heavy, and especially seafood heavy, with fish broth — dashi — showing up in what feels like every. single. dish.  Plus, the concept of a vegetarian, I’d learned when doing my research, doesn’t exist in Japan.  Buddhists are sometimes vegan, but the ovo-lacto vegetarianism that is common in the U.S. doesn’t seem to have taken hold in Japan.   To cater to the small number of vegetarians that do exist in Japan, both Tokyo and Kyoto have some fully vegetarian and vegan outlets.  However, because my husband eats meat, that wasn’t going to be an option for every meal.  And I wanted to eat Japanese food, not just vegetarian food.  So I developed three food goals for the trip:

(1) Experience Japanese culture

(2) Eat food that tastes good

(3) Eat food that is nourishing.

In other words, I didn’t want to fill up on plain white rice or French pastries (which are everywhere in Japan!) or Japanese desserts (also everywhere!).  So here’s what I learned and ate on our trip, including my favorite picks for best vegetarian foods in Japan.

General Tips for Eating Vegetarian Food in Japan

Tip 1: Print a card explaining your restrictions in Japanese. 

This was totally genius and absolutely necessary.  Get yours here!

I made sure to print a card that clarified that I do not eat meat or seafood.  Even in the U.S., I get asked all the time, “What about seafood?”.  No seafood!  The card also clarified that I did not eat broth or dashi, which was hugely important in Japan.

It was also important that this card clarified that I do eat eggs and dairy, as this was something I was asked multiple times.  As I said above, the idea of being ovo-lacto vegetarian is pretty foreign to Japanese.

The only question that this card left unanswered, which I had to explain a couple of times, was that cooking in the same oil or on the same surface was OK.  This came up for a tempura dish, for instance, and I explained (or attempted to explain, to the best of my ability) that I was comfortable with it being fried in the same oil as the shrimp tempura.

Tip 2: Don’t assume that a tofu or vegetable-based dish is vegetarian-friendly. 

Tofu dishes, egg dishes, miso soup, cooked vegetables — a lot of those dishes contain at least dashi, even if you don’t see it referenced on the menu.  In fact, while there are entire restaurants devoted to tofu, many of those restaurants cannot make their food vegetarian.  I also saw some Yelp reviews for a noodle spot where some of the reviewers had thought that there was as vegetarian option, and then later reviewers clarified that the “vegetarian option” was actually made with meat.  Assume nothing!

(On the other hand, I also learned that the Japanese use konjac and other plant-based ingredients to make jelly-like foods and sauces.  In the U.S., I would typically expect anything gelatinous to contain gelatin, but I had many gooey, jelly vegetarian experiences in Japan, so don’t freak out if a vegetarian restaurant serves you the same!)

Tip 3: Be diligent.

At least three times, even when I was clear about my needs using my I’m-a-vegetarian card, I was served food that contained meat or seafood.  Each of those incidents, I believe, stemmed from a mixup in the kitchen, where my server understood the request but the kitchen did not execute.  The first time this happened, I had ordered soba noodles which are served with a sauce, which I was told could be made vegetarian.  But when it arrived could taste meat in the sauce.  Luckily, soba noodles are dunked into the sauce, so I was able to eat the noodles plain.  The second and third incidents involved bonito flakes and/or little shrimps on top of my food.  The second time, I asked for a fresh dish and the third time it was easy for me to remove.  Bottom line: be on the lookout!

Tip 4: Reserve in advance and provide notice of your needs.  

Although non-vegetarians would have great fun “winging it” in Japan, I don’t recommend that approach for vegetarians.  You might end up hangry!  For several of our meals, we reserved in advance, giving them a heads up about my vegetarianism if they are not a vegetarian restaurant to begin with.  This worked well for Daigo (dinner, vegetarian), Tofuya Ukai (dinner, not vegetarian), our ryokan Hiiragiya (dinner and breakfast, not vegetarian), Shigetsu (lunch, vegetarian), and Yata (dinner, not vegetarian).  It can be easiest to work through your hotel to ensure that your needs are adequately conveyed in Japanese.

Tip 5: Omusubi and onigiri can be your best friends.

As I mentioned, my husband eats meat and wanted to fully experience Japanese food culture.  That means ramen, sushi, the whole nine yards.  While some restaurants provided good vegetarian options (see below), a few spots just couldn’t accommodate a vegetarian in a meaningful way.  Enter: Omusubi.  Omusubi, also called onigiri, is simply a rice ball!  It can be stuffed with meat, seaweed, or other vegetables and is sometimes wrapped in nori.  I had great luck finding vegetarian omusubi at a meat-only ramen restaurant in Ryogoku (Marutama), at the Tokyo Tsukiji Fish Market, at convenience stores, and in the airport lounge.  I just used my I’m-a-vegetarian card to ask which options were OK for me.

Tip 6: When in doubt, go with what you know. 

I have no shame in admitting that I had three Egg McMuffins from McDonald’s while in Japan.  Breakfast doesn’t seem like a big meal in Japan, and I really wanted some protein rather than the ubiquitous pastries.  McDonald’s was the perfect solution.  I just used my I’m-a-vegetarian card to explain that I didn’t want ham — pretty easy.   A few other days, our hotel provided an American-style breakfast, and that worked for me too.  For me, getting a good, nourishing breakfast was more important than staying with 100% authentic Japanese.

Vegetarian Food and Restaurant Suggestions in Japan

Sushi:  We didn’t see any sushi restaurants offering vegetarian options, such as avocado rolls, mushroom rolls, sweet potato tempura rolls, etc. that we see in the U.S.  For this reason,  I let my husband get sushi without me in Tsujiki Market, while I explored elsewhere.  (Because he was a party of one, he moved very quickly through the long line, which was great!). I’ll note however, that tamago — Japanese omelette — is often vegetarian but sometimes can be made with dashi.  If you need a little protein boost, you can find plain tamago or tamago-on-a-stick at Tsujiki Fish Market in Tokyo or Nishiki Market in Kyoto.  You may also be able to find vegetarian inari sushi, which is fried tofu stuffed with rice.  In either case, use the I’m-a-vegetarian card to confirm no dashi was used.

 

Shojin Ryori:  Shojin ryori is the term used to describe vegetarian zen Buddhist cuisine.  Shojin ryori is an obvious choice for vegetarians but some words of warning:  this is interesting food that provides a cultural experience but much of it is simple and honestly probably won’t taste as good or as flavorful as vegetarian food you’ll find in the U.S.  Our first experience with shogun ryori was at Daigo, a Michelin-starred vegetarian restaurant in Tokyo.  Our second experience was at Shigetsu, a restaurant within the Tenruji Temple near the Arashiyama bamboo forest in Kyoto. These were both pricey experiences (especially Daigo, which clocked in at 45000 yen (nearly $450) for 14 courses the two of us and a small bottle of sake for my husband).  Daigo had amazing, very formal service for over 14 courses.   As one often finds with 14-course menus, the food was variable.  Our favorite was the Japanese onion ring (our name, not theirs), and I also loved the silken tofu with ginger and soy sauce.  I also liked the flavor of the soba noodles with egg white and mustard — it was gooey but that’s a texture you get used to in Japan. Shigetsu was more casual, and most of our seven or so dishes were brought at one time.  Our favorite item at Shigetsu was the miso-glazed simmered eggplant.  (We had simmered eggplant at nearly all of our nicer meals and somehow they make it taste really good!). Our meals at both of these restaurants, and our kaiseki meal discussed below, ended with delicious melon.

Kaiseki:  Kaiseki is a term that refers to a traditional, multi-course Japanese meal.   Kaiseki meals can be found at restaurants but they are also one of the highlights of a stay at a ryokan, or traditional inn.  We chose to stay one night at Hiirigiya, a very nice ryokan in Kyoto that came recommended to us.  There, the kaiseki is served in your room (which is covered in tatami mats!) as you wear the traditional yukata robe (if you want — it is optional, but you should go for it because it is super comfortable!).  This ryokan had amazing service, and the owner of the inn even came in during our meal to tell us about the history of the place and that our room was the favorite of a Nobel laureate who used to frequent the inn.  Our room also included a traditional hot onsen bathtub and amazing garden views.  Traditional kaiseki courses include “shiizakana” (appetizers served with Japanese sake), “mukouzuke” (sashimi – slices of raw fish), “kuchitori” (a small side dish), “suimono” (a soup), “nimono” (simmered vegetables), “aemono” (food dressed with sauce), “kounomono” (Japanese pickles), “hassun” (food from the mountains and the sea), “sunomono” (food marinated in vinegar), “yakimono” (grilled fish), “mushimono” (steamed food), “nabemono” (Japanese hot pot), rice, miso soup, and dessert.  Although kaiseki meals were traditionally vegetarian, finding a fully vegetarian kaiseki at a ryokan can be tough.  Hiirigiya was able to do mine mostly vegetarian but a few dishes were made using dashi.  I decided to make an exception for this cultural experience.  Highlights included a “sashimi” platter with yuba, avocado, and radishes; a simmered eggplant (again!); and grilled bamboo (like a panda!!!).  Hiirigiya also gave us a variety of green teas and matcha, available whenever we wanted, and a huge, delicious breakfast spread (husband had the Japanese spread and I had the American spread because it was vegetarian).

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“Sashimi” at Hiirigiya

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Bamboo and a millet “tater tot”

 

Ramen:  I’ve had really good vegetarian ramen.  Unfortunately, none of it was in Japan.  But we tried!  First up, we went to Afuri Ebisu, which is a chain ramen joint in Tokyo where you order using a vending machine (this is very common!).  They specialize in a chicken ramen, which my husband ordered and thought as just OK.  For the vegetarian ramen, the noodles were thin and the broth was very light, with some steamed veggies added to the mix.  It was fine, not great.  Sometimes people don’t realize that vegetarians want flavor and fat, too!  Next, we tried out Ippudo Ramen near the Nishiki Market in Kyoto.  My husband preferred this meaty ramen to Afuri, and I think my vegetarian ramen was marginally better, but still not as good as what I’ve had in the U.S. as places like Daikaya (DC) and Mofofuku.  Finally, on our way out, we grabbed Soranoiro Nippon from Tokyo Ramen Street in the Tokyo train station.  This was a more flavorful soup with noodles that were orange from added paprika, but it didn’t look or taste anything like ramen.  This place also had meat options but it wasn’t my husband’s favorite ramen spot.

Soba and Udon:  Soba and udon are two types of Japanese noodles, usually dipped in a broth-based sauce (vs. ramen which is served with all the noodles in the soup).  Soba noodles are made with buckwheat and are similar to spaghetti while udon noodles are wheat-based and are round and wide.  I had a hard time finding vegetarian soba dipping sauce (see above!) but I found some great vegetarian udon noodles in Kyoto at ***Omen Shijo Pontocho***.  Omen also had meat-based udon options for my husband, so it was a perfect find.

Omusubi and Onigiri:  See discussion above.

Tofu: Is there anything better than cold yuba (tofu skin) with a yummy soy sauce on top?  I think not.  Luckily I got to eat that about 5 times in Japan.  As noted above, although tofu is ubiquitous in Japan, vegetarian tofu is NOT.  Many tofu dishes are prepared with dashi or other meat ingredients.  Tofuya Ukai in Tokyo was able to prepare me a vegetarian meal (with advance notice) while my husband had their regular menu (which he might have regretted when he was served rice topped with whitebait fish).  I loved the tofu skin, deep fried tofu with miso (YUM!), simmered eggplant, and tofu in seasoned soymilk.  (My husband didn’t love the warm soymilk in the latter option but I thought it was interesting.) Two other tofu restaurants we heard great things about but were not able to try was Tosuiro in Kyoto, which can accommodate a vegetarian with at least a day’s notice, and Sorano in Tokyo’s Shibuya neighborhood.

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Tempura:  Tempura is one of the easiest Japanese foods for a vegetarian, if you don’t mind eating a lot of fried food.  Just go to a tempura restaurant, show your trusty card, and feast away on fried onion, lotus root, kabocha squash, and other treats.  Note that some tempura dipping sauces are made with dashi.  In Kyoto, we noticed that our tempura dishes were served with salt on the side rather than a tempura sauce.  Surprisingly, many tempura restaurants are quite expensive, so be prepared.

Dessert: Japan has a lot of desserts.  There are entire floors of department stores housing food stalls serving various mochi and gummy and jelly desserts and red bean-filled desserts and waffles in the shape of fish stuffed with custard.  And MATCHA EVERYTHING.  Oh, and there are fluffy pancakes and soft-serve ice cream on every corner.  It was refreshing to find that many of these desserts were not overly sweet.  I’d recommend checking out the food floors at Tokyu Food Show in Shibuya train station, Takeshemaya, and other department stores for dessert options.  I also had some really yummy soft serve and cheesecake tart from Bake Cheese Tart in Kyoto, and delicious soymilk donuts from a soy foods stall in Nishiki Market, also in Kyoto.  But by far my favorite discovery was MELONPAN!!!   This is a sweet bread that looks but does not taste like melon.  We got ours from ***Kyuei*** near Tsukishima Station in Tokyo, where it was fresh and warm and amazing.  But you can find it at many bakeries across Japan.

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Hidden Gem **Yata**:  Our hotel recommended Yata as a general, a la carte Japanese restaurant.  The concierge at first wasn’t sure whether Yata would have options for me, but he called the restaurant and they said they could handle it.  When we arrived, our server (not sure if he was also the owner or the manager but he was AMAZING) helped walk me through my options.  At Yata, I was served tempura with salt, a small salad-like amuse bouche, and two Kyoto specialties: yuba (that yummy tofu skin!) and wheat gluten with rice and millet.  The wheat gluten was fried (I think) and then brought to my table with a little grill.  The server showed me how to grill the gluten to give it a little color.  It was like a chewy savory French toast — so good!  This was a less formal, more modern, and totally enjoyable dining experience.

A few other places I tried or found during my research:

  • Mumokuteki —  this shop and eatery in Kyoto had a few vegetarian options and many options that were vegetarian except for the use of dashi.  Opting for a fully vegetarian meal, I got lokomoko — a Hawaiian dish — that was good but not particularly Japanese.
  • Muji Cafe — this cafe in Tokyo (inside a Muji store) has several vegetarian options, but we just got soft serve and melonpan.
  • Coco Ichibanya — this is a curry chain that reportedly has vegetarian options.  I saw several outlets but we did not try it.
  • Mos Burger — similar to above, this is a chain restaurant that we saw frequently but did not try.
  • Zen in Shinjuku — this place reportedly has vegetarian okonomiyaki (vegetable pancake) but we didn’t have time to try it.

 

Have you been to Japan?  What vegetarian delights did I miss?  Happy to answer any questions for folks who might be headed there!  

 

 

 

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