Being a vegetarian in Japan was definitely not easy at times. I knew that fish featured highly on the Japanese diet but it amazed me just how much food contained meat and fish. It seemed essential for every dish to contain some form of animal (with the exception of rice which comes with most meals).
As a vegetarian for ethical reasons, it was frustrating to see this excessive diet.
The first couple of days were the hardest as I tried to get to grips with the alien food. One of the biggest struggles is that very few people speak English. So translating your dietary needs or trying to find out what was in food was hard. There were also very few western restaurants about which is often my backup when travelling. Just the occasional Italian and Fast food chain.
Japan vegetarian guide
BOOK RESTAURANTS BEFORE YOU LEAVE
It is well worth booking a few restaurants in advance of arriving or at least jotting down the name of a couple in the area of your hotel. Doing this meant we had a break from constantly searching for options and also meant that we were guaranteed to not miss out on different types of Japanese cuisine. Check out some of my recommendations below or visit Happy Cow for more options.
SUPERMARKET FOOD AND SNACKS
For a few lunches, we went to a supermarket, picked up a few snacky bits and ate them either in the park under a cherry blossom or on the train if it was a travel day. There are lots of familiar foods such as rolls, cheese, crisps, fruit and veg as well as some more usual foods, such as seaweed crisps.
GIVE YOUR HOTELS WARNING
All the hotels we stayed in where breakfast was included were able to accommodate vegetarians. Almost all of them needed advance warning so when you book make sure you let them know – it is better to email as quite often wires got crossed on the phone. If you are staying in a Ryokan that offers dinners you can also request a dinner. From our experience, the Ryokan dinners were some of the best we tried (Especially Shirouma So in Hakuba).
Monks don’t touch animal products and the vegan meals they serve, called shojin ryori, are amazing. Full of textures, colours and tastes that are like nothing I have ever had before. We stayed at a temple called Fudion, in Koya San which included a phenomenal breakfast and dinner. I can really recommend this place. There are lots of temples that serve food in Japan so you should be able to experience a shojin ryori meal even if you don’t have an opportunity to stay overnight.
In all of the stations and supermarkets you can pick up Samgak-kimbap (sushi triangles) – the pickled plum and egg ones are vegetarian.
NOODLES & OKONOMIYAKI
As both these dishes are made fresh and are available everywhere, particularly as street food, it was a great choice for veggies. Okonomiyaki is like a pancake made with flour, cabbage, eggs and vegetables covered in a sauce and mayonnaise – it usually comes with meat (although no always) so make sure you ask for it without.
FOR STRICT VEGGIES, CHECK FOR DASHI
A lot of the liquid based food (such as miso soup, noodles and ramen) that looks vegetarian actual isn’t as they use fish stock called dashi. If you are a strict veggie, make sure you check their is no dashi. You might also want to avoid bread as this sometimes contains animal lard.
“NO MEAT, NO FISH, VEGETABLE ONLY”
A lot of the locals didn’t understand the word vegetarian and there is no direct translation to Japanese. The most common used phrase is “no meat, no fish” or “vegetable only” which was repeated back to us often when we were trying to explain our diet. Once we started using these phrases ourselves it became much easier. The Japanese make a cross sign using their arms to indicate no, so use this as well.
There are sweet counters everywhere and lots of the food we brought that we thought was savoury turned out to be sweet, such as potato bites that turned out to be caramelised in sugar, or a roll which was actually stuffed with sweet beans. If you have a sweet tooth you will be fine in Japan! It was too sweet for me but it is worth trying a few of the weird and wonderful foods on offer.
There are bakeries everywhere, particularly in the stations. They were great for providing breakfast and snacks in the form of croissants and cheesy rolls. Just double check before you buy anything as a lot of the bread and pastries have hidden meat or fish.
If you can find a place selling sandwiches they almost always do an egg mayo one. Always without the crusts! Starbucks proved useful for veggie sandwiches and in some of the branches offered a roasted vegetable panini. If you can stomach it there is also strawberry and cream sandwiches widely available.
If you get really stuck, and we did a couple of times, try and find an Indian. They were our saviours. We also got really desperate in one of the theme parks after only finding french fries as an option. We went to a burger bar, ordered a burger that came with an egg, cheese and salad and asked for it without the meat. The people serving looked shocked but it actually turned out to be a very nice egg sarnie.
Recommended vegetarian restaurants in Japan
TOKYO: Tamana Shokudo
An amazing little place that serves a variety of Japanese vegan meals. It is very central, near to Omote-Sando Station, with lots of sightseeing sights within walking distance. I had the best tofu I have ever had here. The meal was delicious.
Served in the temple, this restaurant serves shojin ryori set meals which are all vegan. The food is really bizzare but it was an amazing experience and I ate everything. It is a little pricey but we are in off a traditional floor table. It had a relaxing view of the garden so I would say it was worth it.
KOYA SAN: Bon On Shya International Cafe
A cute little cafe and gallery, run by a Japanease/French couple which serves a set vegetarian meal for a very reasonable price.