Vegetarian Survival Guide to Japan

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Being a vegetarian in Japan can be a challenge, but with a bit of effort and pre-planning, it can also be a highly rewarding experience. In fact, some of the most unusual and delicious meals we’ve ever eaten were in Japan.

We absolutely love the food culture in Japan, and we’ve found that vegetarian food there is of high quality, beautifully presented, and healthy. Over the years, the situation for vegetarians in Japan has improved significantly. Nowadays, there are more vegetarian and vegan restaurants, as well as traditional Japanese restaurants that offer vegetarian options, often with English menus.

As avid travelers and vegetarians ourselves, we update this guide regularly based on our experiences during our multiple return trips to Japan. So, without further ado, here are our tips for surviving Japan as a vegetarian.

Contents

  • Tips for Vegetarians in Japan
  • Vegetarian Japanese Food
  • Vegetarian Tofu Dishes
  • Our Favorite Vegetarian Restaurants in Japan
  • Summary

Tips for Vegetarians in Japan

Learn Some Japanese

Simon translating a Japanese menu

Not many Japanese people speak English fluently, although the situation is improving. Therefore, it’s essential to learn a few key phrases to make your needs as a vegetarian understood.

While learning to read Kanji (logographic Chinese characters used in the Japanese writing system) may take time, the spoken language is relatively easier to pick up. We suggest using the Pimsleur Japanese audio course for learning basic conversational Japanese.

Instead of simply stating that you’re a vegetarian (“Watashi wa bejitarian desu”), it’s better to be clearer and say “Watashi wa niku to sakana wo tabemasen,” which means “I don’t eat meat or fish.” This phrase has proven to be very useful for us, and we’ve successfully used it in restaurants to ensure we get a vegetarian meal.

Here are a few other useful words and phrases:

  • Yasai – vegetables
  • Tamago – egg
  • Katsuobushi – bonito (fish) flakes
  • Nashi de onegai shimasu – without bonito (fish) flakes, please
  • …arimasu ka? – do you have…?
  • Nan desu ka? – what is it?
  • Oishikatta desu – that was delicious. This phrase always brings a smile to people’s faces.
  • Arigato gozaimasu – thank you
  • Sumimasen – excuse me

Print a Vegetarian or Vegan Card

On our second visit to Japan, we discovered that it was much easier to explain what we couldn’t eat by showing restaurant staff a card we’d printed from Just Hungry. This website provides options for various dietary requirements, including vegetarian and vegan.

We specifically used the vegetarian card, which stated that we couldn’t eat meat, fish, or dashi (fish stock). This card saved us from inadvertently consuming dashi on numerous occasions, as explaining this verbally can be challenging.

Buy a Japanese Data SIM Card

We highly recommend taking an unlocked phone to Japan and purchasing a data SIM card upon arrival. On our last trip, we bought a SIM card from the Umobile vending machine at Tokyo Narita airport, which provided us with internet access throughout our stay.

For future trips, we plan to use an Airalo eSIM, which can be set up in advance and doesn’t require a physical SIM card. This option has proven to be convenient and reliable, as we’ve used it in various countries.

Being connected to the internet makes it much easier to find vegetarian restaurants using Google Maps and Happy Cow. It also allows you to utilize Google Translate for assistance.

Use Google Translate

Packaging in convenience stores is usually written in Japanese, making it difficult to determine the ingredients of a snack or rice ball. However, Google Translate comes to the rescue with its image translation feature.

Simply point your phone’s camera lens at the packaging and press the camera icon in the Google Translate app. This will translate the ingredient list for you. For more accurate translations, you can take a photo of the packet and highlight the text you want to translate with your finger.

This feature also works for restaurant menus, although we’ve found that most places we visited had English menus available.

Beware Dashi

One of the main challenges for vegetarians in Japan is the ubiquitous use of fish stock or dashi in many dishes. Soups, noodles in broth, and dipping sauces in non-vegetarian restaurants often contain dashi.

While it’s still possible to find meals without meat or fish, the presence of dashi can be a deal-breaker for some vegetarians. On our first trip to Japan, we tried our best to avoid dashi, but there were times when we didn’t have many options, so we decided to be flexible about it.

However, on more recent trips, we’ve found it easier to avoid dashi altogether. The best way to do this is by eating at vegetarian restaurants. Fortunately, these are most plentiful in Kyoto, Tokyo, and Osaka, where you’ll find numerous options.

Additionally, we’ve noticed that non-vegetarian restaurants are gradually incorporating dashi-free options into their menus. However, finding these establishments requires some prior research and planning.

Plan Ahead

While it’s possible to rely on basic phrases or the vegetarian card mentioned earlier and turn up at any Japanese restaurant in the hopes of getting a meal, we’ve found that it’s much more enjoyable and stress-free to eat at vegetarian restaurants or Japanese places with vegetarian menus.

We recommend doing some online research on platforms like Happy Cow to plan your meals in advance. At the end of this article, you’ll find our list of favorite vegetarian restaurants in Japan, as well as our guide to vegetarian restaurants in Kyoto.

However, if you find yourself in a situation where your chosen vegetarian restaurant is closed, consider looking for Indian or Italian restaurants, as they usually offer meat-free options. Bakeries are also a good option for a quick snack. The Vie de France chain is found in many train stations and offers various vegetarian options, such as margherita pizza slices, cheese rolls, garlic bread, and pastries.

While we prefer to eat Japanese meals, having these alternative options can prevent any hunger-induced frustrations.

Visit Kyoto, Tokyo, or Osaka

If possible, prioritize visiting Kyoto, Tokyo, or Osaka when searching for vegetarian Japanese food. These cities are known as Japan’s major tourist destinations and offer a wide range of vegetarian options. Moreover, the availability of vegetarian restaurants in these cities continues to grow.

All three cities boast numerous entirely vegetarian or vegan restaurants. Our personal favorites are the healthy and affordable set lunches offered at most of these establishments. These set lunches typically include rice, miso soup, pickles, and a variety of tofu and vegetable dishes. As a vegetarian, you can explore Japanese cuisine without having to worry about deciphering Japanese menus or the presence of meat.

Kyoto is especially worth visiting due to its long-standing tradition of shojin ryori or Zen Buddhist temple cuisine, which is inherently vegan.

While we encourage you to explore the smaller towns in Japan, we believe that dedicating part of your trip to the cities will allow you to sample a wider array of veggie-friendly restaurants.

Eat Shojin Ryori in Temples

Shojin Ryori lunch at Shigetsu, Tenryuji Temple, Kyoto

Shojin ryori, also known as Zen Buddhist temple cuisine, offers a beacon of hope for vegetarians in Japan. The monks have made it possible to enjoy delicious, healthy, and creative Japanese meals that are entirely vegan.

These multi-dish meals are beautifully presented and use seasonal ingredients. They often feature various types of tofu, an array of vegetables, rice, pickles, miso soup, and more unusual items such as konnyaku (a jelly-like substance made from the konjac plant).

The best places to experience shojin ryori are in temples in Kyoto, such as Shigetsu in Tenryuji, and in the mountain town of Koya-san. On Koya-san, you can even spend the night in a temple and have shojin ryori for dinner and breakfast.

However, shojin ryori is not limited to temples alone. Traditional restaurants throughout Japan also offer this cuisine, including cities like Nikko, Takayama, and Kanazawa. For instance, we had a fantastic fucha ryori (a version of shojin ryori with a focus on tea) meal at Bon in Tokyo.

While some shojin ryori meals can be expensive, it’s an experience worth indulging in at least once during your visit to Japan. Lunch options tend to be more affordable than dinner.

Stay in a Ryokan

Simon wearing a yukata and enjoying our vegetarian feast in our ryokan room in Hakone

Staying in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn, presents an excellent opportunity to try homemade kaiseki, a gourmet multi-course traditional Japanese meal. These meals are usually served in your room and, in our experience, have been some of the best meals we’ve had in Japan.

While not all ryokans cater specifically to vegetarians, many are willing to accommodate dietary restrictions if you inform them in advance. It’s important to specify that you do not consume dashi. We recommend using Booking.com to find ryokans in Japan; simply select the “Ryokan” filter in the property type section.

During our stay at Hotel Musashiya, a lovely ryokan overlooking Lake Ashi in Hakone, they happily catered to our vegetarian needs and served us an incredible meal in our tatami room. Similarly, at Morizuya Ryokan in Kinosaki Onsen, a small town a few hours from Kyoto or Osaka, we enjoyed a couple of delicious meals in our room.

While staying in a ryokan can be pricey, it offers a unique experience and remains one of our favorite things to do in Japan. For more information on accommodations in Japan, we recommend checking out our comprehensive comparison.

Self-Cater

Vegetarian hoba miso at Sukuya in Takayama

During our trips to Japan, we often stay in self-catering apartments for at least a portion of the journey. Self-catering not only helps save money, but it also provides a break from the challenge of finding vegetarian-friendly restaurants.

We’ve discovered that supermarkets in Japan offer a delightful array of fresh noodles and tofu at reasonable prices. By adding some vegetables, you can easily create a quick stir-fry. Additionally, when in Tokyo, we highly recommend trying T’s Tantan instant ramen pots for a delicious and convenient meal.

The larger cities like Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka offer a wide range of options for apartment rentals. Vrbo is a great resource for finding apartments in Japan; simply search for your desired location.

Take a Cooking Class

Taking a vegetarian Japanese cooking class

Taking a vegetarian cooking class in Japan is an excellent way to delve deeper into the world of Japanese cuisine and gain a better understanding of the ingredients and what is suitable for vegetarians.

Moreover, cooking classes in Japan are incredibly fun, and you’ll have the opportunity to enjoy a delicious meal at the end of the lesson. While the specific cooking class we did in Kyoto is no longer available, we recommend the Afternoon Izakaya Cooking Class in Kyoto, which offers vegetarian options upon request. In Osaka, the private Japanese In-Home Cooking Lesson and Meal provides vegetarian and vegan alternatives upon request.

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Vegetarian Japanese Food

These are some vegetarian Japanese meals and snacks that you should keep an eye out for. However, be aware that anything that includes broth is likely to contain fish dashi unless you are dining in a vegetarian restaurant or the menu explicitly states otherwise.

Tempura

Vegetable tempura at Bon vegetarian restaurant, Tokyo

Tempura, which consists of deep-fried vegetables in batter, is the easiest vegetarian Japanese food to find. Most tempura restaurants offer a vegetable option, or you can request vegetables only. For example, at Tendon Tenya, an inexpensive tempura chain, we had tempura donburi, which is tempura served on top of rice (skip the miso soup as it contains dashi).

For a more upmarket but still reasonably priced tempura meal, we recommend Tsunahachi in Shinjuku, Tokyo. They also have branches in Kyoto and Hokkaido. Additionally, Fuji Tempura Idaten in Kawaguchiko, near Mount Fuji, offers a vegetable-only tempura option.

Tsukemono

Tsukemono, Japanese pickles

Tsukemono, also known as Japanese pickled vegetables, is an essential component of a Japanese meal and is often served as part of a set meal. These pickles provide a crunchy texture and a salty, sweet, and sour flavor, offering a contrast to the more delicately flavored dishes. In a worst-case scenario, you can always order tsukemono and rice for a simple meal.

Zaru Soba

Zaru Soba, a Japanese vegetarian food

Zaru soba refers to cold soba noodles, made from buckwheat, served on a bamboo tray with nori seaweed, spring onion, wasabi, and a soy sauce dipping sauce (skip the sauce as it typically contains dashi). This dish is particularly popular during the summer months and provides a refreshing dining experience. If you’re not concerned about the dashi, you can dip the noodles in the sauce.

Soba or Udon Noodles

Noodles in broth are ubiquitous in Japan, made from either soba (buckwheat) or udon (wheat) with various fillings. By explaining that you don’t eat meat or fish, you can usually request a vegetable-only version. However, note that the stock used is likely to be fish-based. If you want to avoid dashi, we recommend ordering zaru soba or cold soba noodles (described earlier) or looking for a cold broth-free udon option.

In Kyoto, a couple of udon restaurants specialize in vegan udon. We particularly enjoy the curry udon at Mimikou.

Ramen

Midori vegan ramen at T's Tantan

An increasing number of ramen shops in Japan now offer vegan ramen, allowing you to enjoy this classic noodle soup sans meat. T’s Tantan in Tokyo Station stands out as an entirely vegan ramen shop with a wide range of options, including instant ramen to take away.

Other ramen chains that have vegan ramen on their menus are Kyushu Jangara Ramen and Afuri. To discover more options, refer to our restaurant guides for Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka.

Miso Soup

Miso and tofu soup in Japan

Miso soup, often containing tofu and green onions, is a staple in every Japanese set meal, including breakfast. When dining in vegetarian restaurants, we readily enjoy miso soup. However, outside of vegetarian restaurants, it’s essential to confirm that dashi hasn’t been used.

Okonomiyaki

Vegetarian okonomiyaki in Hiroshima

Okonomiyaki, a savory Japanese pancake made with an egg and milk batter and shredded cabbage, can usually be adapted to be vegetarian by using vegetable fillings. However, it’s important to note that it’s not typically vegan-friendly unless consumed at a dedicated vegan restaurant.

In Tokyo, we recommend Zen in Shinjuku, where you can enjoy tomato and cheese okonomiyaki (just make sure to request it without dashi).

Japanese Curry

Japanese vegetarian curry at CoCo Ichibanya, a cheap place for vegetarian food in Tokyo

Japanese curry is incredibly popular and different from its Indian counterpart. While many Japanese curry places offer a vegetable curry, the roux used to make the curry is typically made with meat. However, Coco Ichibanya stands out as Japan’s largest curry chain, offering a separate green vegetarian menu with various vegetarian curries. This option provides a cheap and tasty meal, allowing you to customize the spiciness and ingredients according to your preferences.

It’s worth noting that the vegetarian menu is not available at all Coco Ichibanya branches; to ensure availability, refer to the reviews of your nearest branch on Google Maps.

Sushi

Vegetarian sushi with pickled vegetables at Komekichi Kozushi in Nikko, Japan

While vegetarian sushi is not as prevalent in Japan, you can still find some options. Look out for kappa-maki (seaweed rolls with cucumber) and takuan-maki (pickled daikon radish roll). Sushi rolls made with umeboshi (pickled plum), natto (fermented soybean), and egg are also available. Additionally, inarizushi features rice stuffed into a tofu pocket (just make sure it wasn’t made with dashi).

Our favorite places for vegetarian sushi include Yonekichi Akira Sushi in Nikko, Little Heaven in Kyoto, and Morizuya Ryokan in Kinosaki Onsen.

Nasu Dengaku

Nasu Dengaku

Nasu dengaku is a popular dish made by grilling eggplant until soft and melty, and then topping it with a sweet caramelized miso glaze. It’s a delicious comfort food that we highly recommend trying. We had it at Shigetsu temple restaurant in Kyoto.

Other Vegetarian Snacks from Convenience Stores

Convenience stores in Japan are a haven for snacks suitable for picnics or train rides. While not specifically vegetarian-focused, they offer a wide range of options. Inarizushi (sushi rice in a tofu pocket), edamame beans, pickled vegetables, boiled eggs, French fries, fruit, salads (check the ingredients and dressing), plain cooked noodles, rice crackers, and crisps are readily available.

Family Mart and 7-Eleven have begun labeling their salty snacks in English, making it easier to find plain crisps and avoid items containing fish or shrimp. However, it’s always a good idea to double-check the ingredients list or use Google Translate for added assurance.

While Natural Lawson, the healthier version of Lawsons, may offer more vegetarian-friendly snacks, these stores are less common than Family Mart and 7-Eleven.

Oyaki

Oyaki

Hailing from the Nagano prefecture, oyaki is a specialty we tried in Matsumoto. These wheat buns are filled with various vegetables, with pumpkin (kabocha) being a popular option.

Kabocha Korroke

Kabocha Korroke, Pumpkin Croquettes

Pumpkin croquettes can be found in the deli section of supermarkets and some restaurants, providing a delicious and affordable vegetarian meal. It’s important to exercise caution when choosing croquettes, as some varieties may contain meat.

Naigamo Yam

Naigamo yam with nori and wasabi

Naigamo yam is a unique raw salad dish that we stumbled upon in multiple meals. It has a light, crunchy, sticky, and watery texture that pairs perfectly with the salty nori seaweed and hot wasabi commonly served alongside it.

Konnyaku

Konnyaku at Yoshuji in Kurama

Konnyaku, or Devil’s Tongue, is a jelly-like substance made from the root of the konjac plant. It’s known for its unique texture and is often featured in shojin ryori meals. In our experience, konnyaku is commonly served like sashimi with a dark miso sauce.

Mos Burger

Mos Burger is a popular fast-food chain in Japan that prides itself on its made-to-order food, which is brought directly to your table. While not specifically vegetarian, they do offer a plant-based Green Burger made from vegetables and grains, topped with teriyaki sauce. You can customize your meal by adding fries and onion rings, both of which are vegan. Simply point to the picture menu when ordering at the counter.

Rice Crackers

Chilli rice cakes

Rice crackers, also known as senbei, are widely available in Japan, both at market stalls and convenience stores. While most rice crackers are vegetarian, it’s essential to ensure that you’re not purchasing a packet containing dried fish or shrimp. They make for a perfect on-the-go snack.

Other Vegetarian Japanese Snacks

Japan’s convenience stores are a treasure trove of snacks suitable for vegetarians. You can find edamame, pickled vegetables, boiled eggs, fruit, salads, plain cooked noodles, and rice crackers. Additionally, 7-Eleven, Family Mart, and Lawson now offer English labels on their salty snacks, making it easier to find plain crisps and avoid shrimp-flavored options.

Sekihan Onigiri

Sekihan Onigiri packaging

Sekihan onigiri refers to red rice and adzuki bean balls. They are simple, delicious packed lunches that can be picked up from convenience stores. The packaging is transparent, making identification without reading Japanese labels possible.

Other Convenience Store Snacks

Vegetarian snacks at 7-Eleven Japan

Convenience stores in Japan are a haven for vegetarian snacks suitable for picnics or train journeys. Options include onigiri, pickles, edamame, pineapple, plain cooked noodles, rice crackers, and crisps. Family Mart, 7-Eleven, and Lawson are the most common convenience store chains. Family Mart and 7-Eleven have English labels on their salty snacks, making it easier to identify vegetarian-friendly options. Natural Lawson may have more vegetarian-friendly snacks, but they are not as widespread as the aforementioned chains.

Vegetarian Sushi Feast

Vegetarian sushi feast in our room at Morizuya Ryokan in Kinosaki Onsen

Vegetarian sushi is not as abundant in Japan, but you can find certain options. Look out for kappa-maki (seaweed rolls with cucumber), takuan-maki (pickled daikon radish roll), sushi rolls made with umeboshi (pickled plum), natto (fermented soybean), and egg. Inarizushi, which features rice stuffed in a tofu pocket, is also an option (ensure it wasn’t made with dashi). Our favorite places for vegetarian sushi include Yonekichi Akira Sushi in Nikko, Little Heaven in Kyoto, and Morizuya Ryokan in Kinosaki Onsen.

Nasu Dengaku

Nasu dengaku is a dish that simply cannot be missed. It consists of eggplant grilled until soft and melty, topped with a delectable sweet caramelized miso glaze. We had this at Shigetsu temple restaurant in Kyoto.

Other Vegetarian Japanese Dishes

There are various other vegetarian Japanese dishes to explore, such as gohei mochi (grilled rice dumplings in sesame and walnut sauce), dango (rice dumplings brushed with miso or soy sauce), yaki onigiri (grilled rice balls in soy sauce glaze), umeboshi onigiri (rice balls with pickled plum), sekihan onigiri (red rice and adzuki bean balls), oyaki (wheat buns filled with vegetables), kabocha korroke (pumpkin croquettes), yudofu (tofu and vegetable hotpot), dengaku tofu (firm tofu glazed with sweet miso sauce), and naigamo yam (crunchy root vegetable served with nori and wasabi).

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Our Favorite Vegetarian Restaurants in Japan

Fucha ryori dish at Bon vegetarian restaurant Tokyo

Tokyo

Tokyo offers a multitude of vegetarian options. Our personal favorite is Bon, a restaurant that serves exquisite multi-course fucha ryori in beautiful tatami rooms. We also recommend trying the vegan ramen at T’s Tantan and visiting Zen, a vegetarian-friendly okonomiyaki place. For more details, refer to our guide on vegetarian restaurants in Tokyo.

Kyoto

Kyoto is a vegetarian’s paradise. We highly recommend Shigetsu at Tenryuji temple for shojin ryori (Zen Buddhist temple cuisine). Additionally, Hobodo Cafe, Veg Out, and Padma offer delicious vegetarian set lunches. Mimikou serves mouthwatering vegetarian curry udon, while Gyoza ChaoChao has a range of vegetarian gyoza options. For more options, check out our guide to vegetarian restaurants in Kyoto.

Osaka

Osaka is becoming increasingly vegetarian-friendly. It offers various vegan restaurants, including Green Earth and Rocca. Matsuri and Okonomiyaki Chitose are perfect for trying local specialties. For more recommendations, take a look at our vegetarian Osaka guide.

Koya-San

Koya-san allows you to experience shojin ryori meals during your temple stay. We also recommend the set lunch at Bon On Shya International Cafe, which serves international dishes rather than traditional Japanese cuisine.

Nikko

In Nikko, try the vegan lunch sets at Yasai Cafe Meguri. Yonekichi Akira Sushi (previously called Komekichi Kozushi) offers tasty vegetarian sushi options and stays open in the evening.

Kawaguchiko

When visiting Kawaguchiko, don’t miss the vegetable tempura set at Fuji Tempura Idaten. If you’re craving something other than Japanese cuisine, Pizzeria Onda serves excellent Italian food.

Takayama

Heinraku in Takayama is a fantastic small restaurant with a menu featuring pages of vegetarian options. Our favorite dish there is the Hida miso ramen. Sukuya offers a vegetarian version of the local specialty, hoba miso. For more information, refer to our posts on Lake Kawaguchiko and Takayama.

Kanazawa

In Kanazawa, where Japanese vegetarian meals can be harder to come by, we recommend visiting Slow Luck, a tiny place that focuses on using vegetables creatively. They serve Italian-inspired dishes, such as pesto, potato, and mascarpone pizza, as well as grilled vegetables with an incredible pesto dip.

Naoshima Island and Okayama

Naoshima Art Island is famous for its contemporary art museums and iconic yellow pumpkin sculpture. While the rural island doesn’t have many vegetarian options, Aisunao offers a fantastic lunch set that focuses on brown rice (make sure to request the miso soup without dashi). In nearby Okayama City, Milenga provides excellent, affordable Indian food.

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Summary

Although Japan presents some challenges for vegetarians, with a bit of planning, you can find an array of amazing meat-free meals. The delicious food is one of the reasons we keep returning to the country. We hope this guide helps you enjoy Japan’s culinary delights as much as we do.

For more tips on traveling in Japan, check out our comprehensive post on planning a trip to Japan.

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