Before we went to Japan, I was a little nervous I would have trouble finding things to eat. As a long-time vegetarian (with a few key exceptions), I try my best to avoid meat and fish, and Japan is wild about seafood!
Luckily for vegetarians, Japanese meals are much more than just fish. Japanese cooks fill the plate with vegetables, beans, tofu, and other soybean products. Meat and fish are used sparingly, to flavor the dishes. So generally, there are lots of vegetable-based dishes to try.
Still, the hardest thing to avoid in Japan is dashi, fish broth. Dashi is used to add a rich flavor to many cooked foods, including dishes that would otherwise appear meatless like vegetables and noodles. Here’s where breaking the language barrier can help. I would recommend taking a card printed in Japanese that explains exactly what you can and cannot eat, examples can be found here.
Beyond learning to clearly communicate your restrictions, here are some other tips for finding vegetarian food in Japan:
Do your research in advance. Look for vegetarian restaurants, or, if you want to be safe, vegan restaurants — or choose the “vegan” option if there is one on the menu. We went to one “organic and fresh vegetable” restaurant and they had several different lunch options. I chose the “vegetables” box, rather than the “vegan” option. The vegetable plate was made up of mostly vegetable side dishes, but it included one course that had pork in it! As it turns out, the meal was intended for vegetable-lovers, not vegetarians…
All vegetarian except for one pesky piece of pork (top box, lower left corner).
Eat like a monk. Look for Buddhist temples that serve traditional vegetarian meals called “Shojin-ryori”, this is the traditional food that Zen buddhist monks eat. At a shojin-ryori temple meal, you eat just as monks do, kneeling on the floor on tatami mats (this is a unique cultural experience I’d recomend to non-vegetarians, too). We went to Shigetsu Restaurant at Tenryuji temple in Kyoto — the temple grounds and gardens are absolutely gorgeous! Be sure to walk through the Arashiyama bamboo forest that you can enter from right behind the temple.
Stock up on snacks. Lots of sushi stands and convenience stores will offer a selection of maki rolls: avocado and daikon radish rolls, and inari–rice stuffed into sweet soy pockets. Don’t be turned off by the convience store environment. Japan has impeccable food safety codes and all of it is made fresh and is safe to eat.
Go wild with side dishes and condiments. Some that you’ll find include vegetable tempura, kimchi, edemame, and pickled vegetables (called tsukemono). This was a selection we ordered at an izakaya (Japanese tapas bar).
Visit markets. This goes for wherever you travel around the world! Never pass up the opportunity to visit open air or enclosed, local food markets. Japanese markets are filled with fish and meats, but vendors also sell all manner of fresh and preserved fruits, vegetables, prepared foods, and sweets. Check out the many tsukemono (pickle) vendors to try lots of different preserved vegetables. We shared a story and photos from Sendai market in this post: Drinking Tea With a Ninja and Samurai.
Nishiki Market in Kyoto, Japan
Opt for the breakfast buffet. Consider staying at a hotel that offers a traditional Japanese breakfast buffet (they usually have some Western options too, like scrambled eggs and fresh fruit), then you can select from among a wide range of food items you feel comfortable with. I filled up each morning on the breakfast buffet in case it was difficult to find food for me later on. Kevin went easy on the breakfast because he knew it would be easier for him to find things to eat.
Try a Japanese Italian restaurant. Japanese eaters love Italian cuisine and they’ve adapted it to add some Japanese flavors (seafood preparations, Japanese seasonings, etc.) We ate at one in Kyoto with a wood fired oven and I had one of the best pizzas ever.
A three cheese pizza drizzled with local honey.
Spoil your appetite with Japanese sweets! Wagashi is the word for traditional Japanese confections. Each area of the country has their own specialty. Do try them all! 🙂 One of my favorites was yatsuhashi, triangle shaped sweets found in souvenir shops and train stations in the Kyoto area. Many times they will be flavored with local specialties like the edemame-flavored sweets and ice cream we tried in the soybean producing Miyagi region. There are also lots of interesting flavors of ice cream in Japan like black sesame, buckwheat, and bean powder.
Be flexible. I tried my best to avoid fish and fish stock, but I had a few stumbles and I’m sure I ate a few things that had dashi in it. I consider it par for the course when traveling, and the tradeoff I make to eat traditional foods. It is certainly easy to avoid fish stock completely if you only eat at vegan and international restaurants (something to consider if you avoid seafood for religious reasons or have a seafood allergy!) But otherwise, do your best and don’t beat yourself up if you slip up.
Are you a vegetarian? What are some tips you have for finding vegetarian food– in Japan, or elsewhere?