Location: Ideas >> Vegans & Vegetarians >> Japan Vegan, Vegetarian & Macrobiotic
Login for full access to Couchsurfing Groups. Not a member yet? Join our community!

Vegetarians in Japan - what meals are typically vegetarian?
Posted September 26th, 2011 - 12:05 pm by from Berlin, Germany (Permalink)
Hey everyone, we'll be traveling to Japan next year and are already very worried that we'll not find anything vegetarian while there. Since we're also on a very tight budget, we can't really afford to go to more expensive vegetarian restaurants. Now, I know that ramen are typically not vegetarian. But what about Udon or Soba dishes? And can you get kappa maki and maki with avocado in Japan or are these just "western adoptions"? Could you tell us which meals in Japan are typically vegetarian AND very affordable (and by vegetarian I mean no fish or sea food either)

thanks in advance!

Tavi

Posted September 26th, 2011 - 1:06 pm by from Matsuyama, Japan (Permalink)
Where and when are you travelling to, and for how long?

It is going to be a stress. Buy yourself the 'Vegan Passport' and get some 'cheatsheets' printed up. Cut back on the clothes your bring (they are cheap and good quality here) and pack whatever dried fruit and nuts, and granola bars etc you like because those are really expensive too and often hard to find.

Certainly Udon and Soba as vegan dishes are possible, Udon (mostly served hot) and Soba (mostly served cold) are vegan and just cooked in hot water. All you have to do is ask for them is in hot water without dashi ... and you can buy vegan dashi of your own to carry with you.

The restaurant owners will think you are crazy, and you will screw up their system which generally involved paying for your meal in advance and choosing a set menu item, but I manage to do so from time to time.

I've seen Avocado sushi called california sushi but I think it is rare. Rice balls (onigiri) with ume, sesame or pickled seaweed are available at most convenience stores. Soft mochis are going to be OK, savory (mugwort) or mildly sweet (sticky rice and usually red bean) and will get you through a day.

There are quite a lot of Indian restaurants, run mostly by Nepalis, and you might find cheap, safe veg curries at them. Depending on the area and type of year, you'll find many roast sweet potato sellers and sometimes corn-on-the-cob stalls.

There are a few veggie cafes you ought to consider treating yourself at, especially for the vegan sweets. In fact, very many of the common traditional sweets like warabe mochi, ichigo daifuku, mizu manju etc are all vegan especially if bought at local shops where they are made (factory ones may not be and are usually full of additives etc.

I have also found that a few likely restaurants do better 'eat as much as you like' buffet deals at lunch time and a few hotels/resorts do similar "viking lunch" meals that have enough veggie options to make them worthwhile.

There are an increasing number of backpacker hostels that allow self-catering. One of the commonest comments about veggie and macrobiotic restaurants is that the portions are all very small too. The big joke with most guys is how after they go out with the girlfriends to one, they have to go round the corner to an udon bar to fill up after.

Obviously you are able to buy fresh tofu products most places. The department store basements are usually full of food stalls but be warned, all those really attractive looking vegetable dishes are usually cooked with fish stock. Breads, unless they comes from a quality European style baker are almost all out (eggs, dairy and animal fats). Tempura veg that are not cooked in the same oil as seafood is possible, but also rare.

Sounds tough but when it is good, it is really, really good.

Posted September 26th, 2011 - 1:37 pm by from Berlin, Germany (Permalink)
Thanks a lot your your reply, Mac! :-)

Ok, well, rice balls, Udon, Soba -- seems I'll be able to get my carbs from somewhere. That's really good. I just really worry about the vegetable intake. I guess my best bet would be to find something in a department store or maybe convenient store? What vegetable or fruit food would I be able to find? (not so much a whole meal, since I'll be ok with having the stuff mentioned above and fruits and vegetables on the side)?

Posted September 26th, 2011 - 2:02 pm by from Matsuyama, Japan (Permalink)
Where are you going, how long and what time of year (approx)?

If you can let me know and what you are looking for in terms of Japan, I can give you some more ideas?

e.g. some folks come for the skiing/boarding which is 10 times more difficult than average Japan.

Posted September 26th, 2011 - 4:50 pm by from Berlin, Germany (Permalink)
We haven't done much planning yet, we'll definitely go to Toyko and Kyoto and stop somewhere near Mt. Fuji (make the five lakes place)
It'll be in March/April next year and for around 4 weeks

Posted September 26th, 2011 - 6:26 pm by from Matsuyama, Japan (Permalink)
Oh, Spring. Try and make it for o-hanami. Both Kyoto and Tokyo will look much better for it. ... and look out for stuff like tsukushi, warabe ferns and rice porage made with the "The Seven Spring Herbs".

If you are interested, WWOOF-ing is a way of saving money and seeing a bit of every day country life ... http://www.wwoofjapan.com.

It is still a great opportunity and most of the places understand vegetarianism, although some of the places don't accept folk who don't eat what the family eats ... (and don't expect all the places to be strictly organic as in other countries).

You must know to buy a cheap train pass in advance. It is a great deal and you'll save a load of money. I'd recommend flying in via Kansai Airport. It is a lot closer to the city than Tokyo airports.

Posted September 27th, 2011 - 3:49 pm by from Berlin, Germany (Permalink)
Aaah, I fear the WWOOF-ing is not really ours, we don't really want to do hours of manual work during our holidays.

I now read in a guide that soba and udon too are often cooked in nonvegetarian stock. And I was hoping this would be a safe dish.. :-(

Posted September 27th, 2011 - 7:08 pm by from Matsuyama, Japan (Permalink)
I would say 'served' in non-vegetarian stock. Not cooked. But I can check.

They have special noodle pots with many portion sized sieves just for doing so ... and I have done it myself in restaurants. It would be impossible to large portions in broth because all the flour from the noodles would spoil it quickly.

Typically, the hot udon goes in a bowl plain and is then covered with soup, and served with non-veg tempura or meat on top. Some dishes serve the udon plain, with a separate dish of dashi which you can just ignore or use your own.

Kagawa Prefecture is famous for its udon and close to us. I have never seen noodles cooked in broth there and they say there are more udon shops than traffic lights. It even made it into an international "top 50 things for any food lover to do" but I cannot really see what the fuss is all about!

http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2005/may/15/foodanddrink.shopping2

Also, it is not universally true because when you head up into the mountains, they use mainly soy bean, mushrooms to make stock instead. Again, I have checked this out with a native speaker.

Do you like the taste of Natto? You can get that everywhere.

My number one advice about coming to Japan would be a) be really focused on what you want to do, and b) find one place you really like or one thing you want to do, settle down a bit and stick to it. Travel and moving around the cities can be very tiring. Kyoto, and other cities like Kanazawa and Fukuoka, have all you might need to see old and new Japan.

Firstly, a lot of Japan is really similar thanks to the annihilation during the war and identical construction after it. All the temples and castle pretty much look the same and there are not the obvious region differences you might expect in, say, Europe.

Secondly, anywhere outside of the big cities gets dark quickly in the evenings and shut down and, outside of the big cities, you'll be surprise how little there is to do and how hard it is to find it. The Japanese hospitality industry is geared up for Japanese group bus tourism, and not independent travellers. Up early and into bed early.

Also watch out for Golden Week (end of April to beginning May) because it seems like everyone goes home and travel and hotels can become difficult.

Yes, certainly, Kyoto has enough for a lifetime of pleasure and back packer hostels. I especially recommend the Eco-House Machiya or the Okinawan run hostel opposite Funaoka Onsen (and going to the onsen!). You can cook your own food at both.

http://paulstravelpics.blogspot.com/2008/09/ultimate-kyoto-experience-renting-eco.html

Shirakawa-go village is pretty special and there is a hostel in an old temple in nearby Takayama where you can cook and stay. Shikoku Island is off the beaten track and you can get to it via ferries saving the price of an overnight hostel. Even the ferries have big public baths on them and after you can sleep it off on futon and tatami. Enough to eat on them too. Following the path less well travelled, it can take you to Beppu in Kyushu with its live volcano and famous kitsch town.

Kusatsu, in Gunma prefecture is another personal favorite of mine.

http://www.kusatsu-onsen.ne.jp/foreign/

Posted October 2nd, 2011 - 8:27 pm by from Berlin, Germany (Permalink)
thats great advice, thank you very much.
btw, do you happen to know a nice place not too far from Tokyo or Kyoto for a overnight temple stay that lets visitors join in on Zen related activities?

Posted October 2nd, 2011 - 9:14 pm by from Berlin, Germany (Permalink)
Also, I love, love, love the look of the Eco House. Do you happen to know about some similar place in Tokyo? We're hoping to find affordable accomodation for a whole week there too.

Posted October 3rd, 2011 - 3:37 am by from Matsuyama, Japan (Permalink)
It is not actually a Zen center but one of the main Shingon Buddhist centers, the esoteric Buddhist school in Japan, called Koya-san (Mount Koya). It is only a short train, funicular train and bus ride up an old volcano from Osaka or Kansai airport. If you are flying into Kansai, it would make sense to go there first or last.

It is a complex of over 100 active temples, most of which have their own temple inns where you stay, and Okunoin, a vast and ancient Buddhist graveyard where many of the legendary samurai, lords etc are buried. When you stay there you stay in a temple inn and are serve Shojin Ryori (vegetarian temple food) by the monks.

The whole experience is a taste of a traditional and archetypal Japan that hardly exists any more thanks to the 20th Century. Wooden temples and inns, moss and pebble gardens, wobbly wooden corridors with sliding doors of paper on one side and rattle glass on the other, smells of incense and sleeping on futon on tatami mats, being served a formal meal of many dishes on several small tables low to the floor. It will be a little more expensive than your average hotel but if you have one overnight slurge, then I would say this should be it.

http://bit.ly/o0y1Wr
http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/nn20090121f1.html
http://bit.ly/pazF0T

Externally, there are very few differences between a Zen temple and a Shingon temple, nor in the purposes they serve for their neighborhood. Many of the rituals are the same even if the mediation practise is not.

If you are in Kyoto, Shunkoin offers Zen classes in English.

http://www.shunkoin.com/home.html

But if you want to really go native, Zuiō-ji Temple‎ near Niihama on Shikoku where you can also stay over night and really immerse yourself. Again they welcome English speakers.

http://davidtitterington.blogspot.com/2005/08/zen-meditation-at-zuioji.html

Posted October 23rd, 2011 - 3:01 pm by from Berlin, Germany (Permalink)
thanks really great, thanks :-)

Posted January 25th, 2014 - 4:42 am by from Adelaide, Australia (Permalink)
this is great advice! can you please elaborate on the vegan passport? what is it and how do we get it?

Posted November 29th, 2011 - 4:35 am by from Worcester, United States (Permalink)
hello tavi,

i was born and raised in japan as a vegan and now live near Boston for studying. i'm happy you are visiting my beautiful country. hope you'll have a fun!!!

i just wanted to say japan has a long history and a rich variety of traditional vegan foods! (japanese people started to eat meat only after late 1860s)
when browsing lonely planet, it looks like my country is one of the most vegetarian-unfriendly country in the world, it's so untrue:/

there is vegan considerable number of vegans (mostly strict Budhists like myself) all over Japan, and we have our own restaurants, events, and markets. but sadly, it is very unlikely that they welcome foreign backpackers into their community. (even people from the neighboring villages are considered to be "outsiders") these resources hardly appears on internet.

so, my recommendation (for short-term travelers) is to avoid hostels (they are not cheap anyways, and usually w/o ketchen), and surf couches of japanese vegetarians. ask them to cook for you or teach you how to cook. even if the hosts were not vegetarians, let them translate to talk to their grandmas or other old ladies, they know everything.

as mentioned already, "dashi (soup stock)" is tricky. there are 3 major ingredients from which they extract for the soup: katsuo(bonito), kombu(kelp), and shiitake(mushroom). usually 2 of them are mixed. so ask people and always be careful of katsuo. dashi is used for almost everything: egg rolls, fries, stews, etc.

another option is to ask temples for help. they may be bewildered at first but most of the time they are willing to help. (you don't have to be budhist but always show ur respect and act with extra care not to offend them. if you don't know what to do, please ask them! they prefer to be "polite" not dare to tell you. always dress proper) but another thing is that some of the "foreigners-friendly" temples are very lapsed and greedy, these people do not understand vegetarianism.
zen and shingon are not separate thing- shingon is one of the sects of zen (another one is rinzai). but the categories are not important for us. i even go to a theravada temple here.
"shojin-ryori" is the japanese budhist cuisine (vegan, and we also don't eat garlic/onion). they are the best food in the world, guaranteed by me! hope u reach the real good ones.

sorry that my advices are not really helping you. but please understand, it generally takes long time to get close to my people. and the problem is the language. it doesn't mean people are not vegetarian-friendly.

please contact me if you need more help! i will be happy to give more recommendation, translation, or whatever help i can give you from here.

have a nice trip and enjoy!!

eri

Posted November 29th, 2011 - 10:54 pm by from Matsuyama, Japan (Permalink)
Hi Eri,

Thanks for your reply.

Do you know if Shojin Ryori is *always* vegan? I heard that some of the temple inns (shukubo) serve bonito soup stock.

BTW, what is the name of those 'mochi rice on a lollypop stick', the one that is usually made from quite a rough mochi with a miso sauce? Do you know it?

Not 'mitarashi dango' and sweet but savory? ... May be 'gyuhi mochi'? Are most of the mochi dangos vegan? I find you can pretty much survive a day as long as you can find a supply of them.

It's a great winter/spring snack you can often buy at markets.

One of the thing that saddens me is that, like the West, when a product in commericalized it is often "improved" to include dairy products, like many of the commercial sweets. I find it is often better to go to the local food sections of supermarkets or buy at small shops where things are still hand made.

Unfortunately most savory snacks have fish in them ... and watch out for the lard in bread etc. I cannot believe it!

Posted November 30th, 2011 - 7:16 am by from Worcester, United States (Permalink)
Hi Mac,

Shojin ryori is supposed to be always vegan. We call the soup stock mix of kelp and shiitake "shojin dashi" and they always use it. But I can't guarantee the lapsed temples do the same.

I guess you are talking about "gohei mochi". Flat grilled dangos with sweet walnut and miso paste? "gyuhi" means the dough of "daifuku", the sticky but smooth thing.

Mochi dangos are always vegan, even the ones sold in convenience stores. But again, I can't guarantee:/ I'm not a sweet person at all, so I never buy them by myself.

I have little idea of processed food sold in Japan since I hardly ever buy those. I love cooking and I'm also concerned about chemical food additives. But I agree with you that it's always better to buy hand-made ones.

Hope it helps!

Eri

Posted November 30th, 2011 - 7:42 am by from Worcester, United States (Permalink)
I thought of one thing.
About soup stock in shojin ryori, you shouldn't be too much worried. Shojin ryori never has strong flavors, so you can smell it if bonito soup stock was used (especially if you are a vegan/vegetarian for a while).

Posted November 30th, 2011 - 9:28 am by from Matsuyama, Japan (Permalink)
Gohei mochi it is ... I recommend it to others!

I ate it first in Shirakawa-Go village which I also recommend people visiting anytime of the year. Winter is dramatic if the Gassho houses are covered with snow but Spring, Summer (and Autumn) are also beautiful ... especially when the rice fields are green and full.

People can buy small cartons of vegan dashi, dried miso soups and sachets of concentrated miso soups or ume-shoyu-bancha etc.

I recommend stocking up on them when you travel so you can use them on plain noodle or brew up as quick refreshers by just adding hot water in hotel rooms.

ALL convenience stores and supermarket sell rice balls, many are vegan (plain, the ones with ume plums, pickled seaweed, sesame seeds etc) but not all, so be careful. You can survive for days on rice balls, mochi, miso soup etc.

Also in the countryside, and even suburbs, you will often see small farmers selling bags of mainly citrus fruit on an 'honor' basis ... they leave the fruit, you just leave the money and take it. Depending on the time of year, there is usually a lot of citrus around but not so much other fruits.

BE WARNED most ready cooked vegetable in supermarkets and department stores are cook with fish or meat stock and the assistants will not know what ingredients are in them.

I don't know what you think Eri but I would say it is 100% impossible to buy ready cooked vegetable dishes from department stores, which is a shame as they often look fantastic, e.g. the pumpkins.

It is a problem of a nouveau riche society. When new money rushes in, the first thing ordinary people seem to do is want and eat more meat.

Vegan is seen more as a peasant or poor thing rather than a rejection of the indulgence of wealth as it is in the West.

Posted February 22nd, 2012 - 1:31 pm by from Dublin, Ireland (Republic of) (Permalink)
Hi
I don't know if any of you tried www.happycow.org

when I was in Japan (Tokyo & Kyoto) in 2007 was using info from that website and survived:)

In Tokyo was some nice chain of health stores they had take out food for sale with good information on vegan/vegetarian suitability (found them on happycow)

and tried many different tofu

I'll check my notes and let know if anything useful

Tavi let know how you're doing there as I'll be in Japan in October and November and slowly preparing myself:)

Regards
Fryderyk

Posted April 14th, 2012 - 9:05 am by from Tokyo, Japan (Permalink)
Hi Everybody,

Yes, the happycow.net is very good resource but one should always call them first before leaving thier country or planning to visit places listed in happcow.net.Anyway, for specifically Tokyo I have created a list of plant food places:
www.Knowledge-Links.com/TokyoPlantFoodPlaces.pdf

Best regards,
Sasa

Posted January 27th, 2014 - 8:41 am by from Sydney, Australia (Permalink)
Do you understand what this advises, anywhere anybody is?:
http://health101.org/art_diet2.htm

Posted January 27th, 2014 - 8:52 am by from Sydney, Australia (Permalink)
Ripe spotty fresh bananas (Dole?) are very cheap.
They are in bunches in clear plastic bags?
About 100 yen for a bag weighing 800 to 900 grams?
At independent small shops, not chain stores?
http://health101.org/banana.htm