Vegetarian and Vegan Food in Japan
At a first glance, it looks difficult to find vegetarian- and vegan-friendly restaurants in Japan. Many restaurants are specialized in one kind of food like ramen, tempura, Japanese curry, or tonkatsu, and most of those specialized restaurants serve dishes containing meat or fish-based staples, sauces, or soups.
It is indeed true that if you came to Japan around 10 years ago and didn’t know where to look, it was very difficult to eat varied foods on your Japan trip. The good news is that that is changing, and especially in the larger cities, there is a plethora of delicious vegetarian and vegan Japanese and non-Japanese food to try!
History of Vegetarianism and Veganism in Japan
From what we can tell about historical texts that were written in China about Japan, over 2000 years ago there were no cows, horses, goats, or other often-eaten animals on the Japanese islands at all, and the indigenous population ate mainly vegetables, rice, and fish. Meat and dairy were just not a part of the inhabitants’ staple foods. What also helped people eat a largely vegetarian diet was the ban on animal-based offerings to Shinto gods that were widely worshiped. Then Buddhism came to Japan from China and Korea around the 6th century, and hunting and even fishing became a no-go.
So between the 6th century and the mid-19th century, the people in Japan ate a mainly vegan diet. Fish was eaten occasionally, but only when there was something to celebrate. It was also during this time that Shojin Ryori has developed, a uniquely Japanese version of vegetarian (Buddhist) cuisine. Shojin Ryori is completely vegan and consists mainly of soybean-based food, seasonal vegetables, and plants from the mountains.
Vegetarian Temple Food
Strong spices and flavoring are also not used. While you might think this would make for very bland food, you should think again; the food is prepared in such a way that the 5 flavors (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, umami) that are naturally in the food are extracted for maximum natural flavor.
One of the best parts of Shojin Ryori is that nothing is wasted; even the peel of the vegetables and things like carrot tops are used to for example make broth. Ingredients that are often used in Shojin Ryori are tofu, natto (fermented soy beans), konjak, and fu (wheat gluten).
Seasonings that are often used are sesame oil, kelp, miso, and sake. Two of the best restaurants in Tokyo to try Shojin Ryori are Bon near Ueno Park or Itosho in Azabujuban. If you want to try the best Shojin Ryori in the country you have to head to Kyoto and eat at a temple such as Shigetsu or Daitokuji Ikkyu.
Vegetarianism and Veganism in Japan Nowadays
When Japan opened its gates to the West in the mid-19th century, the Western diet also found its way to Japan. Meat and dairy were inserted on Japanese menus, and many Japanese liked these new additions to their diets. There have, however, always been vegetarian movements in Japan most of which are based on (Buddhist) religion or on health. Many vegetarians and vegans in Japan follow their diets because they believe meat is not necessary to be strong and healthy, more to the contrary, they say that following a vegetarian or vegan diet helps them avoiding many diseases that are due to the overconsumption of meat or other animal products.
Still, until not so long ago, there were not many restaurants catering to vegetarian and vegan needs in Japan. Most vegetarians and vegans were cooking at home, and of course, the local people know where to go for a good restaurant meal that adheres to their standards if they do want to eat out. For tourists, it was a lot more difficult. Luckily, there are a lot more options these days.
While still, only 1% of Japanese people say they follow a vegan diet, new restaurants have popped up to cater to the foreign locals’ and tourists’ need for vegan and vegetarian cuisine. New vegetarian and vegan-friendly restaurants have started popping up especially since it became known that Tokyo would host the 2020 Olympics. Also, Halal meals and restaurants that cater to other dietary restrictions have been easier to find lately.
If you are in a larger city like Tokyo it is not so difficult to find vegetarian-friendly or vegan-friendly restaurants thanks to websites like Happy Cow and the Japan Vegan blog.
Our Favorite Vegan and Vegetarian Restaurants
Here is a list of our 5 personally-tried vegan and vegetarian-friendly restaurants in Tokyo.
- Nezu no Ya, Nezu station; Japanese macrobiotic food of high quality and decent price
- Veggie House, Kinshicho station; Taiwanese mostly vegan food, very flavorful and satisfying
- Ainh Soph Ginza, Ginza station; Japanese vegan food, beautifully presented and delicious
- T’s Tantan, Tokyo station; Chinese noodles in Japanese style, crave-worthy and one of the few vegan-friendly places to eat noodles
- Meu Nota, Koenji station; various cuisines, awesome lunch deals
Your Japan Tour
As seasoned Japan experts, we can help you create your perfect vegetarian-friendly or vegan-friendly Japan tour. We can also arrange tours for people with other types of dietary restrictions. Contact us to start planning your unforgettable holiday to this fascinating country full of once-in-a-lifetime experiences, culture, history, nature, and delicious food!