Japan is a really cool country to visit with super polite people, fancy toilets - they’re even heated, insanely fast trains (riding the Shinkansen i.e. bullet train was a tourist attraction in itself for me) and a really unique culture that I never could begin to understand without seeing it for myself. I’ve been intrigued by the idea of going to Japan for a while but I always have resisted since it’s not necessarily a cheap vacation and I was afraid I’d starve the entire time and live off of granola bars. Luckily, my fears were somewhat unfounded. Traveling in Japan obviously isn’t as cheap as going to somewhere like India or Ecuador but it wasn’t absolutely ridiculous by any means (the trip was about 1800 dollars for 10 days in Japan - including my flights, lodging, the Japan Rail pass which is an absolute must to get around the country economically and other daily expenses like food and tickets to museums and other attractions). And, I only packed 3 or 4 granola bars and came back alive and healthy, sporting a few extra pounds if I’m being honest. There are a bunch of different posts on what to do in Japan and the top attractions to see in each city, so I decided to focus this one on how to go about scavenging food if you’re vegan/vegetarian (there’s not that much dairy except for in pastries and breakfast foods so these are kind of interchangeable to an extent in Japan). I mostly based a lot of what I wanted to do off of this post, but before I jump into food specifics, here are general tips for traveling in Japan.
Get a Japan Rail pass if you’re staying for more than a few days so you can get around the country easily for much cheaper than it’d be to buy individual train tickets. You need to do this before you get to Japan so do it at the very least 1.5 weeks before so you can get it in the mail in time.
Stay in ryokan, which is a traditional style Japanese inn. They’re a bit expensive but huge breakfast and lunches are included within the price and it’s really an experience that’s worth paying for. We stayed in Fukuzumiro in Hakone and I’d highly recommend it not only for the vegan food options that are hard to find at ryokans but the amazing people and service and the peaceful onsens (Japanese baths/hot springs). If you don’t have a chance to go to Hakone there are a fair few in Kyoto as well.
Stay in Kyoto for at least a few days and bike around for a few of them. Check out the Nijo castle, Arashiyama monkey park and bamboo grove and DO NOT miss Fushimi Inari. Also go to Alpenrose bakery for delicious bread.
Eat at T's Tantan in Tokyo station before catching a Shinkansen and if you’re not vegan get a donut from Siroteca donuts for dessert afterwards. Try to catch a view of the city from either Tokyo Tower, Skytree, or Tokyo City View (Roppongi Hills). We went to Roppongi Hills and it was amazing to see just how big the city is and we had a view of the Tokyo tower which was cool.
Find a way to eat okonomiyaki in Hiroshima before or after visiting the beautiful peace park and visit Miyajima island and try to catch the sunset there. If you’re looking for a cheap, clean Airbnb check out any of Yukako’s rooms, she’s an absolutely amazing host and meeting her briefly was a highlight of the trip for me.
Now onto food:
Our first night in Tokyo, we made the mistake of just walking into a restaurant that looked cute and hoping we could communicate well enough by showing them a notecard that described what I didn’t eat in Japanese and with slow, deliberate English. Even though a really nice gentlemen stepped in when he could tell we were struggling to communicate with the waitstaff, I ended up being served a fish soup and then a Japanese root vegetable completely covered in fish broth. Luckily, my boyfriend, Kaustubh, served as a happily obliging garbage disposal so it didn’t all go to waste but we learned right off the bat that finding fish-free food was going to take some planning ahead here. We started using Happycow.com which was super helpful and we almost always were able to find a place near where we were planning to be for the day that was either vegan or had vegan options. Also, finding veggie food ended up being a lot easier in Kyoto than Tokyo and was even really doable in Hiroshima, so the hardest part was just the beginning of the trip in Tokyo and somewhat in Hakone where we stayed one night to see Mt Fuji.
Some overall tips on being vegan/vegetarian in Japan:
- Plan ahead - You don't have to know all of the places you’re going to eat before you get to Japan but at least the night before try to get an idea of where you’re going the next day and if there’s something on Happycow nearby that looks good to you. If not, make sure you go to a 7-11 or Lawsons and get some rice, red bean bao and snacks that will hold you over while you’re out exploring. Convenient stores are key when you’re vegan in Japan. It’s a bit hard to just walk into places and expect to people able to find something you can eat. If you don’t really have a choice a lot of places have veggie tempura with rice but for me that’s an unsatisfying, super unhealthy meal.
- Be patient - Even with planning, sometimes things won’t work out the way you like. You’ll rush to a restaurant 15 minutes before closing after a full day of exploring and they’ll say the kitchen is closed or even with google maps and the address you’ll be unable to find a place. That’s ok and expected when traveling (also I say this now but in the moment when these things happened I was hangry af). So be patient and be ok with a less than ideal, makeshift meal once in a while. Some bread at the grocery store and fruits or just rice will have to do sometimes. Don’t think about your carb intake, just think about the fact that you legitimately need calories to be able to do all of the exploring you want to and you can watch your macros or whatever you like do when you get back.
- Choose good company - It’s really important to go with someone that’s ok with eating vegan/vegetarian while in Japan or with eating meals separately some times because a lot of the places you’ll end up finding something to eat will be fully vegan, not just a place with vegan options. And sometimes you’ll end up going places that aren’t necessarily the most conveniently located relative to your plans/destinations of the day (I thought of this as a positive most of the time because we might not have seen some of the areas we did if we hadn’t been looking for vegan food). It’s a really shitty feeling to think that you’re inconveniencing someone, making them do things they don’t want to do/eat things they don’t want to eat and in general feel like people are annoyed at you, so just go with people that won’t care and will be really nice and positive. Kaustubh was a champion and was probably more concerned about me eating than I was so I lucked out, but I can imagine the trip wouldn’t have been as fun if I went with someone a little less patient that likes to be on a rigid, logical schedule/path. Also, don’t be super extra about being vegan - not just in Japan, but in general it’s unnecessary and people already think we’re annoying enough.
Here are some of the better places we ate broken down by city/region with somewhat random ratings so you know which places to prioritize:
Nagi Shokudo (3.5/5) - A little bit hard to find, but this place is relatively close to Shibuya crossing which you’ll most probably visit if you’re in Tokyo so it’s worth going to if you’re looking for something to eat in the area because there really isn’t too much there. It’s pretty tasty and even has some baked goods if you’re looking for a treat after getting some curry or soup or fried soy balls. It’s really small and the ambience is quite nice.
T’s Tantan (5/5) - An amazing vegan ramen place in Tokyo station. Definitely the best ramen I’ve ever had and really conveniently located to grab a bite while waiting for a Shinkansen. Must visit and I think even non-vegans would like it.
Siroteca Donut (5/5) - Not vegan, but vegetarian with really cute and delicious donuts right next to Ti Tan Tan’s. Also a cool place to get fun little treats for coworkers, family or friends back home.
Fukuzumiro (5/5) - This ryokan was an amazing place to stay at and they were really accommodating about my dietary restrictions and Kaustubh was able to still enjoy fish and other non-vegan things. Also, the service was incredible and it was beautifully situated right next to a stream. The hot springs were really relaxing and staying here was one of my favorite parts of the trip.
Omen (4/5) - Really conveniently located udon noodle shop place if you’re exploring Gion (the geisha district) or doing the Kyoto Free Walking Tour (would definitely recommend) . Delicious udon and good service but they just don't really have too many options, it’s a pretty plain udon noodle soup, but tasty nonetheless.
Shinrin Shokudo (4.5/5) - This is a really cute Japanese curry place close to where we were staying in Kyoto (~15 minutes from Nijo station). It’s not vegan or vegetarian but they normally make one vegan curry every night. I thought it was quite tasty and the ambience was awesome - I think the place is an artist’s old studio or something like that. Also, the waiting area was beautiful and filled with all different types of plants. I probably would’ve enjoyed it more if we weren’t starving and had to wait about an hour, but the place was really busy. I’d recommend going here if you’re looking for a hip spot and a change from ramen, sushi or udon, but I wouldn’t say it’s an absolute must.
Itadakizen (5/5) - Fully vegan restaurant with the best sushi I’ve ever had and an interesting vegan ramen that’s a lot creamier than the ramen I’m used to in Seattle. It’s a short menu and non-vegans probably wouldn’t enjoy it as much because they can’t just get regular sushi, but I was really glad that I went. The waitress was really nice as well.
Arashiyama-kan (4/5) - This place was a pricy and the food was decently tasty, but what was awesome about it was the really cute older couple that owns it. The husband was the server and he would use google translate on his iPad to talk with us (he’d speak Japanese into the iPad and a robot voice would speak in mostly understandable English to us). We couldn’t really say too much back so we’d just smile and nod but I thought it was so cute that he had found a way to share his vast knowledge of Japan with his customers and admired his effort. I think his wife did all of the cooking and it was awesome they ran just them. Also, it’s right by the monkey park so it’s really conveniently located to grab lunch in Arashiyama before heading back to center city Kyoto.
Okonomiyaki (100/5 - not a typo) - We really wanted to try okonomiyaki (a Japanese style savory pancake) in Hiroshima since that’s the region the dish is from and found a place in Hiroshima center city on Happycow that apparently had vegan/vegetarian options. The traditional dish has fish sauce and egg and pork, so definitely not veggie friendly. Unfortunately, we were 0 for 2 in our attempts to go to this restaurant - the first night it was less than 30 minutes until closing time so the kitchen was closed and the second night the entire restaurant was closed since they’re always closed on Tuesdays. Still, we didn’t give up on our attempts to try okonomiyaki and found a place on Happycow that was vegan friendly in Hiroshima station. What we didn’t realize was that the entire floor within the station was filled with little okonomiyaki stalls and it was impossible to find the particular one that had been reviewed on Happycow (we were also short for time and ultimately missed our train, but the pancake was 100% worth it). Eventually, we just ended up asking in one of the stalls if they could make a vegan Okonomiyaki and even though they didn’t speak English super well, we were able to communicate what I couldn’t eat and they even had a vegetable sauce to replace the fish sauce. I’m not sure if we somehow just ended up at the place that was reviewed on Happycow or if it was another one, but that okonomiyaki was probably my favorite thing I ate in Japan, even though I felt like I wanted to vomit since I ate it so quickly because I was trying to make my train. Kaustubh really loved his non-vegan one too.
Art Cafe Elk (3.5/5) - I think I would’ve liked going here for breakfast or dessert more than for dinner (they have amazing looking vegan pancakes) but I decided to include it because the owner was incredibly nice and it’s a good place to go if you’re looking for a break from Japanese food for a bit. They have Japanese food as well but also some more western options. I ended up getting the yakiudon which was really good and well flavored, I just wish there were some more vegetables/tofu with it, it was mostly noodle. It’s also conveniently located in center city Hiroshima
Yamaichi Bekkan (4.5/5) - From my understanding, this place is a ryokan as well but has a restaurant for people that aren’t staying there. There was some pretty good vegan miso soup and veggie sushi. I was very happy to have an avocado roll - I hadn’t had avocado in a while and for anyone that knows my dietary habits well, that wasn’t acceptable. I was really happy with my food and full but it wasn’t particularly remarkable from my end, meanwhile Kaustubh said it was the best sushi he’d ever had in his entire life so if you’re not vegan or going to Japan with someone who’s not vegan make sure you check this place out. It’s a great place to fill up before hiking Mount Misen on Miyajima Island. Also, if you’re not vegan and looking for a dessert after definitely get some momoji cakes which are originally from Miyajima and these maple leaf shaped cakes (apparently momoji means maple leaf) normally with some cream filling.