Traveling, eating and exploring in Japan can be a challenge if you don’t read Japanese. But negotiating menus and finding food in Japan if you are vegan or vegetarian can be even more difficult than for omnivores. Fear not! These 12 travel tips will pave the way to a delicious journey in Japan for nonmeat eaters of all sorts! (Bonus list of some of my favorite Tokyo veggie locations at the end.) Travelers who are vegetarian will have an easier time than more strict vegans, but in recent years at least in bigger cities, vegan restaurants and dishes are also becoming more common.
*Before I begin- I mention going to convenience stores a couple of times- this may scare you but a special note about Japanese Convenience stores– these are not like ones in other places around the world. The food quality is very high and many items are freshly made every day.
Tips for Vegetarian and Vegan Travelers
1 There’s an App for That!
If you haven’t discovered it already, The Happy Cow is your friend for finding food while globetrotting. Check out the website here and download the app for veggie friendly food on the go.
2 Useful Expressions
The lovely people over at Just Hungry have created printable cards to carry with expressions in Japanese and English to help traveling vegetarians and vegans of all types. Check out their page here. (If possible print before you come.)
3 Watch Out for Dashi!
If you are a vegetarian that does not eat fish then you have to be extra vigilant. Many many many dishes, sauces, and soups- with no meat or visible seafood in them- are still made with a fish stock (dashi) base. Do not assume just because something says it is veggies only that it has not been simmered in dashi. Best to use caution on all soup and sauce bases in Japan.
4 Indian Restaurants
Indian food is very popular in Japan. I have eaten in Indian restaurants even in quite small cities around the country, and as you know Indian food features many/most dishes with no meat, fish or other animal products.
5 Online Communities and Meetup
One of the best ways to get information is to connect with online communities in Japan. Meetup.com has a great Vegan group with over 4,000 members! Browsing their site before you come can give you a lot of ideas for restaurants. You can also become a member to attend an event while you are in town or to ask questions on the group discussion page. These folks have all the latest info on the best places for vegetarian food in Tokyo and you can ask for tips for locations around the country, how to order, and what to watch out for.
6 Conveyor Belt Sushi
(Kaiten Sushi in Japanese) — these fun sushi restaurants are perfect for Vegetarian travelers. You may think that sushi always means fish– but that is simply not true. You will find all sorts of veggie sushi, plus some side dishes and desserts. A few veggie friendly sushi types– cucumber roll, pickled vegetable sushi, egg sushi (tamagoyaki) and avocado rolls. The best part is you can just choose the food as it goes by you on a conveyor belt that way you only get the dishes that you want to try! No problem figuring out from the menu what you can and can’t order.
7 Tofu, Onigiri and Lots of Tasty Side Dishes
Speaking of side dishes, at most convenience stores and Japanese pubs (izakaya) you will find tasty tofu dishes, salads, roasted corn, pickled veggies and other sides. If you stick to the side dish section of the menu you can have a few cheap and cheerful tapas-sized items and make a meal out of 4-5 small dishes. You can also find specialty Tofu restaurants and shops where are the dishes are made from a huge variety of tofu types prepared in hundreds of different styles. Ume no Hana is a famous tofu cuisine chain restaurant with over 11 locations in Tokyo alone and is a great place to experience tofu in so many new ways!
8 Bakeries and the Japanese Egg salad Obsession
For vegetarians who are ok with eggs, you will find a ton of tasty bakeries and all across Japan that serve savory as well as sweet bread and baked goods. You can always pick up delicious fluffy egg salad sandwiches for a quick lunch with no meat. The Japanese have a bit of a thing for egg salad so you can find these everywhere from Hokkaido to Okinawa. Some are egg salad only and some are paired with fresh tomatoes. (Non-egg eaters will have to steer clear, sorry about that.)
9 Miso Soup, Real and Instant
Watch out for the asari or clam miso soup- but most other varieties are tofu and seaweed based with miso broth. Miso soup is most often vegan-friendly and is available in almost every Japanese restaurant. You can get instant miso soup in all grocery stores and convenience stores. Portions can be small but pair this with a Japanese plum (ume) rice ball for a tasty lunch.
The name of this Japanese Savory pancake literally means “food as you like it” so it is easy to choose and customize your style with only veggies! At many of these shops, you can even make your own which is super fun and memorable. Some versions include noodles inside as well. You can read more about a unique okonomiyaki experience here.
For searching and reading- Another good site beyond the Happy Cow, is the local restaurant guide Bento.com. With over 25 years online this site has an exhaustive list of restaurants in various parts of Japan and is easily searchable with vegan and vegetarian filters. You can get loads of useful information on this site.
12 Eat in A Temple
My final tip, for an amazing vegetarian Japanese meal why not stay in a temple, many have overnight experiences and serve the most amazing dishes as devout Buddhists do not eat meat. This site Temple Lodging in Japan is a great resource to choose and arrange a stay at temples in various regions around the country.
Bonus Tokyo List
My Top 5- in Tokyo for vegetarian and vegan visitors
- CITRON– relatively new spot with lots of vegetarian and vegan baked goods and salads
- THE PINK COW– vegetarian-friendly with many choices on the menu
- EAT MORE GREENS– vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free, great for curry and pasta lunches and a greatly expanded dinner menu.
- NAGAMINE (fancy wonderful course dinner served Kaiseki traditional style)
- CRAYON HOUSE– which has two vegetarian and organic restaurants in their basement level, one Japanese style, and one French. (They also have a great place in Osaka)