A vegetarian dinner in Tokyo – Easier said than done?Food & Drink
Vegetarians visiting Japan for the first time often bump into more hurdles than they might initially have anticipated. Vegetarianism is not as common here as it is in many other countries, and many restaurants can be quite clueless when it comes to how to cater to customers with special dietary needs or requests.
Although this is slowly changing, especially as the country is adjusting to the rapid increase of inbound tourists, it still has a long way to go until vegetarian options can be taken for granted at any restaurant.
The main issue is often the widespread use of Dashi, a soup stock made from fish broth, in Japanese cuisine. Many otherwise seemingly vegetarian dishes, like soba noodles or miso soup, contains Dashi, rendering them unfit for vegetarians. Merely asking the chef to refrain from putting dashi in the food when you order is in many cases not an option.
The fact that vegetarianism is so rare in Japan might come as a surprise to many visitors, especially as the country has a strong connection with Buddhism and it's accompanying lifestyle, were staying away from meat is often seen as a cornerstone of the religious belief. But this is not reflected in modern-day Japanese Cuisine.
If you are a visitor looking for a meal that is both vegetarian but still can be considered Japanese food, here are a few options that comes highly recommended.
While most of the thousands of daily bowls of ramen contain at least a slice of pork meat and/or broth made from pork bones, there's an increase in the number of restaurants that also offers vegetarian, and in some cases even vegan, options. The popular chain Afuri, who serves some of the most delicious ramen in the country, is one of these. Another option is T’s Tantan, a shop located inside the gates at Tokyo Station where the menu is entirely green.
Japanese set meals are called Teishoku in Japanese. These usually contain a main dish of either meat or fish, a bowl of rice, some pickles and a bowl of soup. Unfortunately, more often than not the restaurants serving them are not accommodating to vegetarians. But there are exceptions: Brown Rice Canteen (Shibuya-ku, Jingumae 5-1-8) serves up delicious meals that taste like proper Japanese food, yet contains no animal ingredients.
While Curry might not seem like a typical Japanese dish at first, there’s a specific kind of this dish that is distinctly Japanese and something that many people in Japan eat frequently. Coco Ichibanya, the biggest curry chain in Japan, began offering a vegetarian option on their menus in 2016. Their vegetarian curry, flavoured with their signature spices as well as some onion is not provided at all of their thousands of restaurants right now, but we are pretty confident to say that most outlets in the major areas of Tokyo offer this option.
Soba, or Japanese Buckwheat Noodles, is another dish that can easily be made entirely vegetarian, and on top of that, you’re most likely never far away from a shop that serves it, as Soba restaurants are abundant in most Japanese cities. A plate of “Zaru Soba”, cold noodles served with a dipping sauce, leek and wasabi, is simple yet delicious. Just be aware that the dipping sauce, usually contains fish stock. Ask the shop if they have a vegetarian alternative.
This thick pancake-like dish is often cooked in front of you and can be topped with pretty much anything you like. Making it vegetarian shouldn’t be a problem, just make sure you tell the chef that your food preferences also means that your Okonomiyaki shouldn’t have any Katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes) sprinkled on it at the end -- something that is otherwise the norm. A good place for Okonomiyaki is Sakuratei, tucked at a back alley in Harajuku (Shibuya-ku, Jingumae 3-20-1) or one of the many stores along the main street in Tsukishima, next to the train stop that bears the districts name.
Tofu is a staple in Japanese cuisine. But while it usually plays a pretty minor role as various side dishes, it takes over the entire stage at Sorano (Shibuya-ku, Sakuragaoka 4-17). This restaurant specialises in Tofu and makes some of the most creative uses of it that we’ve ever seen. While their menu isn’t entirely vegetarian as some of their menu items contains meat, it shouldn’t be a problem to order an entire meat (and dashi) free meal.
Tempura is perhaps one of the easiest vegetarian dishes to find in Tokyo (probably at a tie with Soba, oddly enough, the two are often served together). Although a shrimp is usually part of the standard line-up, most restaurants also serve entirely vegetarian options. If you are on a budget, try the popular Tenya chain, with stores near most major stations. Or take a look in any significant upscale shopping mall like Isetan or Takashimaya, you’d be hard pressed to find one without a good tempura restaurant on the gourmet floor.
Buddhist food, called Shojin Ryori, is one of the safe options for vegetarians. But unfortunately, this isn’t exactly something that typically can be readily ordered at your average restaurant or Izakaya. Instead, it is mostly had at places like a “Shukubo”, temple lodgings. However, in recent years, a few shops have popped up that serves up a proper zen meal right in the heart of Tokyo. One is Bon, located between Asakusa and Minowa station (Taito-Ku, Ryusen 1-2-11). Another option is Kamakura Fushikian, located in Komaki Syokudo, under the train tracks next to JR Akihabara Station. (Chiyoda-ku, Kanda Neribeicho 8-2)