Japan is a beautiful, exciting and very interesting country and I would highly recommend visiting it for at least two weeks to everyone. It is not as expensive as a lot of people state it is. It is not as difficult if you don’t speak Japanese (although learning some phrases makes your stay a lot easier), at least in urban regions. But it is rather challenging if you don’t eat meat and fish. All traditional Japanese dishes include either meat or fish – forget about Ramen, Udon or Soba (soup stocks are always based on bones or fish), about Sushi (unless you’re a dedicated fan of cucumber rolls) or regional specialties like Okonomiyaki, Kobe beef (“you don’t say”), Takoyaki etc.
But: I survived! Sometimes it was hard, not only because I love to eat. I’m not a fan of eating rice all day. My stomach isn’t too. And I get very emotional if I don’t get to eat something tasty. Poor fellow travellers.
But enough about me: If you plan on going to Japan as a vegetarian, these are my tips and tricks plus restaurant recommendations for people travelling on a budget. I am writing this, because most other vegetarian guides only recommend vegetarian and vegan restaurants, which naturally are more expensive and often not as convenient to get to. You also don’t get the classic Japanese experience as it is mostly foreigners eating at these places – for me, this always feels a bit weird. And other foreigners can be rather annoying, to be honest.
#1: Be prepared to pay more
It doesn’t make a lot of sense but eating meals without meat or fish is often more expensive. This is either because you have to order a couple of side dishes or because you have to go to exclusively vegetarian/vegan restaurants, which (like restaurants of this kind in every other part of the world) are more expensive to eat at. This is a pain, but don’t worry: more expensive doesn’t mean really pricy. You can get a decent meal for about 1000 yen (roughly 8€). If you go food shopping, consider that vegetables and fruit are terribly expensive in Japan. It is normal to pay around 1000 yen for a couple of strawberries, or 200 for one apple or onion (more than 1€!).
#2: Lower your expectations
As mentioned before: you will eat a lot of rice. Sometimes (or most times) it is the only option. But: There are great add-ons! You can pair your plain rice bowl with pickles, a boiled or raw egg (although raw was always too sketchy for me), plain tofu, nori or natto (fermented soy beans, this is not a favourite to everyone). Be aware though, that pickles and natto can be made with fish. Which leads me to my next point.
#3: Learn some Kanjis
I you go food shopping, it is beyond helpful to know three basic Kanjis in order to be sure that whatever you’re buying is vegetarian. There is no such thing as English ingredient lists and you should check every single item you plan on buying. Often, chips (crisps) or other snacks can contain something called “pork extract” or fish. Except for plain tofu, rice or veggies, you should always check. So here are the three Kanjis:
肉 = meat
魚 = fish
蝦 = lobster, prawn, shrimp
#4: Fast food chains
First: be aware that McDonald’s tends to not offer veggie burgers in Japan. Instead you can go to a place called “MOS Burger”: it is Japanese, morally probably more supportive and you can swap meat patties to soy patties for selected burgers. Be aware though, that a menu including a burger and large fries will most likely not completely satisfy your needs if you’re very hungry – their menus are not big.
Further, there are three fast food chains that offer rice bowls with meat toppings. At two of them, “Matsuya” and “Sukiya”, you can order a variety of add-ons for your rice bowl (options mentioned above) from the “side dishes” part of the menu at a reasonable price.
We also went to “CoCo Ichibanya” more than once: they offer a whole bunch of curries, with more than one option for vegetarians. The portions are huge, so be sure to go there with an empty stomach. It is a bit more expensive but fills you for hours. Plus, their curries are delicious.
#5: Convenience Stores
Convenience Stores (“Combinis”) like “Family Mart”, “Seven Eleven” or “Lawson” are found around every corner in Japan and are great for a snack in between. I often chose Onigiri (a kind of filled rice ball wrapped in nori) with seaweed or pickled plum. If you want more, they also have salads. At some Combinis you can get dumplings with a bean paste filling as well.
Finally, I want to mention a couple of restaurants we went to that either were vegetarian/vegan or had a great veggie option in the cities we visited.
This town is not overflowing with tourists but still offers good options for vegetarians. On our first day we went to “Modernark” in Sannomiya – the food was delicious and the price (as usual) a bit higher. The interior is very sweet (one could also call it hipster) and I highly recommend a visit if you are in Kōbe. The second place we went to so I could get a decent meal (spoiled me) was “Café Yidaki” which is also pretty hipster. The food was very good, and it is also great for an afternoon coffee with cake. Kōbe is famous for its bakeries, so be sure to check those out as well.
As Ōsaka is way more touristy, young and hip, there are more options for non-meat or -fish eating humans. We went to a place called “Green Earth” for lunch (we ordered the lunch menu which was delicious and a decent size) and had banana milk shakes for dessert. The prices are great, and English is not a problem.
We also had Okonomiyaki at “Okonomiyaki Yukari” where they had one vegetarian option (with melted cheese and rice cakes). I ordered kimchi as an add-on because I have trouble eating food that is very heavy and cheesy without something fresh and crunchy (like salad, veggie cliché). I am not sure if the kimchi was vegetarian though, as it often is made with fish, but I wasn’t aware of that then. They prepare the Okonomiyaki right in front of you, which is very exciting, but make sure to stop them from putting Bonito flakes (fish flakes) onto your “pancake” at the end. I have to say that I very much enjoyed it (it was filling for hours too!), plus it was well worth its price.
Lastly I can recommend the “Dotombori Craft Beer Jozojo” , a bar that not only offers great craft beer but also has Kushikatsu (veggies, meat or fish deep fried with a breadcrumb coating) on their menu where you can choose the kinds you want individually – I chose all the different veggies they offered and can highly recommend onion, pickled ginger and lotus root. It was so good, that I ordered the same choice again!
We only stayed in Kyōto for two nights, but I made it to “Biotei”, after finding out that “Mumokuteki Café” was closed for renovation. At Biotei I ordered the veggie spring roll (the portion was huge) and the vegetarian miso soup. My friends had a salad with tofu dressing that they really enjoyed. This restaurant is not the cheapest, but I really enjoyed the food and atmosphere.
If you’re looking for high-end vegetarian/vegan cuisine, you’ll most likely find it in Tōkyō. As I tried to keep my expenses as low as possible, I did not look for this, however. One restaurant I can highly recommend is “T’s TanTan” , a vegan ramen restaurant located inside of Tokyo Station (JR). Besides the very tasty and filling ramen they offer with vegan gyoza or fried soy “meat” on the side and the reasonable prices (very expensive for ramen in Japan though), it is a) a bit difficult to find and b) located inside of the train station, so you have to go through the gates in order to eat here. If you take the JR train before or after, no problem, but you can’t just go in and out at the same station – they are very strict about that.
I hope for this guide to be informative and helpful for your stay in Japan and that you keep up your motivation for this amazing country even in the hungriest times. Have a wonderful trip!