I was concerned about how difficult it would be to find vegetarian food in Japan.
You can probably guess that it’s not the most veggie-friendly destination. The country is internationally known for using raw fish in sushi, and most other Japanese meals prominently feature beef, pork, or seafood as one of the main ingredients.
I eat Japanese food reasonably often in Sydney, but the restaurants here are likely to cater for the 1 in 10 Australians who are vegetarian by offering some meat-free options on their menu. In Japan, this isn’t usually the case as vegetarianism just isn’t as common.
Luckily there are vegetarian options in Japan, especially around the locations of Buddhist communities. Most of the restaurant food in Japanese restaurants is also made to order, which makes it fairly easy to request that a meal be made without meat.
Rob and I both loved all the Japanese food, and as vegetarians we successfully managed to find meat-free meal options throughout Japan. Here’s my suggestions on what to eat in Japan if you’re a vegetarian!
Okonomiyaki is a kind of savoury pancake filled with cabbage and soba noodles that is cooked on a flat grill. The pancake is topped with a special sauce that tastes somewhat like teriyaki, and it can also have other toppings like green onion, egg, or other sauces.
Generally Okonomiyaki has pork or shrimp, but it’s easy to order it without the meat, and it still tastes 100% delicious! We had Okonomiyaki at Okonomimura in Hiroshima.
Soba noodles are thin noodles usually made from buckwheat flour. They are easy to find at many Japanese restaurants. We had some Yakisoba (fried soba noodles) at a ramen restaurant in Hiroshima, which was served as a stir fry with sauce and bean sprouts. A side of edamame beans and a cup of sake made this the perfect Japanese dish! Simple and delicious.
Udon noodle soup
Udon noodle soup is incredibly tasty! You can have it served hot or cold. It’s basically a broth with boiled udon noodles (a thick and chewy noodle made from wheat flour) and other extras such as shredded seaweed, tofu, or green onions. We had the above udon noodle soup at a local restaurant near Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Museum, but you can find this dish all over Japan.
These Japanese fried dumplings are typically filled with meat, but vegetarian gyoza do exist. We visited Gyoza ChaoChao in Kyoto which had a dedicated vegetarian menu. The dumplings were so good that we went back to the restaurant on a different day for another helping! We also had some delicious vegan gyoza at Falafel Brothers in Tokyo.
Tofu is a popular dish in Japan, especially in the areas where there are Buddhist communities. We had an amazing meal of Shojin Ryori (Japanese Buddhist vegetarian cuisine) at Shigetsu in Kyoto, which included multiple tofu dishes cooked a variety of ways. It was fairly pricey, but it was truly a special way to experience a traditional Japanese Buddhist meal.
We also went to Sorano – a specialised tofu restaurant in Tokyo. This place was a little fancier than the restaurants we usually eat at, but the food was really good!
Japanese curry is a little different to other Asian curries as the sauce is really thick – almost like a gravy. We found the above vegetarian Japanese curry from Ko-So Cafe in Tokyo, and I also found an amazing green curry at Musubi Cafe in Kyoto. There is also the curry chain CoCo Ichibanya which has vegetarian options, though I can’t speak for the quality as I didn’t have the chance to try it.
Just note that Japanese curries do usually come with meat. Be careful to double check that the one you are ordering is vegetarian – I ordered one in Nara when the English menu didn’t mention any meat, but it had beef mixed in to the sauce! I was devastated because it looked like it would have been a great dish otherwise.
Tips for being vegetarian in Japan:
Download the Happy Cow app
Happy Cow is truly a lifesaver in Japan! I’ve used this app a handful of times on my previous travels, but Rob and I were using it almost daily on this trip. There were many times when we opened the app to find nearby vegetarian options – it’s definitely worth installing on your smartphone before you go.
Learn some local phrases
Something that I found useful in Japan (in fact, I always find it useful when I travel as a vegetarian!) is to learn some local phrases. ‘O niku nashi’ (no meat) was generally understood by the locals when I was ordering off menus. I also tried ‘Bejitarian‘ (vegetarian) a few times but for some reason this didn’t work as well. I think the word vegetarian means something slightly different to the Japanese, so it’s best to clarify that you don’t eat any meat or fish.
Be careful of hidden ingredients
I will also point out is that there are some ingredients that are common in Japanese meals, such as oyster sauce, fish stock, and fish flakes that may still be used in a vegetarian meal. I tend to be less fussy about these ingredients when I’m travelling as it makes ordering easier, but if you are vegan or have food allergies, you might find it more tricky to avoid.
Source food from 7-eleven
One last tip: 7-eleven is your friend! This convenience store chain is not particularly good in Australia (unless you have a hankering for some Tim Tams or a slushie), but in Japan, it’s totally awesome and cheap. The stores are more like mini-supermarkets that stock loads of pre-made meals and snacks, many of them vegetarian. There were a few times when we ended up having a 7-eleven lunch/dinner on our trip!