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Vegetarian Japan: 6 ways to eat without fear

Japan is filled with streets lined with restaurants specialising in horse-meat, all-you-can-eat grilled meat, all-you-can-eat fatty beef in hotpots, standing steak and even more all-you-can meat.

When seeing so many signs that feature meat in it, it makes finding food that a vegetarian can eat seem very challenging. However, it is definitely not impossible! Here are 6 ways you can enjoy food as a vegetarian in Japan.

 

1. Ramen can be meatless…

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Vegetarian ramen with soy milk base soup in Shimokitazawa!

Look out for vegetarian ramen around Japan. Instead of using meat or fish-based broths, some restaurants offer completely vegetarian soup noodles with plant-based soups. These include, soy milk, konbu (seaweed) base, and so forth. To replace the big slices of chashu and meat in ramen, you can expect delicious vegetables instead.

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Vegetarian ramen from Chabuton Shimokitazawa
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Look at all those beautiful greens😉

For example, Chabuton is a ramen store with branches in Kyoto, Osaka and Tokyo. Whilst Chabuton sells ramen with meat in it, there is a completely vegetarian ramen option, as well as a vegetarian gyoza (dumplings) to choose from. They even have a seasonal vegetarian ramen.

2. Devour Mouth-watering Japanese Curry

Many Japanese curry restaurants make curry from roux with meat in it, and they usually add a big piece of katsu pork or chicken. However, there are establishments around Japan that do offer curry that is totally free from meat-derived products. Seven Eleven also offers a vegetarian curry packet that you can prepare by yourself at home (not the pre-made meals).

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CoCo Ichibanya: You can choose the spiciness, sweetness levels and amount of rice.

A lot of Curry House CoCo Ichibanya restaurants also have a special vegetarian friendly menu, so you can enjoy the characteristic curry of Japan. You can choose your toppings from the standard vegetable medley to mushrooms to even okra and asparagus.

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Vegetarian curry with okra and mushroom: I added a mountain of pickles to it as well

3. Find Vegetarian Food from Conbini & Suupaa

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Most of these have meat, but some don’t!

Walking into a Japanese convenience store (conbini) and supermarket (suupaa) might be really daunting. With a great selection of products packaged in a completely different language, it’s quite the task to figure out what you can and can’t eat…

So to make life easier in Japan, familiarise yourself with Japanese food lingo. At the back of the food packaging, look out for these keywords:

  • ミルク miruku / 乳 nyuu – milk
  • ミルク miruku / 牛乳 gyuu-nyuu – cow’s milk ⇔ 豆乳 tou-nyuu – soy milk
  • 乳製品 nyuuseihin – dairy product
  • 牛肉 gyuu-niku – beef
  • 豚肉 buta-niku – pork
  • 鶏肉 tori-niku – chicken
  • 卵 tamago – egg
  • えび ebi – prawn
  • 魚 sakana – fish
  • ゼラチン zerachin – gelatine

 

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Using these words, you can even suss out whether or not something is vegetarian at a Japanese restaurant. How handy!😉

Unfortunately kimchi will almost always include fish products, such as prawn and other shellfish.

4. Indulge on Sushi as a Vegetarian

As a vegetarian, you can still enjoy the art of sushi in Japan! Kaiten-zushi (conveyor belt sushi) restaurants make is especially easy to find vegetarian options.

 

 

Some vegetarian-friendly sushi dish options include:

  • 納豆巻き nattou-maki – natto / fermented soybeans
  • かっぱ巻き kappa-maki – cucumber roll
  • うめしそ巻き umeshiso-maki – pickled plum roll
  • アボカドまき abokado-maki – avocado roll (usually has wasabi in it)
  • オクラ okura – okra (sometimes the soy sauce may have fish in it)
    (but NOT いかオクラ ika-okura – okra and squid)
  • かんぴょう巻き kanpyou-maki – kanpyou (dried gourd shavings) roll
  • 新香巻き shinko-maki – pickled radish roll
  • ナス握り nasu-nigiri – eggplant nigiri
  • いなり寿司 inari-zushi – rice wrapped in sheet of fried bean curd

Many sushi restaurants also make hand rolls, so you can request hand rolls with no fish like natto hand roll.

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But be aware! The tamago-yaki (egg omelette) that you can find in sushi shops and restaurants around Japan will most likely have dashi (fish stock) and meat products added in. Chawanmushi (egg custard dish) normally has dashi and shellfish mixed in too.

5. Dine at Vegetarian-friendly Restaurants

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Onigiri medley with greens and soy cream soup in Shibuya

There are many vegetarian and vegan friendly restaurants around Japan, especially in Tokyo (like Shinjuku and Shibuya). Many of these restaurants only serving meatless dishes for hungry customers. With these restaurants popping up around Japan, a vegetarian lifestyle doesn’t seem so difficult anymore.🙂

 

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Vegan sushi from Loving Hut. Photo courtesy of Loving Hut Japan.

For example, Loving Hut in Jimbocho, Tokyo is 100% vegan-friendly, and even has vegan sushi and a vegan-friendly kabayaki (eel) rice bowl dish.

6. Snack on traditional Japanese sweets.

A lot of traditional Japanese sweets are meat-free! For example, savour on scrumptious sticky mochi (Japanese glutinous rice cake) and crispy senbei (rice crackers).

My utmost favourite Japanese dessert is called warabi-mochi, and I believe that Kyoto does it best. Warabi-mochi, a popular sweet most commonly found in the Kansai area, is dusted with either roasted soybean powder (kinako), green tea powder (matcha), etc.! Usually eaten during the summer, it has a refreshing and cool taste. The best thing about it is that it’s completely vegan.🙂

Not eating meat products won’t limit you with the amount of traditional Japanese sweets you can consume!

BONUS – This doesn’t count: Eat a burger?!

If you’re on a diet and want to do a so-called diet “detox”, I recommend trying the MOS Natsumi Soy Patty Burger 500%. The soy patty, slice of tomato and greens  (including lettuce) are clamped in an abundance of lettuce and… more lettuce.

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MOS Natsumi Soy Patty “Burger” – vegetarian but not vegan-confirmed

Rather eating a burger, it’s more like eating a small salad with your hands. Maybe the Vegetable Rice Burger at MOS Burger may suit your stomach needs more…

If you are a vegetarian hoping to visit Japan, we hope you will be able to find delicious food to crave on.🙂

See you next time!

 

Important Note: Many people in Japan perceive vegetarianism as pescatarianism – meaning that vegetarians can eat fish but not meats like beef, chicken, and pork. So if you are trying to explain to the restaurant staff about your dietary requirements, I recommend also informing them that you don’t eat fish as well.

 

Related articles to read:

Muslim heading to Japan? Finding halal food doesn’t have to be difficult! Read all about it here: Halal in Tokyo

Discover the tasty glory of warabi-mochi in this article: Warabi mochi – The casual looking but extremely delicious Japanese sweet

Many of the vegetarian places mentioned here can be found in Shimokitazawa, Tokyo! Read about the neighbourhood here: Shimokitazawa: Tokyo’s Vintage Clothing Kingdom

 

Check out things to do in Japan >> Activities

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9 thoughts on “Vegetarian Japan: 6 ways to eat without fear

  1. Good article – but now for what affects my family……what about the much more difficult problem of gluten free? Thanks – this has kept us from returning to Japan for a visit. We lived in Japan for 11 years and would very much like to return but having to find gluten free restaurants and even rice is such a challenge….please help us.

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    1. Hello James,
      Although I’m not sensitive to gluten nor do I have Celiac disease, I have a few friends who cannot consume gluten and are living in Japan. Obviously life without gluten in Japan is extremely difficult, especially as the soy sauce here has wheat flour in it.

      I’ve asked my friends who have successfully lived a fulfilling lifestyle here in Japan how they avoid gluten, and they recommended to read an article by Legal Nomads. http://www.legalnomads.com/gluten-free/japan/

      At the end of this guide, there is a list of gluten-free options (and restaurants) within different parts of Japan, from Tokyo all the way to Miyajima. On top of this, if your Japanese ability isn’t enough to explain your dietary requirements, there is also a ‘Gluten Free Translation Card for Japan’. One of my friends who cannot speak much Japanese always carries this card to restaurants to avoid gluten.

      When I was a vegetarian myself, I’ve found it really beneficial to be part of the Tokyo Vegetarian and Vegan Circle on Facebook. There’s a gluten free travel group on Facebook as well, providing a space to interact with celiacs and people who don’t eat gluten. https://www.facebook.com/groups/847553335358305/

      Hope this helps,
      Tuna

      Like

      1. I do have friends who allergic to any kinds of nut and the safest way for her is to cook for herself. She brings lunch everyday and carry this little card that say I am deadly allergic to nuts in her pocket so she can show it around when she need to eat out.

        But if you are here to travel, I imagine… it will be hard to cook.

        There are some bakery that offer gluten-free bread but they are extremely limited and don’t make a lot of those bread everyday. Legal Nomads post is really good. If I have more information, I will try to compile them for a future blog post.

        Like

  2. Dear Tuna,
    what an important entry!
    My co-worker – a pescatarian – came to Japan last month deceived by the idea, that Japan is the country of fish and soy beans and that she would have it very easy to find food here… ^^
    She realized her mistake on the first night, when ordering a vegetable dish, where vegetable was merely the main ingredient – and meat was still in it.
    We always have a hard time going out for lunch together so I hope with your help it will get easier now😀
    Love, Ari

    Like

    1. Hello Ari!
      I hope this article will help you and your friend!🙂 I’m actually pescatarian right now. When I go out with friends for food, usually I will order teishoku that comes with fish (like mackerel) and miso soup (without meat).

      Normally “vegetable” dishes that look like the main ingredient will be vegetables only will have meat added to it sadly! It’s best to confirm with the waiter first and ask for options without any meat added.😀

      Cheers,
      Tuna

      Liked by 1 person

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