Sunday, May 3, 2009

Vegetarian + Vegan Toy Hunting in Japan

Being a veggie in Japan is actually pretty good. Gone are the days of struggling to find something to eat on a menu. Not only do many restaurants have something for veggies, but there are a growing number of veggie only restaurants.

Here's a sample of some of the good stuff you can find in Japan.

These restaurants are all over the place. You’re usually given a dish or two which you fry yourself on the hot plate at your table. At smaller places, the owner will prepare it for you. Most of the dishes are meat based, but you can tell them to hold the meat (niku nashi) and fish (sakana nashi).

One of my favorite places is in Aoto, just a few minutes from the Real Head shop. The owner is very friendly and makes a mean yasai (vegetable) udon (thick white noodle) yaki (fried on your table's hot plate). Just say you want the yasai udon yaki and you're good to go. The nama biru (draft beer) is cold and smooth.


Another popular type of restaurant is the soba joint. For as little as 400 yen, you can get a helping of cold soba served on a bamboo mat with sauce + wasabi. This is called zaru soba. (Note: It's likely that the dipping sauce is not 100% vegetarian.)

You'll probably want to stay away from anything hot, since it will be served in a broth that likely is meat or fish based. Same goes for ramen. As a rule, avoid ramen joints altogether if you're a strict veggie.

When you're toy hunting, there are many soba places near (and sometimes inside) train stations. Some are vending machine style restaurants, where you put in your money and choose what you want. Tickets come out, and you hand them to the cook. If you choose soba, tell them you want it "tsumetai" (cold).

Yasai tempura is fairly common, though you may have to tell them to hold the ebi (shrimp). Just say “ebi nuki”. The green peppers, onions, mushrooms, and other veggies will be deep fried in the same vat as the fish tempura, so if that bothers you, then yasai tempura may not be for you.

In Nakano Broadway, there’s a tempura place on the 2nd floor. I’ve been eating there for years. Remember to tell them “ebi nuki."

These pics are from another tempura place in Nakano, in the outdoor pedestrian area that's parallel to the closed walkway. The tempura is flat out outstanding and the price is outrageous: 750 yen for a set meal!

Speaking of Nakano Broadway, in the basement is a super cheap place to eat. They have set meals for 500 yen. One of the dishes is yaki udon (fried noodles). Now, the standard yaki udon there comes with meat and katsuo (fish flakes) on top. But I've ordered the dish many times without either of those. It goes something like this:

"Yaki udon onegaishimasu. Sumi masen. O niku nuki. Sakana nuki. Seahudo nuki. Katsuo nuki. Watashi wa begetarian desu." which means "Fried udon please. Excuse me. No meat. No fish. No seafood. No fish flakes. I'm a vegetarian."

That may sound incredibly redundant, but relatively speaking there are very few vegetarians in Japan, and just telling someone you're a vegetarian isn't enough. In many places, even if you say "No meat," your dish may have ham, bacon, or chicken on it. If you say "No fish" you're still quite likely to see shrimp or fish flakes in your dish. So it's ALWAYS best to err on the side of caution and be as redundant as possible.


Indian food is one of the delights of Japan. They’ve always got veggie curries on the menu. In recent years, Indian restaurants have sprouted up all over the place. You can get a nice lunch set for a very reasonable 1000 yen. However, like with Indian joints in other countries, once you start ordering individual curries, the tab spikes in a hurry. I've found the nan in Japan especially delicious, and *massive* - a good 1.5 feet long triangular helping of tasty hot bread.

Aside from Indian restaurants, there are restaurants specializing in cusine from Sri Lanka, Nepal and Pakistan.

A big advantage of all these restaurants is most of the wait staff speak fluent English.

Veggie + Vegan restaurants
This is a fairly new trend which has accompanied the growth of organic and health food restaurants and delis.

After a Super Festival a million years ago, some buddies took me to this place, Mother's. It's a buffet style restaurant that serves organic veggie fare. The soup is excellent, and they also have a variety of potato dishes, salad, etc.

In August, 2012, I went to a place in Shibuya called the Vegan Healing Cafe. It's well worth checking out and is very conveniently located. Here's the meal I had:

There are literally dozens more veggie and veggie-friendly restaurants in Tokyo.

Click here for an exhaustive list of veggie, vegan, and veggie-friendly restaurants in Tokyo and other cities. (If the site loads in Japanese, click on the British button in the top right corner for the English version of the site.)

Veggie friendly restaurants
Another place which has been recommended to me is Monk, in Kichijoji. I haven't been there yet but am planning to go next week. From what I've been told, they're not veggie only, but they do have a macrobiotic veggie set meal. Here's a link to a map to their shop:

In a pinch, there are Japanese restaurant chains like Watami and chains like Saizeriya which have a little bit of everything. Their menus usually have ample photos, so you can pick and choose what you want. Salads, side veggie dishes, etc are fairly easy to find these days.

You can also get the "vegetable burger" at Freshness Burger, which has branches all over the place. It's tofu based with lettuce, tomatoes, etc. Pretty tasty, and a nice option if you're with non-veggie friends.

Plus don't forget Subway, which has a "veggie delight" sandwich on the menu which is 100% vegetarian.

There are also a ton of Italian restaurants, but in my experience, the pasta here isn't the best unless you eat at a higher end place. There are loads of places where you can get a cream or tomato sauce pasta dish for 800 yen, but you're much better off spending the money on udon or soba at a Japanese restaurant.

Convenience stores and lunch box shops

This is a bit trickier, but you can find things like veggie sushi, sandwiches, rice circles (onigiri), rice triangles wrapped in seaweed, and so on. But you need to be careful, since there may be a slice of ham or a bit of tuna mixed in. If you can read the ingredients list, you’re good to go. Otherwise, ask the attendant for help.

In my experience, the one thing that is a safe bet are the rice balls wrapped in tofu skin, often with black sesame seeds on top and some slices of ginger. They usually come in packs of three and are pretty easy to find. Very nice with a cold Kirin.

Things to consider

One thing that bears repeating is just saying you’re a vegetarian may not be good enough. Things like ham, bacon, and fish flakes (see above pic) have a way of making it into dishes, even after you tell someone that you don’t eat meat or fish.

For dishes you’re unfamiliar with, you’ll still need to ask if there’s meat inside (The easiest way to say this is “O niku haite masuka?”) or fish (O sakana haite masuka?) Even then, you might want to say that you don’t eat ham (the easiest way to say this is “hamu dame desu” = “ham is bad”) or bacon (“beicon dame desu”).

Useful words and phrases
Watashi wa shojin desu = I’m a vegetarian. (You can also say “Begiterian desu.”)
vegetarian = begiterian
vegan = biigan
yasai = vegetables
tamago = egg
chizu = cheese
niku (or "o niku" to be more polite) = meat
sakana (or "o sakana") = fish
seahudo = seafood
ebi = shrimp
hamu = ham
dashi = fish stock (used *extensively* in Japanese cooking)
katsuo = fish flakes (these are added to many dishes. If you're giving your server a list of things NOT to add to your food, remember this one!)
yasai tempura = vegetable tempura (remember there is often a piece of shrimp, so you’ll need to say “Ebi nashi.”)
yaki udon = fried udon
yaki soba – fried soba
Watashi wa (niku/sakana/tamago) tabemasen. = I don’t eat (meat/fish/eggs).
Niku/sakana nuki. = Without meat/fish.
Kore wa niku/sakana haite masuka? = Does this have meat/fish in it?
Kore wa begiterian desuka? = Is this vegetarian?

Vegetarian, Vegan, and Food Allergy Printable Flash Cards

These are a great resource which you can hold up and show to a restaurant server. Here are a couple of examples:

Click here for the KK post about the flash cards. Click here to to go to the original site with the full list of the printable cards.

Useful links:

Vege Tokyo
Happy Cow
Google Map showing locations of Tokyo veggie restaurants

Well, I hope that helps some. I’ll add more info to this post as I have it.

Happy toy hunting, and happy eating!



Anonymous said...

Nice list here. Thanks for posting. There was one part that I thought was a little misleading though, the zaru soba section. I have yet to find a soba restaurant that serves a vegetarian cold soba tsuyu. It's always made with dashi (the bonito version). The only vegetarian soba tsuyu I've found is in the health food store. If you've know of a restaurant that serves a cold vegetarian tsuyu, please post as I'd love to try it out! Thanks.

andy b said...

Ah the soy sauce... Well, I guess it depends on how strict you are. If you want to completely avoid the possibility of any of the sauces, cooking oils, stocks etc having any animal products, I think the only option is to eat at a 100% vegetarian or vegan restaurant. Or maybe an Indian restaurant.

Dashi, chicken stock, beef stock, and other sauces are just so widely used. But yeah it's a good point.

For super strict vegetarians, either cooking at home, eating at a veggie or Indian restaurant, or a small number of strictly "veggie compatible" restaurants are probably your best bets.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, it's very difficult to avoid animal based stock, but I feel recommending soba to vegetarians is quite misleading. I don't think avoiding animal based soup stock is being strict, it's just being vegetarian. I know a lot of people would be pretty upset to learn soba tsuyu actually contained fish. But again, I think it's really cool you posted this article. Toy hunting vegetarians need all the help they can get!

andy b said...

Can't say I agree with the use of "misleading." I mean you can make the same case with nearly everything in Japan since even "vegetarian" food is not segregated in terms of the use of oil, pans, cutlery, etc. Even innocuous sounding vegetarian pasta could well be prepared with chicken or vegetable stock.

It's an unfortunate truth that outside of specialized restaurants there is extremely limited recognition of vegetarianism in Japan.

So again if you are very strict or religious you may want to avoid Japanese restaurants *completely* - unless the place is explicitly veggie or vegan. It's really as simple as that. Indian restaurants may be OK.

NOTE: That's why I put up a series of links so people can locate 100% veggie places.

Anyway I'll add a note letting people know the soba sauce is likely not vegetarian.

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