I’m not going to sugar-coat it: visiting Japan as a vegan isn’t always easy. There’s the language barrier, the desire to eat like a local and the fact that they just really love their pork! But avoiding animal products doesn’t mean that you have to miss out on trying traditional Japanese dishes – with a little research and forward-planning, you can have an amazing experience while staying true to your own values.
Below are my tips for surviving (and thriving!) in Japan on a vegan diet. Hungry yet?
I’ve always wanted to try fresh, authentic ramen. The anime shows I watched growing up always made it look so delicious! But when I arrived in Japan, I ran into a problem. Most traditional ramen is made with pork as a key ingredient in the broth, even if it isn’t listed on the menu. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to drink a pig.
On one of our last nights in Tokyo, my boyfriend surprised me with dinner at T’s TanTan, a completely vegan ramen restaurant! It’s tucked away inside Tokyo Station, and proudly proclaims, ‘All dishes animal product free!’ Needless to say, I was hooked. We dined on the most incredible, creamy ramen along with crispy vegetable gyoza – the portions were huge! It was the perfect end to a wonderful trip and I highly recommend you check it out.
You can’t leave Japan without trying a katsu curry. It’s unlike any curry dish you’ve ever tasted and in my opinion, it blows Indian food right out of the water. Being Japan, they’re predominately chicken or pork-based, which is a bit of a barrier. Even if you order the curry without the meat, there are usually little bits of pork or beef floating around in the sauce. Bleh. So what’s a plant-based girl (or guy) to do?
Enter CoCo Ichibanya – this chain curry house has recently introduced a vegan menu, and it’s absolutely incredible. They boast a completely meat-free sauce and a huge variety of vegetables to add to your overflowing bowl of curry. It’s the perfect option if you’re on a budget – inexpensive, healthy and delicious!
One thing that the Japanese do really well is, surprisingly, Italian food! They really, really love their pizza and pasta. I’ve never tried a vegan pizza in Japan (although I’m sure they exist, somewhere!) but I have had the most incredible pasta.
One place I can recommend is Capricciosa, a chain Italian restaurant found in a number of locations around the country. Order the penne arrabiata – you won’t regret it. It’s a slightly spicy, tomato-based pasta dish with slivers of thinly-sliced garlic mixed through. At least, I think it’s garlic. It’s definitely some kind of vegetable – whatever it is, it’s delicious.
It definitely feels a little odd to be sitting in an Italian restaurant in the middle of Tokyo, but there’s a certain charm to it. Plus, you really can’t go wrong with pasta!
No matter where you are in Japan, you won’t need to look far to find a convenience store. The most common chains are Family Mart, Lawson and 7 Eleven and they are absolute lifesavers when you need something to eat, fast. If you can pull yourself away from the racks of adorable Japanese candy you’ll find a great variety of vegan snack options.
I always reach for onigiri – a ball of rice wrapped in nori and stuffed with a filling of your choice. Opt for seaweed or pickled plum for an authentic taste of Japan without the meat or dairy! The small bags of fresh edamame are another staple, along with the zaru soba (not quite restaurant-quality, but still delicious!) You can also pick up handy little fruit pots and bananas along with bottled fruit juices, which are perfect for a long journey on the Shinkansen. Another great, budget-friendly option!
I’ve never been one for simple meals. I like different colours, textures and tastes all on one plate! But when I discovered zaru soba on my first trip to Japan, it was love at first bite.
Insanely fresh buckwheat noodles, green onion, shredded nori and a delicious dipping sauce make up this minimalistic dish. The noodles are cold, which is surprising at first, but you won’t want it any other way. Wander into pretty much any restaurant and they’re likely to have this on the menu – it’s a staple, and you’ll soon see why. No other meal so perfectly encompasses the Japanese culture like zaru soba, and if you want to fit in with the locals, don’t forget to slurp the noodles!
Visiting a sushi restaurant as a vegan can be a bit confronting – there’s no way round it, it does smell like fish! But if you can get past that, you’re in for a dining experience that you’ll never forget.
I love the ‘help yourself’ style of sushi restaurant, where the food travels around on a conveyor belt and you simply grab a plate whenever you please. The sushi chefs work in the middle of the room, shouting greetings to customers and deftly forming balls of rice like they were born to do it. It’s fascinating to watch: their attention to detail is second to none.
Don’t leave without picking up a couple of inari pockets – balls of sushi rice stuffed inside seasoned tofu. Dipped in a mixture of soy sauce and wasabi, you’ll wonder how you ever survived without them! Make sure you save room for the simple cucumber maki rolls, though.
If you’re feeling adventurous, why not try a natto roll? Don’t be intimidated by the description – fermented soybeans are nothing to be scared of! I admit, I was apprehensive at first, but my fears melted away at the first bite. It has the same stringy texture as mozzarella cheese, and the flavour is uniquely delicious. You’ll never regret trying it!
I know what you’re thinking: ‘Subway? Why would I eat that in Japan? I can find it anywhere!’ Just hear me out.
The Japanese don’t really do breakfast – at least, not the kind I’m used to. Got a craving for toast, cereal or oatmeal? You’re out of luck. If you’re staying in a Western-style hotel with a buffet or room service, you probably won’t have this problem. But if you’ve booked a ryokan (I recommend Kimi Ryokan in Tokyo!) you’ll need to get creative.
I definitely recommend trying a traditional Japanese breakfast at least once in your life. It’s a great experience! But if pickled vegetables, sticky rice and miso soup don’t really do it for you first thing in the morning, you’ll need to find another option. That’s where Subway comes in. It’s cheap, relatively healthy and easy to grab and go – perfect for when you just want to get on with exploring this magical country!
Sadly, the bread at Subway is not vegan. I learned that the hard way! A great alternative is the avocado-veggie salad, paired with a side of wedges (they just call them ‘potato’). To order, just ask for ‘avocado begi salad o kudasai’ and point to the photo, if they have one. I know a salad and potato wedges seems like a bit of an odd breakfast but honestly, it’s a lifesaver when you can’t face another grain of rice!
Subway is also the perfect place to practice your language skills in a familiar environment – most us know the routine of a Subway order, so you’ll be able to get a general idea of what the server is saying. Breakfast and a Japanese lesson all in one – how perfect is that?
Ain Soph Soar
Although veganism is less common in Japan than in, say, London, it’s definitely gaining ground. The Happy Cow app has saved me on more than a few occasions – just type in your location and it will bring up a list of vegan and vegetarian restaurants in your area. Ain Soph Soar in Ikebukuro was suggested to me one evening – it’s a little pricier than what I would usually expect, but I decided to give it a try. I’m so glad I did!
If you’re looking for high-quality, carefully curated vegan food, this restaurant is a must-try. The service is attentive, they use organic produce and their cold-pressed juices are to die for. I had the tomato soup and the vegetable wrap, which included the most authentic soymeat I’ve ever tasted!
I believe Ain Soph Soar is part of a trio of vegan restaurants: Ain Soph Journey and Ain Soph Ripple can also be found around Tokyo, each with their own unique menu and vibe. I haven’t tried them yet, but they’re definitely on the list for my next trip.
Eggs ‘n’ Things
Don’t be fooled by the name – Eggs ‘n’ Things is a must-visit for vegans. Situated in trendy Harajuku, it’s the perfect place to people-watch and pick up some fashion inspiration (if you’re brave enough!)
Once you get through the ever-present queue at the door, you’ll find yourself in the cutest Hawaiian-inspired restaurant. I admit, the menu is mostly made up of egg dishes and non-vegan items, but there are some gems hidden in there! My picks are the acai bowl, papaya board or the pitaya bowl – to be honest, they’re the only vegan options! But they’re totally worth it, I promise. Fruit can be incredibly expensive in Japan (hello $100 strawberries!) so if you’re missing your usual smoothie bowls and fruity feasts, Eggs ‘n’ Things is definitely worth a visit.
I was pleasantly surprised when I arrived in the little town of Nikko, situated in Tochigi Prefecture. I was really just there for sightseeing, and wasn’t expecting to find any vegan options. Sure, the sacred Shinkyo Bridge was beautiful and the temples magnificent, but one thing really stood out – the vegan ice-cream!
We stumbled across the little stall as we made our way down the main street, searching for lunch options. At first I assumed it was churned from regular cow’s milk, but on further inspection I found that it was made entirely from soy milk. It was seriously good. Like, SERIOUSLY. Even my non-vegan boyfriend pronounced it ‘the best ice cream ever!’ If you come back from Nikko without trying this ice cream, I will be severely disappointed in you.
I should also mention that we found a vegan restaurant not too far from the stall – unfortunately it was closed, but I looked up the menu online and it sounds delicious. If you’re ever visiting Nikko, make sure to check out Yasai Café Meguri and let me know what you think!
So there you have it – my recommendations for eating vegan and healthy while travelling around Japan. It may not be the most vegan-friendly country on the planet, but it’s getting there. If there’s one thing that the Japanese know how to do, it’s adapt! I’m sure I’ll be updating this list fairly regularly – I try to visit Japan at least once a year, and I’m always on the hunt for new vegan options. If there’s anything that you think I’ve missed, comment down below and let me know!
Sticking to a plant-based diet while travelling doesn’t have to be difficult. If you’re passionate enough about your vegan lifestyle, you can find cruelty-free meals all around the globe. If I can do it in the land of sushi and sashimi, you can do it anywhere.
Sayonara, and happy travels!