Your Guide To Vegetarian Dining In Japan
Welcome to Japan! The marvelous country of delicious food, proudly counting 557 Michelin stars between 429 restaurants, should mean there’s something for everyone… right? While there is indeed a lot of options, the language sometimes can be a hindrance to find the food you’re looking for, especially when you’re a vegetarian who cannot speak Japanese. And you’re on a budget. But there are ways to get your animal-friendly food! Here’s our guide to vegetarian dining in Japan.
Vegetarian dining in a restaurant:
Be aware that even though there are often pictures of your dish on the menu, you need to pay attention to the broth – especially in Ramen or Soba shops. This is because the soup can be made of fish, chicken or beef broth. If you’re not sure, ask the staff there – they are often willing to help. Usually before you get your seat they will ask you how many people are in your party, and then you can ask them:
- “Excuse me, is there meat or fish in the broth? Could I have soy instead?”
Pronounced: “Sumimasen, kono supu no nakaniha sakana ka o niku wa haite imasu ka? Kawari ni daizu ni shite itadakemasen ka?”
Or ask right in the beginning:
- “Excuse me, are there Vegetarian options?”
Pronounced: “Sumimasen, bejitarianmenyu wa arimasu ka?”
- “Do you have something without meat, fish or seafood?”
Pronounced: “Nanika nikumo sakanamo haitte inai ryori wa arimasu ka?”
Usually the staff will cross their arms, which means no, or give you an okay. And then bon appétit – or in Japanese: “Ittadakimasu!”
Vegetarian dining at home:
If you’re on a budget like me and have to cook at home a lot, then the supermarkets in Japan are fantastic! Not only are there many seaweed products ( 海苔 ) to make your rice exciting, but the soy variety truly amazed me and there are so many products you can indulge in as a meat substitute.
There are many varieties of tofu that taste great with soy sauce, pure or with some chive, for example. They also have fermented soybeans, called nattō ( 納豆 ), which are often eaten for breakfast. They are not everyone’s taste, but are said to be the secret for the longevity among Japanese.
If you’re shopping for groceries, it could be useful to know some of the Kanji written on the package and see if they contain meat products. Here are the most common ones:
- Pork ( 豚肉 ), which is pronounced “butaniku”.
- Beef ( 牛肉 ), which is pronounced “gyuniku”.
- Chicken ( 鶏肉 ), which is pronounced “toriniku”.
- Fish ( 魚 ), which is pronounced “sakana”.
- Seafood ( 海鮮 ), which is pronounced “kaisen”.
Or pack up on onigiri ( 御握り), which are spiced rice balls that are a cheap option for a snack in between and are deliciously filled with seaweed or red beans. There are also many sushi options in the supermarkets or convenience stores without any seafood, like inari-sushi ( いなり寿司 ), or filled ones with pickles, nattō , avocados and cucumbers as alternatives.
Vegetarian dining in Japan’s world of sweets:
Here comes my favorite food section! Since us vegetarians aren’t able to eat as much of the traditional dishes in Japan, since it’s very meat-based, we can have even more sweets!
Japanese desserts are wonderful, and as I found out, not very sweet. Many of them are made out of adzuki beans ( 餡/小豆餡 ) or matcha ( 抹茶), and those delightful tryouts you can eat with less (or no) guilt – besides, they look great on Instagram. They don’t contain a lot of sugar but taste amazing!
Be careful, when you buy snacks in a store and think they contain strawberries look again; once I thought to buy donuts with berries and realized it was filled with the red beans instead. It was still delicious, after overcoming the first shock. If you are in Japan you I recommend you to try the traditional sweets, such as:
- Manjū – confection made from rice powder and flour, filled with red bean paste ( 饅頭 ).
- Dango – sweet dumplings made from rice flour ( 団子 ).
- Tayaki – fish-shaped cake, filled with red and white bean paste ( たい焼き).
- Daifuku – small rice cakes, stuffed with red bean paste( 大福 ).
- Anmitsu – cubes of agar jelly, fresh fruits and sweet red bean paste ( 餡蜜 ).
- Wagashi – Japanese confections, often served with tea ( 和菓子 ).
This list is very short, but the most fun is to try them one by one and let yourself surprise, I hope you find your new favorite candy here in Japan and have lots of fun trying new things. I wish you a great (food) journey and eat to your heart’s and stomach’s content!
Please note: If you type the Japanese writing, the Kanji, in Google Maps it will show you the nearest spots or supermarkets where you can find them.