Guest article by Hui Liang
EDITOR'S UPDATE April 2020: This article was originally published as a guest post in March 2018, when I had not yet been to Japan myself. Now that I've spent a month traveling all over the country, I will soon be updating this article with lots more info.
In the meantime, check out the links below to all the articles I've written about Japan so far. More vegan guides to Japanese destinations coming soon!
Is it possible to be vegan in Japan – the land of sushi?
Last summer, I traveled to Japan for the first time as a vegan and found out. I didn’t really know what to expect before going, but I anticipated a challenge since the country is famous for seafood and Kobe beef.
The fact that I was traveling with non-vegan friends would make it all the more challenging. I did a little bit of research before leaving and prepared for the worst by packing a bunch of Larabars and nuts with me. Little did I know, I was in for a ride.
Here’s my honest account of what it was like on my first trip as a vegan in Japan. I’m about to share the good, the bad and the ugly, including the mistakes I made, so that you can avoid them.
Vegan in Osaka
To be fair, I was only in Osaka for a day, but I found it quite difficult to be vegan in this bustling city. Most of the food that was popular here was not vegan, and I ended up making several mistakes here.
After sightseeing at the Osaka Castle, my friends and I found a restaurant nearby that said “vegetable curry” on their menu, so we went in. Turned out, this restaurant only served okonomiyaki and takoyaki, two dishes that Osaka is famous for.
Okonomiyaki is similar to an omelet, usually made with seafood or pork, and takoyaki is squid cooked in balls of dough. The words “vegetable curry” on the menu were only referring to a flavor of those dishes, but there was no way we could’ve known that, since the rest of the menu was in Japanese.
If I had read this very helpful article by More Than Veggies beforehand, I would have known that, even if there had been a vegetable curry on the menu, it probably would not have been vegan.
I tried explaining to the waiter in English and broken Japanese that I didn’t eat meat, and he understood. However, he said the only thing he could make for me was a vegetable okonomiyaki, which still contained egg.
At this point, I felt this was the best option because we were all starving, we couldn’t read the rest of the menu (Google Translate didn’t work), and we didn’t see any other restaurants nearby.
Editor's Note: There are several restaurants that offer vegan versions of okonomoyaki. You just need to know where to find them. Check HappyCow for this, and also see what I've written on this blog about vegan okonomoyaki in Kyoto and vegan okonomoyaki in Hiroshima.
At night, I made a similar mistake again by going to a ramen restaurant that only served one type of ramen, but we didn’t know that until we had already lined up for 45 minutes. So I ended up ordering whatever ramen they had, didn’t drink the soup, and just ate the noodles and vegetable toppings.
In hindsight, I could’ve probably avoided these mistakes with better planning, but it was difficult to anticipate them without knowing what was normal first. Furthermore, it is also hard to think when you are tired, jetlagged, and don’t speak the language.
I wasn’t proud of the mistakes I had made on my first day as a vegan in Japan, but I didn’t want to dwell on them either, so I decided to accept them as lessons for the rest of the trip.
The next day, my friends and I woke up to catch the train to Kyoto. At the train station, I bought myself an ice coffee and an ume onigiri – a triangle of rice wrapped in seaweed and filled with plums.
These were sold all over Japan in convenience stores and markets. They became my go-to snack in Japan whenever I couldn’t find anything to eat.
Vegan in Kyoto
EDITOR'S UPDATE: For lots more recommendations on where to find vegan food in Kyoto, see this article.
By lunchtime we were in Kyoto, and we had lunch at the Nishiki Market, a large food hall with tons of family-owned stalls serving traditional and modern Japanese food. The best part was that they had plenty of vegan options, and my friends and I could choose what to eat without having to part ways.
I ended up eating some more freshly made onigiris with different types of pickled vegetables, a skewer of roasted rice, and the best soy ice cream I’ve ever had in my life.
One thing to note about Japanese culture is that they love soy, so everywhere you go you’ll find soy ice cream, soymilk, soy donuts and even soy croquettes.
On our way back to the hotel, I spotted a vegan restaurant called Veg Out. At dinnertime, I returned by myself and ordered a platter of locally grown vegetables.
The dish contained radishes, carrots, beets and some other vegetables that I did not recognize. It was incredibly flavorful and very much needed, since at that point I’d only had pickled vegetables in Japan so far. Fresh vegetables were surprisingly hard to find in Japan.
At Veg Out, I also had a chance to chat with the waitress about what Japanese people thought of veganism. She told me that veganism was still a relatively unfamiliar concept to most Japanese people, but that the attitude towards it is mostly curiosity.
The chef in the restaurant also recommended two vegan restaurants for me to try when I got to Tokyo. I was really touched by their friendliness.
The following day, my friends and I visited the famous Arashiyama Bamboo Forest and tried out kaiseki, which are artfully crafted multi-course meals that Kyoto is famous for.
Thankfully, they did have ones without any meat, and I was able to look up all of the Japanese ingredients to make sure they were vegan. Most of them were made from beans, flour and soy.
Afterward, we walked around the Gion district, also known as the “Geisha district”, and treated ourselves to some nice, cold, matcha shaved ice. It was so refreshing in the sweltering heat. In Kyoto, I had started to find my feet as a vegan in Japan.
Vegan Accommodation in Kyoto
Vegan Minshuku Sanbiki Neko offers fully vegan bed and breakfast accommodation in traditional Japanese style. Guest sleep on futons in private tatami mat rooms with en-suite bathrooms. The home-cooked vegan breakfast is delicious! See their website for further details.
Vegan in Tokyo
Our third and last stop in Japan was Tokyo. We stayed in the Shinjuku area, and, thanks to the Happy Cow app, I was able to easily locate many vegan restaurants and restaurants with vegan options. I found everything from vegan donuts in train stations to macro bowls in supermarkets.
At night, my friends and I also got to go check out the famous Omoide Yokocho alleyways, where people usually go for drinks and grilled meat. But, to my delight, they also had plenty of grilled mushrooms, green peppers, and tofu.
One of my favorite meals in Tokyo was at Ain Soph Journey, a restaurant that one of the chefs in Kyoto had recommended to me.
The menu was a mix of Japanese and western style dishes. I ended up ordering something called the “Heavenly Pancakes”.
Once I tasted them, I understood why they were called that. They were light and airy like clouds, and the freshly made whipped cream was to die for. My friends ended up ordering rice with tempeh, which was also delicious.
To cap off my vegan journey in Japan, I stopped by 8ablish, the other vegan restaurant that had been recommended to me. It was a more upscale vegan restaurant and a bit pricier, but I figured I could treat myself to some fine wine and vegan ice cream.
The ice cream was made from soy milk, and it was rich and decadent. I chose hazelnuts, chocolate caramel and chocolate biscuits as my toppings and ate it while I watched people walk by. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to end my trip.
Overall, it is definitely possible to travel as a vegan in Japan, but it does take a bit of research and patience due to the language barrier. The vegan movement in Japan is growing strong, especially in Tokyo and Kyoto, and you should have no problem finding vegan food there.
However, in cities like Osaka or Fukuoka , where veganism is not as popular, you do have to plan a little more. This guide to Kyushu has some helpful tips on finding vegan food in Fukuoka and other places on the island of Kyushu.
Tips for Being Vegan in Japan
Before my trip, I was worried that being vegan in Japan would detract from my experience, but it actually made it more interesting. It showed me a different side of Japanese cuisine that I didn’t know existed, and I had a ton of fun exploring streets that I probably wouldn’t have walked down if I hadn’t been looking for vegan food.
This experience also taught me what it’s like to travel with non-vegan friends and how to not let mistakes ruin your travels. I am excited to return to Japan someday to try more types of vegan food and see how far the vegan movement will go there.
Hui Liang is a freelance writer and blogger with a passion for travel and personal development. She hopes to use her own knowledge and experiences in solo traveling, overcoming fears, and goal setting to inspire others to go after their own dreams.
IMG_1507 by Kyle McDonald CC license
Onigiri by Joey Rozier CC license
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The food of Vegan is already famous. I would like to make a trip with my husband to Japan and enjoy the food with him. Thanks
Japan can definitely be a challenge…I remember eating plain white rice from 7-11 on a street corner when I couldn’t find the veggie restaurant I’d seen on Happycow. Thanks for sharing these helpful tips and being so honest about your experiences, good and bad.
Glad you found them helpful Caitlin. I think it’s super important to be honest because I sometimes feel like vegans are expected to be perfect all the time and that is just incredibly intimidating to anyone who might want to try out the vegan lifestyle!
Thank you so much for the information! I am planning on studying abroad, working, and ultimately living in Japan, so this is a big help!!! Many thanks!! ❤❤❤
That’s wonderful, I’m so glad it’s helpful! Best of luck to you with your adventures in Japan!
Thank you so much! I’m vegan and going to Japan in April and I was very worried that it would take away from the trip or i would inconvenience them. Thanks to you I feel so much better already and I’m super excited for the trip!
That’s great! I’m sure you’ll have a wonderful time in Japan. Do get in touch afterwards and let me know how it goes!
Will do, thank you!
Thank you so much for all your help! I’m excited to try the heavenly pancakes and maybe splash out at 8stablish on my husbands birthday in Tokyo ! We are in all these cities in late March and April so I’m sure the vegan printable cards the rice triangles and everything will get experienced !! ???
I’m sure you and your husband will have a wonderful trip! It’d be awesome if you could comment when you get back to let us know how it goes and to tell us about any discoveries you made that aren’t mentioned here. Bon voyage!
Thank you so much for the article!
I’m so glad you enjoyed it!
Excellent article, The options and number of restaurants gets better here all the time. There’s even a fully vegan bed and breakfast in Kyoto now called Vegan Minshuku Sanbiki Neko.
That’s great Craig, thanks for the info! I’m planning to travel around Japan next year, so I will definitely check that place out.
Miso soup is made with dashi. Def not vegan.
Thanks for pointing that out, Jim. Dashi is definitely one of the trickiest things about being vegetarian or vegan in Japan. You could try asking for the dashi to be made just with kombu (seaweed) and not with bonito (dried fish flakes), but the language barrier might make this difficult. I’ve edited the post so that readers will know to watch out for this.
Dashi is not made on the spot, lol. It’s like a stock that is made in advance of cooking with it and it takes time to make. So asking them to only use kombu is not a solution.I don’t think you will be able to eat anything with Dashi in it u less you are at a vegetarian restaurant.
Thanks for that input, Susan. I will be in Japan myself in a couple of months, so I’ll soon find out firsthand how easy it is to find vegan dashi.
I can relate with this post, I am also struggling as a Muslim to find Halal but for vegan I would recommend Indian and other Asian restaurant they have plenty of options for you. Dry fruits and chocolates are really safe option, if you don’t find anything. Japan is Amazing ❣️?
Thanks for sharing your advice, Sumiya! I’m not sure that chocolates are always a safe option for vegans, though, as they often contain cow’s milk. Sometimes you can find dark chocolate that’s vegan, but you do need to check the ingredients to be sure. I’m glad you’re enjoying Japan!
Hi Wendy, it’s a ways out but my husband and I are planning on a trip to Japan the summer of 2020. Our main hope is to spend a couple of months walking in the mountains, linking up a few of the monastic trails etc. We’ve been daydreaming about it for a few years, but now that we’ve become vegan I’m wondering how viable it is to do a 6-8 week hike in rural Japan and still maintain a vegan diet. Do you have any idea if that would be possible? If we plan to hike, we’ll need calories and I feel a bit daunted by how feasible this will all be.
That sounds like an amazing trip! From what I know about Japanese cuisine, my guess is that the monastic trails would be the easiest place in Japan to find vegan food. That’s because you should be able to get Buddhist temple food easily, which is vegetarian and mostly vegan. I’m planning a trip to Japan this November and would like to do a few days on the Kumano Kodo, so ask me again in a few months!
Is udon vegan? I think the soup is made from dashi but I’m not sure whether they usually use the vegan one or not. And is tempura vegan? Do they put eggs in the batter? And are there vegan options in the food markets ie takashimaya where people grab food to go to eat on the train? I’m really worried I can’t find things to eat when I’m there and my family has to accommodate with my diet.
Those are all good questions. When are you going to Japan? I will be there myself this November and will be able to give you solid answers then. I know that in Tokyo station there’s a place called Ekibenya that sells vegan bento boxes for the train. I will check about udon and tempura when I’m there, but if you need to know before then maybe get in touch with my friend Lilia. She is vegan and lives in Kyoto. Here is her Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/bluevagabond/
This is a great article! We are on our last day here in Osaka and I’ve found it pretty hard to be honest! Travelling with young kids and a meaty hubby, with no Japanese language skills has been challenging. I almost felt disrespectful asking to remove the meat or is they could make anything! I have just been trying to look for things that looked like veggies and hoping for the best! Glad to know I am not alone! I’ve been living off inari and triangle sushi 🙂
I’m sorry to hear you’ve been having a hard time! Traveling with non-vegans definitely makes it more challenging. I’m actually writing this from the Trans Siberian train across Russia and will be arriving in Japan in November. I’ve been learning a little Japanese in preparation for this trip, so we’ll see how I go. I’ve heard that Japanese people value service in restaurants very highly, so hopefully they won’t mind accommodating special requests.
I really enjoyed reading your blog post about veganism in Japan. I learned a lot about the different ways to go vegan in Japan and some of the mistakes I should avoid. Thank you for writing this!
I’m so glad that the blog post was helpful to you! Before traveling to Japan myself, I was a bit worried because I had read that there was fish hidden in everything and that it was very difficult to find purely vegan food there, but my experience was very different. In the past few years, the situation has improved a lot, and more and more restaurants are adapting their dishes to make them suitable for vegans. As long as you have a directory such as HappyCow on hand, it’s really not hard to find vegan options there, including vegan versions of many traditional Japanese dishes.