Sushi with seafood. Chicken yakitori. Wagyu beef Tonkotsu ramen with pork bone. Dairy from Hokkaido. Japanese cuisine isn’t entirely vegan. The Land of the Rising Sun, however, is also the Land of the Rising Vegan Scene, with an ever-expanding collection of plant-powered restaurants all around the country.
It’s not easy being a herbivore in Japan. Meat may be a recent craze, but seafood has long been a favorite. While it’s easy to distinguish tuna sushi from avocado and cucumber rolls, a deceptive ingredient known as dashi is far more difficult to notice. This common fish stock is used to season anything from ramen broths to plain rice, which keeps vegans on their toes.
Japan has not embraced veganism as swiftly as its Western neighbors. However, the old tradition of shojin ryori – the animal-free cuisine founded by Buddhist monks – has been joined by a burgeoning crop of contemporary cruelty-free diners who have imported their ideals from outside. From the capital to Kyoto to the country’s answer to California, here are Top 6 vegan-friendly cities in Japan – beginning in the icy (and meaty) north.
The capital of Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s four major islands, specializes in seafood, Japan’s best dairy, and jingisukan (Genghis Khan), a mutton beer hall favorite. To put it another way, Sapporo isn’t exactly a vegan’s paradise.
A few blocks from Maruyama Park, however, is the Sapporo branch of the Itadakizen restaurant empire, whose organic cuisine features noodles, tofu, and regional vegetables grown in Hokkaido’s lush green fields. There is no sugar, no additives, and most emphatically no meat. Oh, and Sapporo’s most famous export, the beer of the same name, has no animal products. That’s great news.
For its love of food, Japan’s third-largest city has been dubbed the nation’s kitchen. They even coined a new term – kuidaore – to represent their eat-til-you-drop gluttony. Takoyaki (battered balls of octopus meat) and okonomiyaki (“as you like” egg pancakes) are two of Osaka’s favorite meals. Sorry about that, herbivores.
However, the vegan influence of neighboring Kyoto is beginning to permeate establishments in this meat-loving metropolis. In the Shinsaibashi shopping district, Paprika Shokudo is a Western-style restaurant with a Western-style cuisine — imagine dairy-free pizzas and parfait. Rocca offers a set menu of Japanese classics cooked with locally sourced veggies. Megumi also prepares traditional Japanese dishes without the use of animal products, such as an egg-free okonomiyaki.
Another of Japan’s largest towns, less than 90 minutes on the Shinkansen west of Osaka, is creating a thriving vegan community. Markets and eateries surround Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park, but vegans can skip the oysters and Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki in favor of one of the city’s growing number of plant-based options. Nagataya, only steps from the Atomic Bomb Dome — a symbol of the World War II disaster that is synonymous with Hiroshima – has long lines for cruelty-free okonomiyaki. Vegimo’s Scandinavian design is echoed in the organic, European-style food a few streets away.
On the other side of the Aioi Bridge, MOS Burger – one of 1,300 franchises around Japan – grills a 100 percent plant-based burger produced in accordance with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals to reduce their carbon impact. It’s no surprise that it’s dubbed the “Green Burger.”
Kamakura feels like a mix of California and Kyoto, with organic cuisine to match. Throughout the summer, the city’s two golden arcs of sand attract a steady stream of visitors an hour south of Tokyo, and seaside cafes like hemp-obsessed hippy café Magokoro solidify that West Coast atmosphere.
But climb the mountain temples that look out over the sea to learn about shojin ryori, a centuries-old Buddhist practice of vegan and vegetarian cuisine. Kamakura Hachinoki isn’t quite that old – it’s only been here since 1964, surrounded by Kamakura’s leafiest Zen temples – but it nonetheless serves an authentic shojin ryori multi-course menu fit for a monk in an exclusive dining area cloaked in forest. They’re just two of the many plant-based restaurants and cafés that constitute Kamakura Japan’s most underappreciated vegan destination.
Tokyo, like all international trends imported to Japan, is at the forefront of the country’s expanding veganism. While the number of vegan restaurants in Tokyo does not compare to those of similar-sized megacities like London or New York, herbivores should have no trouble finding vegan meals in the Japanese capital. Tokyo’s depachika underground dining halls and 24/7 konbini convenience stores serve ume onigiri (plum rice balls), mochi, dango and daifuku red bean paste snacks, daigaku imo (candied sweet potato), and meat-free macrobiotic dishes.
Vegan Store, which opened its blond timber doors in the Kappabashi kitchenware neighborhood in 2019, became Tokyo’s first wholly plant-based konbini. And vegans don’t have to miss out on Omoide Yokocho’s alleyways because the food booths here grill mushrooms, tofu, and peppers alongside the meat.
Naturally, Tokyo has the largest assortment of meat-free eateries in the country. T’s Tantan is a Tokyo station institution, serving up massive bowls of vegan ramen made with sesame and peanuts rather than dashi fish stock. 8ablish in Minato City is an elegant choice with a Mediterranean bent – ideal for travelers looking for a change from rice and vegetables with tofu ravioli or tempeh souvlaki. The eight-course degustation at Tudore Tranquility is as tranquil as the name suggests. The Ain Soph restaurant franchise serves delectable burgers around the city. That’s just the beginning of Tokyo’s fast changing vegan scene.
Japan’s imperial capital not only gives visitors a flavor of feudal Japan, but it also serves the best vegan cuisine in the country. The smorgasbord of meat-free meals on the menu explains the smorgasbord of Buddhist temples that made Kyoto famous. Shigetsu, located on the grounds of the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Tenryuji Temple, offers the most unique vegan dining experience in the country, serving sophisticated shojin ryori in traditional tatami rooms overlooking the garden’s koi pond.
Kyoto’s vegan options don’t stop there. For herbivores, many regular restaurants serve oshinko maki (pickled vegetable sushi) and tempura vegetables, making the most of Kyoto’s nutrient-rich kyoyasai vegetables. Nishiki Market’s kiosks are brimming with soy ice cream, toasted rice skewers, and pickled plants.
Mumokuteki on Teramachi commercial street serves Western fusion, while Little Heaven near Katabiranotsuji station wraps non-seafood sushi. Tousuiro serves upmarket kaiseki meals that feature tofu, which was introduced to Japan by Zen Buddhist monks in the late eighth century, when Kyoto’s neighbor Nara was the capital. Speaking of Nara, budget-conscious fine dining should take note that the temples in that region offer more affordable shojin ryori than Kyoto proper.