November 16th, 2019 | Updated on June 27th, 2022
Despite being mostly vegetarian prior to the 18th century, Japan’s meat intake is slowly increasing. The good news is, so are their accommodations to plant-based diets.
But, it still takes some preparation investigation skills to locate and adjust your options for vegetarian friendly food.
If you want to indulge in Japanese culture without sacrificing your dietary values then know what to expect from your visit to Japan.
Use this ultimate guide to explore Japan’s vegetarian cuisines, learn how to order plant-based meals, and understand cultural norms.
1. Know Some Japanese
Before you leave for your trip to Japan you should brush up on some phrases to help you navigate the country and their restaurants. Learn some vegetarian Japanese food phrases like “Watashi wa bejitarian des,” which means “I am vegetarian.”
Also, know some specific ingredients to avoid like dashi (fish broth), tamago (egg), niku (meat), and sakana (fish). Add the word tabemasen to the end to say, “I don’t eat.”
To makes things easy for you and your waiter, make a card with the food you do not eat. This avoids translation issues like pronunciations. It also keeps you from having to repeat yourself.
2. Know That Vegetarian Might Mean Some Meat
Unless you are at a vegetarian restaurant there may be some confusion as to what classifies as a vegetarian. And some people may not have even heard of veganism at all.
In some cases, chicken and fish are not considered to be “meat.” Only beef and pork would be discharged from your meal if you say you are vegetarian.
Another issue is that garnishes or a little bit of meat are still added to the meal even if it looks vegetarian. If the main ingredient isn’t “meat” it still might have fish flakes onto or sauces with a meat base.
3. Be Specific About Dietary Restrictions
To avoid any confusion and unpleasant ingredients in your mouth, be specific as possible about your preferences.
A lot of the menus are in Japanese and do not list all of the ingredients, only the main ones. And in some instances, restaurants will not change their menu items if their meals are pre-prepared.
So, before you sit down at a restaurant, tell them about your specific needs and ask whether they can accommodate you. You do not want to waste time with an empty stomach calling to you.
Use the specific phrases, not just the word “meat.”
4. Ask About Dashi
Traditional Japanese cuisine like ramen, miso, and dipping sauce all contain dashi (a fish stock). So, even if you have a plant full of vegetables, you may be getting a little surprise in your liquid companions.
Some vegetarians make an exception to avoid finding alternatives. Dashi is so embedded in Japanese cuisine that without it the flavors are bland.
But, if you aren’t willing to compromise your standards you can avoid foods with broth and sauces. Some restaurants are making dashi-free options but they are hard to come by.
5. Carry Your Own Sauce
A good tactic to stay vegetarian in Japan without eating tasteless food is to carry your own sauce. This can be a simple soy sauce just to splash on your feed.
You can find markets that make organic sauces. Then translate the label to ensure it does not contain any animal products. They sell small bottles that can fit into your purse or pants pocket.
As to not offend any restaurant, be sure to tell your waiter the reason for your actions. Ask for no sauce to avoid wasting food as well. This is respectful to the establishment.
6. Stay At A Buddhist Temple
Particularly found in the city of Kyoto are Buddhist temples that still follow the traditional diet called shojin ryori.
Food is sacred in Buddhist religious theology. That means it is against the violence of animals, so cuisines are free of animal products. It also requires delicately balances preparation of colors, flavors, and nutrients.
If you are looking for vegan Japanese food then staying at a Buddhist temple will ensure that you have 3 meals a day without effort.
This is a great option to learn more about Japanese history and religion.
You will also find that more modern Buddhists now include meat in their diet, so be cautious when going to a seemingly Buddhist restaurant.
7. Search For Vegan/Vegetarian Restaurants
When traveling around Japan it is best to map out places that are exclusively vegan or vegetarian.
Japanese food bloggers do mention where to find these types of restaurants in major cities like Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto. You can also search on international sites like Happy Cow to locate plant-based restaurants.
Getting a Japanese sim card to use during your stay is helpful when searching for nearby places. Google maps will be able to detect your location and make recommendations.
8. Buy Some Snacks
Not all your eating options are at restaurants. There are Konbinis (convenience stores) and supermarkets that have many vegetarian and vegan options.
Rice balls (onigiri) are a popular treat that can be bought in the frozen section filled with options like kelp and pickled plum instead of fish. Soybean and rice snacks, as well as edamame, are available to munch on in between meals.
You will find a range of chain stores like 7-11 and local organic markets, as well as, many depachika (fastfood courts) to explore.
Keep these snacks in your room or while site-seeing just in case you can’t find a vegan or vegetarian meal while out.
9. Try Simple Dishes
No matter which type of location you choose, it is best to pick simplistic foods to limit the chance of meat being added to the dish.
Noodles can be ordered in both like ramen or it can be served plain in a basket. Order it plain then add your own sauce or spices to make it your own. Rice is also another simple option that can be decorated with your own additives.
Tofu is available just about anywhere in various forms. Get an easy tofu dish like fried or grilled then add your spice.
Vegetables or tofu as tempura is always yummy plus you get a traditional Japanese dish without altering it. A salad is also another meal like is fail-safe, delicious, and nutritious.
10. Choose Multicultural Cuisines
There aren’t just Japanese style restaurants in Japan. You can always try a western-style restaurant or other Asian cuisine like Indian.
While this might not make sense eating other nationalities while in Japanese it doesn’t hurt to do it once or twice. You just might get tired of asking to hold the dashi.
Some restaurants have a range of options, so you and your friends can both be satisfied with your dining choice.
11. Try Cooking At Your Homestay
If you want to be sure that you stay vegan in Japan try cooking your own meals when in doubt. You will know exactly what goes into your food when you cook it yourself.
You can stay at a homestay like an Airbnb to have access to a stove or oven. The shop for raw vegetables to make a delicious stir-fry without the worry of animal products sneaking there way in.
This will also help you to get familiar with local produce and spices. You can feel like a local while shopping at the market and meet new people.
This also avoids the worry of using the same pots and pans that also cook meat. Fats can easily transfer from one meat dish to your veggie plate without your knowing it.
12. Take A Cooking Class
Learning more about Japanese cuisine through cooking it yourself is a great way to understand the ingredients. This will make it easier to know what to avoid, alter, and order as is at while dining out.
You can also treat this as a tourist activity to learn more about Japanese culture. Take it as a special souvenir to cook your favorite dishes when you return home.
Most cooking classes are located within urban cities. Make sure you research before your trip in case you need to make reservations.
Planning For Vegetarian Friendly Food
If you want to eat vegetarian friendly food while on your trip to Japan then you need to do some research beforehand. Stay nearby vegetarian or vegan restaurants and make sure you know where to shop for snacks.
Look for a hotel or homestay by visiting our travel hub section for the best deals