Before traveling to Japan, I was warned it would be tough to find vegan and vegetarian menu options at restaurants…but I didn’t buy it. I thought every menu would have options. How could they not?! Sadly, I was wrong.
Sure, every Japanese restaurant has an option, but often these dishes are smaller tapas-style offerings, which aren’t big enough for a meal.
By the end of our 12-day exploration of Tokyo and neighbouring cities, however, we felt we’d gotten pretty good at navigating the menus and knowing what to order.
Here are 10 tips for vegans and vegetarians while traveling in Japan.
- Most ramen broths are meat-based — ask for soy sauce broth instead, which is often available.
- Typical vegan friendly menu items at izakaya-style restaurants offer the following veg dishes prepared with their own twist: tofu, eggplant, edamame, tomato, rice, vegetable tempura, pickles, soba noodles.
- Warning: bonito (fish flakes) is commonly used as a garnish on many dishes, but not listed on the menu’s description.
- Avoid sushi restaurants unless a meal of cucumber roles appeals to you. Tamago nigiri is an option for vegetarians, but everything else is fishy.
- Most coffee shops offer soy milk. Hooray! You can also buy individually-portioned soy from most convenience stores to bring to restaurants or cafes that don’t offer it.
- When asking your server for help ordering (which may be tough unless you have a translator), you’ll probably need to specify “no fish”. Most Japanese servers we met thought fish was okay for vegetarians (in one case, a server thought we’d be okay with ham, too!).
- Meat is often included in dishes that sound vegetarian, eg. potato salad or tofu. To avoid a meat-scare, request “No o niku” (o niku means meat).
- Plan ahead to find veg-friendly eateries. Here’s my list of favourite vegan and vegetarian restaurants in Tokyo.
- Breakfast restaurants are few and far between in Japan, so head to the grocery store for a loaf of bread and ripe avocados to make avocado toast in your room.
- Download the Google Translate app, which will help you scan menus and avoid meat dishes.
- Watch out for dashi — the most common form of this cooking stock is fish-based.
More Travel Tips and Observations from Tokyo…
How Does Tokyo Differ from Your Average North American City?
At times, I felt like a character walking through a quirky Pleasantville-themed comic book. The streets, shops, signs and everything else felt from another world. City streets are surprisingly clean (considering Tokyo’s 13.5 million residents and lack of public garbage cans), everyone is nice (truthfully, we didn’t encounter one rude or unfriendly person during the entire trip), taxi doors open automatically (no germs), in residential ‘hoods bikes are left outside homes unlocked (theft is clearly not an issue), public toilets are high-end TOTOs with bidets (even those at massive sports arenas) and the only street vendor who hassled us to buy something was American.
Are Restaurants and Accommodation Expensive?
A few things to note if you’re hesitant to book a Japan trip: it’s not as expensive as you may have heard. The average meal out costs the same or less as it might here in Vancouver ($40-$75) and our airbnb accommodation was only $120 a night.
What If I Don’t Speak Japanese?
If you’re intimidated by the language barrier, know that the Japanese will go out of their way to help you even though most of them (including younger people) aren’t comfortable speaking any (even broken) English. And they’re happy to speak into your Google Translate app to help (which is a travel essential).
6 Quick Travel Tips for Japan
- Keep to your left when walking in public
- Most coffee shops don’t open until 10am
- Public garbage cans are nearly nonexistent – they’re hiding inside convenience stores and train stations
- Train stations and convenience stores are where most Japanese eat breakfast on-the-go
- Shimokitazawa is an amazing hood to stay in! Felt like the Mount Pleasant of Tokyo.
- Which Airbnb to rent? We loved this one mainly for its super central location (note: they are all super tiny!)
More Restaurant Guides to Help You Navigate Tokyo’s Food Scene