Nara food culture dates back hundreds of years and is still influenced by the city’s time as Japan’s first permanent capital, when it was the center of culture and politics. Perhaps surprisingly for a small and ancient city, there are also some great vegan restaurants in Nara where you can find plenty of delicious, plant-based meals. This is partly due to the influence of the traditional Japanese vegetarian Buddhist cuisine shojin ryori, which remains popular in the Kansai area, but there are also many eateries serving modern Western and Japanese food with no animal ingredients.
In this article I’ll introduce five of my favorite vegan restaurants in Nara, to help you find the tastiest treats in this gorgeous, deer-filled city.
Being plant-based in Nara is easier than you might think, even if you don’t speak Japanese or are worried about the inclusion of fish in what seems like every meal in Japan! Veganism is on the rise here, and there are now several vegan restaurants in Nara. The nice thing about Nara cuisine is that some of the city’s traditional dishes are actually already vegan, for example, narazuke pickles (which are made using local sake) and mochi rice cakes. Try some kuzu mochi, made with just kuzu starch and water, and sweetened with molasses and soybean flour, or visit the famous Nakatanidou mochi shop to enjoy freshly-made mugwort and red bean paste mochi. Wagashi, traditional Japanese sweets, are all plant-based and gluten-free as well! Being vegan in Nara doesn’t have to mean missing out on local flavors!
Here are five vegan restaurants you should try during your Nara visit!
Kururu is centrally located just around the corner from Kintetsu Nara station, making it a very convenient option for vegans eating in Nara. The atmosphere is peaceful, complete with nature videos playing in the background. Be aware that the restaurant has a service time to match, so don’t go here if you’re in a hurry! The menu is entirely vegan, and there are usually three or four set meals to choose from, such as noodles, curry, and a tofu patty, each with a selection of little side dishes such as salad and miso soup. Everything is carefully presented and delicately seasoned, with an emphasis on traditional Japanese flavors and healthy eating.
Kuppila offers a traditional Japanese dining experience for vegans traveling in Nara, with customers sitting at the bar to eat and chat with the friendly owner. The restaurant is open for both lunch and dinner, with slightly more options available in the evenings. Kuppila’s specialty is their daily set lunch, which consists of a number of different side dishes – such as tempura, curry, and stir-fried vegetables with tofu – plus rice and salad. There’s also a wide selection of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks to enjoy with your meal. Be sure to leave room for the chocolate brownies for dessert – these bite-sized delights are rich and moist, with chunks of walnut to add extra texture. Delicious!
Conveniently located just five minutes from JR Nara Station, Kinatei is a vegetarian restaurant offering a mixture of Japanese set lunches and à la carte dishes during the day, with evening meals served by reservation only. Although some dishes contain dairy products, there are plenty of clearly-labeled plant-based options, so it’s a great choice for vegans in Nara. The owner is very friendly, and the restaurant itself has a really bright and welcoming feel to it. Try the ramen or udon bowls for delicious noodles in a rich broth, piled high with vegetables and tofu pieces, and perfectly seasoned with seaweed and sesame.
This tiny specialty shop offers coffee and a rotating variety of home-made, seasonal vegan sweets – several of which are also gluten-free – for take-out only. These include pound cake, carrot cake, caramel nut tart, and muffins in a variety of flavors (my particular favorites are the lemon ones, and the ones made with locally-grown green tea). Don’t miss the decadent chocolate brownies and the elegant rum raisin sandwich cookies, both of which are bursting with flavor. Somi Sweets is just a 15-minute walk from the famous deer park, making it the perfect place to pick up snacks for a picnic on your trip to Nara.
Onwa is a small, 100% vegan restaurant in Nara tucked away in the back streets to the west of the city center. The food is all freshly made in front of you by the sociable owner, using locally-grown seasonal vegetables. There’s a mixture of Japanese and Western-style dishes on offer, including a daily lunch plate and a delicious karaage bowl, with fried soy “chicken” served over rice and fresh vegetables. Another popular option is the teriyaki burger, made with a vegetable patty and served with lashings of teriyaki sauce and chunky fries. There’s also a wide range of organic, locally-grown tea to have with your meal, as well as rich, smooth matcha gelato for dessert.
I hope this list has shown you how easy it is to be vegan in Nara, and encouraged you to visit this beautiful and historic city. These aren’t the only vegan restaurants in Nara, so keep your eyes open for other great plant-based options while you’re here!