As a country famous for Kobe beef, takoyaki octopus balls and fresh sashimi, you’d be forgiven for thinking that in Japan vegetarian food is hard to come by. Thankfully, this is a misconception! Nowadays there are a wealth of veggie-friendly restaurants and dishes out there to discover – so you can indulge in lots of delicious Japanese vegetarian food without it feeling like a compromise.
Having said that, vegetarianism is not as common or well understood in Japan as in some western countries. That’s where this guide comes in! We’ll share several top tips for being vegetarian in Japan, as well as links to our veggie restaurant guides for different cities. Plus, we’ll go over 15 mouth-watering meat-free dishes to look out for during your stay!
Is vegetarian food available in Japan?
The simple answer to this is yes! In Japan vegetarian food is definitely available. However, it might not always be easy to find. This is especially true if you’re traveling outside of big cities such as Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka. The good news is that many common Japanese ingredients, such as tofu and seaweed, are vegetarian. Plus almost all desserts are veggie-friendly. So with a little forward planning, it’s perfectly possible to avoid eating meat and fish while you're in Japan.
More and more Japanese restaurants are catering to people with dietary requirements these days. Here at byFood, we’ve got a directory of vegetarian and vegetarian-friendly restaurants in Japan for you to browse. If you want to get a bit more hands-on, check out our vegetarian food experiences. From cooking classes to food tours and authentic tea ceremonies, there’s an option to suit everyone!
Vegetarian guides by area
Know where you’re heading on your trip? We’ve put together a series of vegetarian guides to different Japanese cities to help you find the best places to dine out while you’re there.
If you’re looking for vegetarian food in Tokyo, you’re in luck. We’ve got a comprehensive list of amazing vegetarian restaurants in Tokyo, plus a handy vegan guide to Japan’s capital. We’ll be updating this section frequently with more vegetarian guides as they’re ready, so keep checking back if your destination isn’t here yet!
Tips for eating vegetarian in Japan
Here are some top tips to make your life easier as a vegetarian in Japan:
- Seek out vegetarian restaurants
- Learn some key Japanese phrases
- Know which ingredients to avoid
- Don’t overlook convenience store food
- Have a go at cooking vegetarian Japanese food
1. Seek out vegetarian restaurants
One of the best tips for finding vegetarian food in Japan is to plan in advance. Restaurants often won’t make substitutions without prior notice, so it’s preferable to search for vegetarian restaurants in your destination. That way you won’t have to worry about meat or fish turning up in your meal without warning! If you’re hoping to stay at a traditional ryokan inn, contact them in advance of your stay and they may be able to provide vegetarian meals for you.
Browse our collection of vegetarian and vegetarian-friendly restaurants on byFood.
2. Learn some key Japanese phrases
If you’re heading to an omnivorous restaurant, the language barrier can make it difficult to explain to the servers what you can and can’t eat. As such, memorizing a few phrases in Japanese can be a huge help.
Is this vegetarian? これはベジタリアンですか？ (Kore wa bejitairan desu ka?)
However, you might find that the staff doesn't have a clear understanding of what vegetarian means. If that’s the case, you can say:
I don’t eat meat or fish. 私は肉と魚が食べられません。(Watashi wa niku to sakana ga taberaremasen.)
To ask whether a particular dish contains a non-vegetarian ingredient, you can ask:
Does this contain meat? これは肉が入っていますか？(Kore wa niku ga haitteimasu ka?)
Does this contain fish? これは魚が入っていますか？ (Kore wa sakana ga haitteimasu ka?)
For more Japanese phrases, check out the Must Know Japanese Restaurant Phrases.
3. Know which ingredients to avoid
As well as meat and fish, there are a couple of hidden non-vegetarian ingredients to be wary of when dining out in Japan. For instance, dashi soup stock is used in almost all kinds of broth, and usually contains katsuobushi fish flakes (pictured above) or other fish-based ingredients. It is possible to find versions made with just kombu seaweed, but this is rare.
Katsuobushi is used to season lots of other dishes besides soup – including ones that look vegetarian – so it’s best to ask if you’re unsure. Alternatively, stick to vegetarian restaurants where you know you’re safe!
4. Don’t overlook convenience store food
In many countries, convenience store food leaves a lot to be desired! However, in Japan you can find some real treats in the konbini. That includes plenty of veggie-friendly items, such as onigiri rice balls filled with seaweed and mochi rice cakes. That’s in addition to the usual crisps, cookies, nuts and other snacks. Natural Lawson in particular has a wealth of good options for hungry veggies and vegans!
5. Have a go at cooking vegetarian Japanese food
Staying in self-catering accommodation can take away much of the stress about finding places to eat, as you won’t need to dine out for every meal. Supermarkets have all kinds of delicious local vegetables to try, plus rice, noodles, seasoning, and everything else you need to make authentic Japanese dishes. Not sure where to begin? Sign up for a vegetarian cooking class to get all the insider knowledge!
Popular Japanese vegetarian dishes
Here are 15 of the best traditional Japanese dishes that are either always vegetarian or have vegetarian versions available. How many will you try on your trip?
- Vegetable tempura
- Shojin ryori
- Nasu dengaku
- Zaru soba
- Vegetarian sushi
- Vegetarian onigiri
- Vegetarian ramen
- Vegetarian udon
- Vegetable gyoza
- Vegetarian okonomiyaki
- Vegetarian donburi
1. Vegetable tempura
One of Japan’s most popular foods, tempura always has plenty of vegetable options to choose from. Depending on the season, you could enjoy crispy sweet potato, eggplant, green beans, kabocha (pumpkin) and others deep-fried to perfection.
2. Shojin ryori
Shojin ryori is traditional Japanese Buddhist cuisine that’s strictly vegetarian, and a must for plant-based travelers. Often found in temple restaurants, it features a series of beautifully presented dishes highlighting local vegetables and tofu.
3. Nasu dengaku
This classic Japanese side dish consists of grilled eggplant cut into slices and coated with a delicious, rich miso glaze.
Eggplants are a great meat substitute! For more ways to cook with nasu, check out our Japanese Eggplant Recipes.
4. Zaru soba
Soba noodles are made from buckwheat, giving them a characteristic nutty flavor and dark brown color. They are frequently served in a hot broth, but this may contain dashi if you’re not in a vegetarian restaurant. Zaru soba, on the other hand, is served cold with a dipping sauce on the side – which you can avoid in favor of soy sauce.
Try making this classic Japanese noodle yourself in our Handmade Soba Cooking Class!
5. Vegetarian sushi
Just like in the west, lots of sushi in Japan is vegetarian. Look out for treats such as kappa maki (cucumber rolls), takuan maki (pickled daikon rolls) and inarizushi (rice stuffed inside deep-fried tofu pockets).
Make vegetarian sushi at home following our Easy Vegan Sushi Recipes.
6. Vegetarian onigiri
Triangular onigiri rice balls are a quintessential Japanese snack, and several of them are vegetarian. Keep an eye out for ones filled with kombu seaweed, umeboshi (pickled plum), and natto (fermented soybeans).
Tofu is an integral part of the Japanese diet, and you’ll be amazed at the variety of ways you can enjoy it. From deep-fried aburaage tofu to dengaku tofu coated with a sweet miso sauce, you’ll never look at this ingredient the same way again!
8. Vegetarian ramen
As long as you avoid broth made with fish stock, ramen noodles can be a cheap, flavorful and filling vegetarian meal when in Japan. Look out for options marked as veggie on the menu, loaded with tofu and fresh vegetables.
9. Vegetarian udon
Udon noodles are thicker and chewier than ramen, and like soba can be served in a hot broth or cold with a dipping sauce. Steer clear of fish stock and you can tuck into a hearty and soul-warming meat-free dish.
For a hands-on udon-making experience, sign up for this Homemade Udon Class!
10. Vegetable gyoza
These bite-sized gyoza dumplings are a cheap and cheerful snack often found in restaurants and izakaya pubs. Vegetable options generally contain a mix of cabbage, onions, mushroom and carrots, and are perfect for dipping into soy sauce.
11. Vegetarian okonomiyaki
Okonomiyaki is a kind of savory pancake made with a batter of flour, eggs and cabbage, and grilled on a hot plate. You can find vegetarian versions featuring a range of different vegetables, and topped with extras such as cheese, mayonnaise and seaweed flakes.
Enjoy making your own vegetarian version of this classic dish in an Okonomiyaki Cooking Class!
12. Vegetarian donburi
Although most donburi rice bowls contain some form of meat or seafood, vegetarian versions exist too. For instance, tamagodon is topped with fluffy steamed eggs, tofudon comes with cubes of marinated tofu, and aburafudon features deep-fried wheat gluten.
Moving on to traditional Japanese sweets, although taiyaki cakes are shaped like fish they’re 100% vegetarian! Crisp and chewy, these treats are a cross between a cake and a waffle. Typically filled with sweet red bean paste, they taste best when hot off the grill!
Try making your own taiyaki during our Taiyaki Making Experience.
Wonderfully chewy and stretchy, mochi rice cakes are made from pounded steamed rice and often stuffed with sweet bean paste. You can find all kinds of delicious varieties, from sticky sakura mochi to strawberry daifuku mochi, each made with entirely plant-based ingredients.
More like works of art than food, wagashi sweets are an unmissable Japanese treat. Traditionally made with only plant-based ingredients such as bean paste, they’re beautifully crafted in the shape of flowers and other stunning designs. For a truly authentic experience, enjoy them with a cup of matcha tea!
Wagashi are beautiful works of edible art, and a great way to experience a part of Japanese culture that's vegetarian-friendly! Join a Wagashi Making Class during your trip to Japan to learn all about this sweet tradition.
Hopefully, this guide has shown you that in Japan vegetarian food is neither a rarity nor a compromise. All it takes is a bit of planning! There are a wealth of veggie dishes and restaurants to discover, and the industry is only continuing to grow. Trust us when we say you’ll definitely be able to enjoy some mouth-wateringly delicious and authentic Japanese vegetarian food during your trip! Anyone else getting hungry?