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Do you get vegetarian food in Japan?

7 mins. read

Published in the Sunday Mumbai Samachar on 25 February, 2024

What comes to your mind when you think of Japan? I bet it’s the stunning pink flowers in full bloom in the gardens and by-lanes of Tokyo and Kyoto. And I don’t blame you. The Cherry Blossom in Japan is one of the more popular seasons to visit the Land of the Rising Sun (i.e., Japan). Increasingly, Indian travellers have started to pick Japan as a tourist destination over destinations like Europe and the USA. When I look at our travellers booking trips to Japan, I see 50% booking in just two of the twelve months - March and April - to coincide with Japan’s Cherry Blossom season. The other 50% tend to travel to Japan during the super popular Alpine Route season or the Autumn Colours.

But you know, there is another thing that comes to my mind when I think about Japan? It is that quintessential question: Do you get vegetarian food in Japan? Now, if you have been reading my articles or listening to my podcasts (Travel Explore Celebrate Life and 5 Minute Travel Tips), you will know that I love Japan. It is one of my favourite travel destinations outside of Incredible India. Since my first visit in 2016, I have been there every single year other than 2 years of 2020-21 when travel came to a standstill. Japan has so many incredible sights and adventures to offer. Knowing I have a multi-entry multi-year visa, I am sure that I will visit the Land of the Rising Sun again and tick off the Cherry Blossoms again in a future trip too. So today, I wanted to talk about this very question: Do you get vegetarian food in Japan? So let’s dive in.

The answer is a resounding 'yes’. But there is more to it than just a monotonous yes. Embarking on a journey to Japan is like flipping through the pages of a mesmerizing storybook. Each city unfolds a chapter rich in culture, tradition, and culinary secrets. The myth that Japan is a wasteland for vegetarians is quickly debunked upon discovering the burgeoning trend of vegetarian and vegan cuisine that has taken root. Contrary to popular belief, a 'no-meat' request isn't met with bewildered looks but rather opens a gateway to a world of culinary creativity influenced by the core belief of 'shojin ryori,' a form of Buddhist vegetarian cooking that emphasizes simplicity, harmony, and balance.

Let's start with tofu, the dance partner of many vegetarian dishes. Agedashi tofu is a soul-soothing masterpiece – pillows of silken tofu lightly dusted with starch, fried till golden, then presented in a ponzu sauce that's a delicate balance of citrus and umami. Hiyayakko offers a cooler tune – chilled tofu adorned with fresh ginger, spring onion, and a drizzle of soy sauce. And for the avant-garde, the yudofu hot pot simmers tofu with a menagerie of mushrooms and kombu in a broth that is the epitome of 'umami,' (the fifth taste) resplendent in its simplicity.

Moving onto Sushi then. Japan's famous export, sushi, receives a note of inclusivity with vegetarian rolls. The rainbow of sashimi is replaced by the verdant sheen of avocado, the juicy crunch of cucumbers, and the earthy bite of pickled daikon. When these ingredients intertwine with tender sushi rice and a whisper of wasabi, the result is a tribute to balance and flavor that extends an olive branch to the vegetarian palate in the midst of an ocean of seafood.
Ramen, Japan's soul-nurturing noodle soup, traditionally swims in a nonveg-based broth, but a vegetarian twist is never far from reach. In metropolitan noodle bars, chefs have honed their craft to craft a miso or shoyu broth that sings in its richness and depth. Topped with an array of seasonal vegetables, these bowls of comfort are as satisfying as they are surprising.

As you explore Japan, you'll find that vegetarian delights don't just dwell within the refined walls of a restaurant; they burst forth in the most unassuming places, ready to entice the traveller. From the crisp elegance of tempura to the simplicity of soba and somen noodles, the vegetal delights found in Japan's cuisine are as diverse as the landscapes that unfold under the watchful gaze of Mt. Fuji.

Tempura is more than just a way to cook vegetables; it's a form of edible art. The chef, with practiced hands and a keen eye, coats seasonal delicacies – from delicate shiso leaves to hearty sweet potatoes – in a batter that, when fried, preserves the integrity of each vegetable's flavor and texture. These golden-brown morsels are a meditation on balance, offering a symphony of crunch and succulence that is unmatched.

Noodles are the pulse of Japan's fast-casual scene, and their adaptability to vegetarian cuisine is a testament to their enduring popularity. Soba, the buckwheat noodle, and somen, its thinner cousin, offer the perfect vehicle for vegetarian delights. You'll find them served in a izakaya or a casual noodle bar, offering a respite for the vegetarian traveller. Dressed in a soy-based dipping sauce or floating in a delicate broth, they are perfect for the novice and the aficionado alike, exemplifying that exquisite simplicity is often the path to deliciousness.

The quest to find vegetarian food in Japan is not just about the food; it's a cultural exchange, a dialogue between tradition and modernity. It is an experience that beckons you to wander off the beaten path, to find the quiet izakaya that serves incredible tsukemono (pickled vegetables) or the bustling lunch spot that offers a rotating menu of bento boxes filled with the day's harvest.

Emerging from this culinary voyage, you'll realize that the real magic of vegetarian food in Japan lies not in its novelty, but in its authenticity – a testimony to the fact that the act of creating a meal, at its core, is an expression of art and a common human experience. So, the next time you plan a trip to Japan, do so with the knowledge that not only will you find vegetarian food, but you'll also be part of a cultural shift that treasures and celebrates the plants that nourish us – a journey that is nothing short of pure magic in the palm of your hand.

So, ready your chopsticks, and with a heart full of anticipation, step into Japan's culinary world. Yes, you do get vegetarian food in Japan! It’s amazing. My wife, Heta who is a vegetarian loved it. And I can guarantee that you will love it so much that you will Celebrate Life!

February 24, 2024


Neil Patil
Neil Patil

Founder & Director, Veena World

More Blogs by Neil Patil

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