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Feature How to eat your way around Japan as a vegan

Travel
Liv's author bio image

Author: Liv Published: February 28, 2024

Follow these easy tips to find delicious plant-based food in Japan! Fill your travels with incredible vegan ramen, curries, gyoza, okonomiyaki, desserts & more.

I have to admit – when my partner and I headed off to Japan last year, we had mentally prepared ourselves that our plant-based food options might be a bit limited. After all, the one thing everyone kept asking us about our trip was:

What are you going to eat?! Is there any vegan food in Japan?

We couldn’t have been more surprised once we arrived, because spoiler alert, yes there is – and lots of it! Just as in other parts of the world, the vegan scene in Japan is rapidly expanding, particularly in the major cities. 

Here’s just a taste of some of the incredible food we found on our travels:

A video montage of delicious vegan Japanese dishes.

I can totally see why travellers might once have found it hard to track down plant-based food in Japan – especially if they didn’t speak the language – but these days, with technology at our fingertips, and more options on menus than ever before, it’s actually pretty easy!

Here are my top tips for eating vegan while travelling in Japan:

Seek out & save a list of vegan options ahead of time

Three people are using their phones while waiting at the train station.

I highly recommend doing this to pass the time while you’re waiting at the airport or on train journeys. That way, when you arrive at your destination, you’ll have already scoped out some top spots to visit for vegan food!

By doing just a few minutes of research whenever we were in transit, my partner and I ended up always feeling like we had plenty of options right at our fingertips wherever we went. 

Funnily enough, we bumped into some vegetarian Aussies who were having a comparatively tough time finding plant-based food. The key difference, we figured out, was that they were wandering into restaurants they saw on the street and hoping they might offer a veg option, rather than seeking out veg options online and deciding to visit specific restaurants like we had been. 

To be fair, back in Australia, you can just wander in anywhere and be pretty sure they’ll have an easily identifiable plant-based option – but in Japan, many seemingly vegan dishes like curries and ramens are actually made with under-the-radar animal products that can’t be easily removed (like meat in the broth, for example).

You’ll have a lot more success seeking out vegan restaurants and options specifically, rather than randomly trying your luck. 

It might feel like a bit of extra effort, but the payoff is 100% worth it – you can completely avoid the frustration of hungrily bouncing around between restaurants, simply by using in-between moments to find some recommendations online.

Search Google Maps for vegan hotspots

A screen cap of a Google map search for vegan restaurants.

Technology truly is your best friend when it comes to finding vegan food while travelling.

Wherever you are, zoom in on your area on the Google Maps app, and type ‘vegan’ into the search bar. Heaps of places will pop up!

If you’re looking for immediate options nearby, you can filter the results ‘by distance’ and choose to only show restaurants that are ‘open now’. 

As per my previous tip, though, I’d highly recommend searching your destination ahead of time and saving all your favourite options to a new folder called something like ‘want to visit’. 

That way, later, while wandering around the city, you can check your list of saved options and see what pins pop up nearby. 

What was that bakery we wanted to check out again? Oh yeah, here it is – 250m away!

Browse options on Happy Cow as a back-up

A hand holding a phone which shows a Happy Cow search for vegan restaurants and cafes in Kyoto.

Google maps works fantastically as a quick overview of your options, but you can sometimes find other options on Happy Cow too. 

The app is super handy! You can pop in your location and see pins for all the vegan restaurants near you, as well as non-vegan restaurants that have vegan options. 

Realistically, we ended up using Google Maps most of the time. We were so reliant on it for getting around and catching public transport that it helped to have our saved food options and directions all in the one place, in case we had to pivot.

But Happy Cow is an awesome resource to browse if you’ve already got your bearings or are scoping out your options ahead of time!

Just make sure you check the recent reviews on each result – to make sure the restaurant is still open and offering the vegan options listed – before you make a special trip. 

Always make a reservation if possible

I learned this lesson the hard (and hungry) way, so please learn from my mistakes! There were several times we travelled out of our way hoping to get in at a particularly popular vegan restaurant, only to be turned away due to the queues out the door. 

Making a reservation is so easy and will spare you any unnecessary heartbreak!

Use Google Translate to live-translate food labels & menus

A hand holds their phone over a sign in Japanese, using Live Google Translate to show it reads 'Cash Only'.

You can use Google Translate’s ‘live translate’ feature to scope out your options in stores and on restaurant menus. In the app, you just click the little camera down the bottom right, and point your phone at whatever text you want to translate. 

Something to keep in mind is that apparently, in Japan they aren’t required to list every ingredient on the ingredients list, so unfortunately the only real way to know with 100% certainty if something is vegan or not would be to contact the manufacturer or find confirmation online…

But we’re doing our best out here! For the most part, if you’ve translated and checked the label, you can be pretty sure you’ve done your due diligence and that it’s most likely vegan-friendly. 

Meals that are usually* vegan in Japan

*Always double-check to make sure!

Three bowls of edamame displayed beautifully on a table setting, with chopsticks to the side.

  • Edamame
  • Seasoned cucumber
  • Sweet potato
  • Avocado or cucumber nori (sushi rolls)
  • Most macrobiotic meals (although some contain fish)
  • Shojin-Ryori or Zen Buddhist cuisine (often found at or around temples and shrines)
  • Plain onigiri (rice balls)
  • Pickled vegetables
  • Tofu & tofu skin
  • Miso eggplant
  • Mochi

Japanese meals that seem vegan but sometimes aren’t

A bowl of vegan ramen with chopsticks sitting atop.

Don’t worry, you’ll still be able to find plenty of vegan versions of these meals throughout Japan – especially if you beeline for specifically vegan-friendly restaurants that you’ve found online! 

If you see these common dishes on menus in other establishments, however, you may need to ask to make sure they don’t contain animal products.

  • Vegetable ramen (may contain meat in the broth)
  • Vegetable soups & curries (may contain meat or milk in the broth)
  • Salads in convenience stores (dressings often contain egg & seasonings often contain fish flakes called bonito)

Between meals, grab vegan snacks from convenience stores

Image: Unsplash @Matt Liu

You’ll soon discover that in Japan, you can hardly walk a single block without coming across a convenience store (konbini). The most common ones are 7-Eleven, Lawson, and Family Mart – and between these 3 stores, there are actually a surprising number of grab-and-go vegan options.

Look for: 

  • Tofu bars (just watch out for some flavours that contain fish flakes called bonito)
  • Packets of edamame
  • Fresh fruit
  • Plain onigiri
  • Pickled plum onigiri (the ones from Lawson & Family Mart are confirmed vegan)
  • Rice crackers
  • Pistachios
  • Natto, avocado, or cucumber sushi rolls
  • Soy milk
  • Soy yoghurt
  • Iced tea
  • Fruit juice

For a full guide to all the vegan options in konbinis, bookmark this amazing resource.

Remember these vegan-friendly fast food chains

🍛 Coco Ichibanya

An external image of Coco Ichibanya
Image: Coco Ichibanya

This cosy curry house is a must-try while you’re in Japan, and one of the best back-up options to keep in mind as there are more than 1000 locations across the country!

Look for the allergen-friendly menu on the iPad ordering system, and select the option that says it’s a vegetarian curry with a soy meat burger patty (or just the vegetarian curry if you don’t want the patty). 

For toppings, add your choice of eggplant, mushrooms, vegetables, spinach, and ‘delicious spicy garlic’ – it’s literally called that on the menu and 100% lives up to the name! Note that the potato option is deceptively non-vegan and contains dairy, so you’ll want to give that a miss.

You can also adjust the level of spiciness and the amount of rice according to your preference. Just avoid the option to ‘add mildness’, as the sauce they use to do so contains honey.

Not all Coco Ichibanya stores have the soy meat burger patty, but lots do! My advice would be to check each location on Happy Cow before going there, just to make sure.

I’m not going to lie to you … we ate at various Coco Ichibanya stores no fewer than 5 times during our trip, with zero regrets. The curry is unbelievably tasty  – super hearty, warming, and filling – and it was often the most convenient option when we arrived in a new city late at night.

All hail ol’ reliable Coco Ichibanya!

🍔 Mos Burger

An image of three Green Teriyaki Burgers sitting on a board.
Image: Mos Burger

Like Coco Ichibanya, Mos Burger outlets are everywhere in Japan, so it’s another great option if you’re not sure what to eat in a new city. 

The permanent plant-based option on the menu is the Green Teriyaki Burger, which features a delightful green bun, juicy vegan patty, lettuce, and tomato, with a teriyaki and vegan mayo sauce served on the side. 

The fries and onion rings at Mos Burger are also vegan-friendly.

☕ Starbucks

External shot of the Starbucks store in Kawagoe.
Image: Creative Commons: Wei-Te Wong

I know, I know, Starbucks isn’t usually on the top of my list of tourist attractions either! (Although there are actually some pretty unique Starbucks locations in Japan, including one in Kawagoe with an edo-era aesthetic, and a 100-year-old converted townhouse in Kyoto.)

But Starbucks opens early, closes late, and offers a range of vegan snacks and milk options for drinks, so it’s still worth keeping in mind, especially if you just need something to keep you going until your next – more exciting – meal.

The current vegan options at Starbucks in Japan include: 

  • Tiramisu
  • Banana rice flour muffin
  • Sugar doughnut
  • Spinach corn & soy patty English muffin
  • Keema curry filone
  • Oat milk
  • Soy milk

Important note: The almond milk at Starbucks Japan is not vegan, so make sure you go for the oat or soy milk option instead.

(Credit to The Japanese Rose for this helpful info about Starbucks!)

If you don’t speak Japanese, learn a few key phrases

You don’t have to be fluent in Japanese to easily and politely navigate ordering vegan food. Here are a few key phrases to practise. Add them to a note in your phone so you can refer to them in the moment if you need to!

Kochira wo onegashimasu – I would like to order this please. (Point to what you want on the menu!)

Bīgan ryōri wa arimasu ka? – Do you have any vegan dishes?

Bejitarianmenyū wa arimasu ka? – Do you have a vegetarian menu?

Kore wa bīgandesu ka? – Is this vegan?

Watashi wa bīgan desu — I’m vegan

Tonyū de kudasai — With soy milk please

When in doubt, indicate to the server that you will type something into Google Translate, and then show them the translated text. We found that this was the easiest way to make sure that we were communicating politely and that nothing was getting lost in translation.

The worst case scenario we experienced the whole time was this:

Table for two please! Thank you.

Do you have any vegan dishes? 

Here, the server said no and that their vegetable curry had milk in it, so we just typed the following into Google Translate:

Sorry, we will have to go elsewhere. Thank you very much for your help anyway. 

And the staff were perfectly lovely about it!

Read menus carefully & ask the server if you’re not sure

Young women ordering food in busy Japanese restaurant.

There were a couple of times we went to a restaurant with ‘vegan’ in the name, only to discover that not all of the items on the menu were vegan.

If you’re not fluent, use Google Translate to make sure you’ve read all the information on the menu, and double-check with restaurant staff if you’re not 100% sure.

Show appreciation for the service & food

This doesn’t have to be anything complicated – you can even just say ‘oishi’ which means ‘delicious’, or ‘gochisousama deshita’, which roughly translates to ‘that was delicious’ or ‘thank you for the meal’. 

When we were really impressed but lacked the Japanese to express it, we’d lean on Google Translate and show the server the screen to make sure we got our positive feedback across correctly:

A screenshot of a message translated to Japanese, thanking the server for the wonderful food.
The life-changing gyoza in question were from Vegan Gyoza Yu in Tokyo.

Embrace the food-centric side-quest & explore

This type of food-focussed travelling might not be everyone’s cup of matcha, but starting some days by picking one or two vegan-friendly spots we knew we wanted to visit, and figuring out our travel plans around those spots really worked for us.

Having our food options already locked in completely took the stress out of finding food throughout the day, so we had more time between meals to relax and be spontaneous. 

Adding specific vegan-friendly restaurants to our itinerary also sometimes encouraged us to get a bit off the beaten track, leading us to discover entirely new adventures, sights, and experiences we wouldn’t otherwise have found!

Happy food-touring, friends, and meshiagare!

Flying into Tokyo? Check out these must-visit restaurants for vegan food! And if you just can’t wait for your travels to begin, start exploring Japanese cuisine right now with these easy recipes you can make at home.

Liv's author bio image

Meet Liv!

Having grown up in a “meat and 3 veg” kind of household, Liv’s embarrassed to admit that she was a bit of a one-note chef until she began exploring the world of plant-based food. Vegan cooking has given her a whole new appreciation for the symphonies of flavours that simple, nourishing wholefood ingredients can create. (Even eggplant, once her greatest nemesis, is now — in a delicious, miso-glazed redemption arc — her all-time favourite veg.)

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