Vegan in Tokyo
Being vegan in Japan is this emotional rollercoaster, being stuck between the two extremes of hunger-weighted frustration that there's nothing to eat, and wallet-weighted frustration that there are too many good things all in one place all at the same time, which are all really expensive.
A lot of Japanese food is vegan by default, including loads of desserts made from rice (mochi!), tofu, or agar agar. A lot is mostly vegan. In the latter case, restaurants either can't or won't substitute ingredients upon request, if they understand what you're asking. Plus things that look vegan probably have secret fish in. Similarly, grocery shopping is fine; buying staples is easy. But there are loads of super interesting looking unfamiliar things that I want to eat but I don't know what they are... they're probably soy, or vegetable, or seaweed, or bean... but I can't be sure. I carried around a list of all the kanji I needed to look for to read ingredients lists, but this is exhausting enough in English.
First I googled the problem, and found pictures of things that the internet said are definitely vegan, and hunted some of those down. This includes this brand of soy milk, and these azduki bean ice creams:
Then I obtained the services of my brother's Japanese girlfriend, J, and took her grocery shopping so I could point at things and ask what they are. I got all sorts of treats (descriptions on hover):
I learned other things like:
- There are a million different types of miso. I thought there were maybe three kinds of miso. There are a million. I just picked the cheapest one, but J laughed at me and said it has rice in, it's not for miso soup. Then she laughed at me again when I told her I'd put in the curry she was eating. It was tasty though.
- Tofu is SO CHEAP. It's awesome.
- Rice is surprisingly expensive.
- Vegetables and fruit are also expensive, less surprisingly.
- Mushrooms get cheaper the weirder (more unfamiliar to me) they are. Which is awesome.
- Konnyaku is a wonderful gelatinous blob made from yam powder. It's banned in the EU in 2002 because 18 people choked on it, so this is why I'd never heard of it.
Vegan and vegan-friendly restaurants in Tokyo are not too hard to come by, but also clustered together, and pretty expensive (like everything else I guess). But they're also fucking good. I had to decide this was just something I was budgeting for.
There are a bunch of these around Tokyo, all with different hippie names like 'Journey' and 'Ripple'. Ain.Soph has some poor reviews on HappyCow for being very expensive but with very small portions. J and Dave picked this for me on my first night in Tokyo (to the same branch I'd been to for dessert when I was last in Tokyo, in fact) and I warned him on the way about the small portion reviews (he's a hungry growing boy). But it turns out we needn't have worried. I had a taco salad which was huge and delicious. Dave had a green curry, which was plenty of food for him, and J had fried soy meat and rice, and as a dedicated fried chicken eater, was suitably impressed. We split two desserts between us - the lemon cheesecake and chocolate cake. The chocolate cake was hypnotic.
This came to just under 60,000 JPY (~$60) in total (which I paid for because I'm an awesome big sister).
On one of my first evenings in Nerima, I set out to hunt for groceries. Came upon this place by chance near Nerima station and as I was peering at the menu in passing the waiter who stuck his head out to invite me inside was so friendly that I went in. I'm so glad I did. This is mostly South Indian, and serves meat, but with a decent array of vegetarian options. The waiter was happy to point out which are vegan (I expanded 'vegan' to 'no milk, no butter, no egg' just in case, which I think helped), and we also chatted about where I'd been in India and how much I like Indian food.
I was unfamiliar with a bunch of the curries on this menu though, as I know less about South Indian food in general. This was exciting. I picked one at random, which was Rasam (600 JPY) and accompanied it with coconut rice (500 JPY). For an extra 150 I was offered Indian rice instead of Japanese rice, but I had to break the news that I actually enormously prefer Japanese rice. I was able to ask for it hot, and the waiter reassured me that the rice would be fried in oil not butter. I'm not sure if the default is butter, but this is nice to confirm.
The food came really quickly, and I ate it just as quickly. It was really good. The rice plate was huge, and the curry was hot and tomatoey and full of delicious. I just managed to finish it all.
I came back a second time with Dave (he loves curry) and J, and they both had something with chicken and enjoyed it. J's naan bread was enormous. Dave spilled his curry all over the table. I had aloo bondy to start (deep fried spicy potato balls) and chapati with avial, a coconutty curry full of veggies. All up to standard.
This is proximate to Roppongi station, and all of the art exhibitions and museums and park thereabouts, so really handy if you're visiting that area. The first time I went was tipping down with rain so I didn't wander around much. I also didn't fancy splashing out for the museums. But this was worth the trip alone. I wanted everything here. So much.
They have four burgers, six or so rice bowls (most topped with not-meat of some kind), a selection of desserts, and various sides and accompaniments. The burgers seem to be mostly made of hemp. The first time I went I had the teriyaki burger, and a side of fried soy meat. Both super delicious. The bread itself was pretty incredible, and the burger patty was made of some kind of beans, and smothered in sauce and salad. It could have been bigger, but maybe I got used to US portions. It certainly left room for dessert. The burger and side together came to 1,490 JPY which is pretty steep. But it was good.
The second time I had a slice of chicken mayo pizza, more deep fried soy meat, and hemp milk almond pudding (1,544 JPY). The pizza slice was small and fine, but nothing to go crazy for. Man I love the soy meat though.
Veganic has free wifi, but not much seating so I wouldn't feel comfortable bedding in here. They close at 5 on some days, which isn't a big deal if you're there in the evening, as you can just pop across the road toooo...
... which is open til late. And also has an incredible menu, of ramen and not-meats and massive, hearty looking dishes.
The first time I went (immediately following Veganic) I had a soy latte and the chocolate gateau made with rice flour, accompanied by soy ice cream. Dense and totally satisfied the chocolate craving I'd been accumulating. This set me back 540 + 750 JPY.
Has free wifi too (which works better than Veganic's) and much more space, plus a few power outlets if you look in the right place, so I can stick around and work here without feeling guilty for taking up space.
I returned to try the ramen, and loved the Soy milk tantan, which is a decent 800 JPY. I didn't get the set, but tried a couple of other peoples' sides and they were great. Get a set if you're really hungry, but otherwise the ramen alone is a decent portion size.
This isn't a vegan restaurant, but a 'healthy' one, and seems to always have one vegan item on their set lunch menu. If you order this, they also check with you about whether to make the miso soup with dashi or not. The set I ate was vegetables in broth, and tofu, plus sides of pickles, soy beans and seaweed, miso soup, mushrooms, and tea. It was really delicious, and very authentically Japanese. The space is cosy - not really suitable for big groups, though you could take over the whole of the upstairs. The lunch set is 1,080 JPY.
I first tried to go to the one in Kichijoji, but this turns out to be the main kitchen (though it also appears to sell doughnuts) and it's open between the odd hours of 8pm and 2am. I was too early.
I went to the outlet in Lumin Est, right outside Shinjuku Station instead, and got to try two: maple walnut and cranberry. Great! The larger doughnuts are 350 JPY, and they have a huge array of other flavours (containing dairy, though not eggs), with smaller ones starting at less than 200 JPY.
This place was busy when I arrived, and it turned out there was a special event on. There were crochet things and bags and jewelery for sale, but not lunch. Nonetheless I was welcomed with friendly smiles and a little English by customers and staff alike, and got two small cakes and some really delicious black soy bean tea for 500 JPY. The cakes turned out to be enough to fill me up for a few hours, so a real lunch wasn't missed.
The Hawaiian food truck at Commune264
I went to Commune264 for Cori vegan food truck, but it is closed on Tuesdays. Fortunately right across is another food truck with a vegan plate for 1000 JPY. It consisted of a variety of exciting vegetables, beans and pickles, brown rice, and fried soy meat. Lots of food, good value, friendly service. Came with a bottle of water too.
Commune246 is a covered outdoor seating area with a whole bunch of food trucks, and a really nice vibe. Part of it is Wired cafe, which provides wifi, power and plenty of seating - a great spot for digital nomadding.
Cori Vegan food truck at Commune264
I went back on not-Tuesday, and ate the vegan plate from here too (1000 JPY). Points because they gave me an actual plate instead of disposable stuff. The food was a mix of the usual salad, pickles, fried soy meat and mushrooms but also included the best scrambled tofu I've ever had. It was squishy and creamy, possibly the closes to eggs I've come across. It was only a small amount, but worth trying the plate for that I think. They have lots of other options too, and some interesting drinks on the menu.
Brown Rice is about a 5 minute walk from Commune246. They serve lunch until (last orders for food) 5pm, and are open til 6, so I squeezed in an early dinner here. They are all vegan, and have three main plates plus a special. I chose the curry, which was full of beans and pulses, and pretty good (1,300 JPY). It came with brown rice, and a drink (I had hojicha). I also had a pumpkin soup with mochi for dessert (700 JPY). The food was filling and the space is nice, but nothing to rave about.
Not actually Tokyo, this is a seafront Hemp cafe in Kamakura, a short walk from Hase train station. It serves fish, but is otherwise vegan. It's very clear which dishes contain fish. Everything has hemp involved somehow. I had a plate with breaded tofu, and the usual selection of rice, pickles and vegetables, miso soup, plus a hemp coffee (tasted like normal coffee). They had a few interesting desserts, but I was full from the plate and short on time. The food was tasty, people were friendly, and the sea view is excellent.
Also not Tokoyo but a five minute walk from Fujisawa train station. I was on my way back from Kamakura, but I'd recommend visiting Fujisawa just to eat here. It. Was. Spectacular. I had actually changed the day of my visit to Kamakura so I could go here (it's closed on Tuesdays) and I thought I was being silly, but this was a great decision. It's a really tiny space (maybe ten or twelve seats) and it's not cheap, but boy is it good. Did I mention it was delicious? I would normally be hesitant with these prices, but thanks to their free wifi (password: harukucchii01) I found out the US election results after a day of being offline and decided to just drown my sorrows in gourmet vegan food.
The menu is not available in English, but the waitress gladly translated every single item for me. There are loads of options, and really interesting ones that I haven't seen elsewhere. I had spicy edamame, which came with a warning from the chef: "this is too spicy. That red one is danger. Be careful, okay?" It was perfect (I love spicy food). I didn't eat the red chilli that sat on top because I didn't want to destroy myself for the rest of the meal, but I did lick it. I had also ordered rice milk, which was rich and creamy and a great compliment to the spice. I also ate fried potatoes, which were simple but perfectly seasoned and cooked, plus deep fried konnyaku, which came with lettuce and a little dish of salt to dip. Everything just tasted incredible. I followed up with hojicha, and matcha 'tiramisu'. I don't like tiramisu, but in my experience so far Japan's idea of tiramisu is varied and unusual, and I'm game for anything with matcha. It was a green, creamy layered sponge in a dish. Good stuff.
I was seated at the bar so I could somewhat see into the kitchen, and chatted with the chef and waitress. I paid just over 4,000 JPY for the meal in total, which is more than I would normally pay for dinner, but for this quality of food and service was totally fine.
This is probably my favourite so far, second maybe only to Aju in Osaka.
Another one a bit far from Tokyo. Out in the remote fields nearby Keio Shonan-Fujisawa University campus, this is a very traditional feeling Japanese restaurant, which uses all local produce and has a homey vibe. There are a number of vegetable dishes, and they were able (upon request, in Japanese) to make the dashi for the mushroom hoto noodle dish without fish. It was a big, hearty noodle soup, full of veggies and mushrooms, which came with beans on the side and tea. We scoured the dessert menu (which is in Japanese), and it appears that most of them are likely vegan by chance, including both tofu and soy ice cream. There were several things I'd never seen before, and I ended up choosing kurogoma pudding, which is a black sesame seed jelly, very smooth and creamy. I also tried amazake, which is a thick, sweet drink made from fermented rice and something to do with leftovers from sake production.
They also have a little corner for doing calligraphy.
Lima is a little cafe inside a health food shop in Shinjuku. They have all vegan food to go, and some seating. I tried the veggie burger, which was a good size and came with salad, miso soup for 900 JPY. I also tried soy ice cream and a super dense chocolate brownie.
Tully's, Doutor and Starbucks are everywhere and all have soy milk options for their drinks, including matcha lattes. I didn't actually go to a Starbucks, but I read they take it very seriously to the point they give you a special 'soy' card to avoid mixups. Wired cafe also has a few outlets, and also have soy milk (cafe au lait though, not latte).
Convenience stores in Japan really take convenience to a new level. Not only do they contain a wide array of food at sensible prices (in contrast to the UK, where the closest equivalent to convenience stores are like double price compared to supermarkets), but they usually have free wifi. A surprising number have desks where you can hang out and work, and some of these even have power outlets. They also have decent hot coffee (freshly ground beans) and a selection of ready-to-go hot food as well.
When on the move, I was relying on combini, like 7-11, Lawson and FamilyMart, for easy to grab onigiri (they have ume and seaweed flavours) and sushi (natto maki and inari), as well as lots of mochi. Sometimes you'll find bananas, and they have a lot of nuts, crisps, and dried fruit too. I never had chance to scrutinise the hot food until I was in Tokyo, and could see from the photos that they definitely had some steamed buns that look vegan - only they never had any left, whether I was there late or early. Finally I had chance to try one: a bun filled with sesame paste from 7-11. It was pretty great, warm and doughy. If you like that kind of thing. They also had a sweet potato one.
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