A Guide To All Things Vegetarian In Japan

Cultural perceptions, foods to watch out for and language tips to avoid mis-communication.

Known as the “Land of the Rising Sun,” Japan is steeped in a rich history and culture, with something for every type of traveler: ancient shrines, world-class dining, snow-capped mountains, high-tech gadgets and more. In just over ten years, the number of annual overseas tourists has skyrocketed, from 3.3 million in 1995 to a staggering 31 million in 2018. And with the 2020 summer Olympics fast approaching, Japanese tourism shows no signs of abating. It’s by far Journy’s most frequently-requested destination; and yet, compared to other major tourist spots, there still seems to be a lack of information for vegetarians traveling to Japan. Not pescatarians, full-fledged vegetarians. No meat, no fish, no seafood.

So we tapped into our expert network for intel on all things vegetarian in Japan: what foods are safe to eat, what you should avoid, what Japan’s cultural perception is of vegetarians, what Japanese restaurants cater to vegetarians in the major cities and so much more.

Overview Of Japanese Food Culture

When most people think Japanese cuisine, fish is the first food that comes to mind—and for good reason. As an island nation, Japan’s access to fresh seafood (from squid to octopus, eel to shellfish) is unparalleled and celebrated in a myriad of dishes, the most well known of which is sushi.

Rice is also an indelible ingredient in Japanese food culture, at one point even being used as a form of currency. Primarily sticky and short-grained, Japanese-style rice is used to make things like senbei (rice crackers), onigiri (rice balls wrapped in dried nori seaweed), mochi (rice cakes) and sake (rice wine).

And then, of course, there’s noodles, which come in multiple forms: udon (made with wheat flour), soba (made with buckwheat flour and thus thinner and darker than udon) and ramen (thin, egg-based).

Because soba noodles are made with buckwheat flour, they're darker than udon. 

Soybeans are somewhat synonymous with the country’s cuisine as well, as they’re fermented to make miso and soy sauce, boiled into a curd for tofu or served "natto" over rice.

Together, these ingredients contribute to the signature flavor profile of Japanese food: umami, otherwise described as a pleasant, savory taste. And the signature style? Simplicity. A less-is-more approach to cooking is embraced throughout the country, with courses often including a few small items meticulously presented in a bento-box style.

Japanese cuisine has even been added to the UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List—the second after that of France—in an effort to preserve this very way of eating as a testament to traditional Japanese culture.

Cultural Perception of Vegetarian Food In Japan

Interestingly enough, Japanese people were prohibited from eating meat for more than a thousand years prior to 1868. In fact, it was only when beef prices started to drop in the early 1990s did the consumption of meat in the country spike.

So yes, going meat-free as a vegetarian in Japan is feasible. But avoiding fish? That’s trickier, especially because the cultural understanding of vegetarian or "bejitarian" is quite loose. Despite boasting a dizzying array of plant-based foods—from vegetables to legumes—many dishes are cooked in fish broth (dashi) or sprinkled with dried, fermented flakes of skipjack tuna (bonito or katsuobushi).

What’s more, many ramen joints have turned to machine-processed ordering, so you may not have the chance to interact with a server at all. And on the off-chance that you do (and that the language barrier doesn’t get in the way), it’s best not to request menu alterations like one would in other countries. It’s a decidedly un-Japanese practice that would likely be met with confusion.

But all hope is not lost for vegetarians in Japan. Far from it, actually. There are a variety of traditional Japanese foods safe for vegetarians to eat, as well as vegetarian-friendly cafés and restaurants popping up around the country. We’ve even included helpful Japanese phrases to help you navigate the bustling food scene.

READ MORE: The 18 Best Vegetarian Restaurants in Kyoto

10 Vegetarian-Friendly Japanese Foods

with a few notable watch-outs

1. Zaru Soba

Don’t let the simplicity of cold, strained buckwheat noodles served alongside a sweet dipping sauce fool you. The refreshing combination is loaded with flavor and the perfect way to cool down during the scorching summer months in Japan. Just be sure to ask for the sauce (known as mentsuyu) without bonito flakes. Otherwise, this is a safe bet for vegetarians, as the other ingredients in the dipping sauce are mirin, soy sauce, sugar and kombu (dried kelp seaweed), with chopped scallions, shredded nori (seaweed) and grated daikon sprinkled on top.

2. Okonomiyaki

This cabbage or noodle-based savory pancake, which translates to “how you like it,” is a popular Japanese dish that originated in the Kansai and Hiroshima areas of Japan, although it’s widely available throughout the country today. It’s almost always made to order, with an array of toppings that can easily be tailored to vegetarians. Just be sure to specify that you don’t want bonito flakes sprinkled on top.

Okonomiyaki is made to order, with toppings that can easily be tailored to vegetarians.

3. Tempura

These lightly battered, fried foods are typically prepared to order, making it easy for vegetarians to request solely vegetables or inarizushi (tofu fried) rather than the typical fish and veggie combination.

4. Japanese Curry

Curry is one of the most popular dishes in Japan, where it comes either served over rice or noodles or snug inside a pastry. Unlike its Indian or Thai counterparts, Japanese-style curry is thicker in consistency and slightly sweeter. The standard vegetables present are onions, carrots and potatoes (occasionally you’ll find caramelized onions as well, which contribute to its naturally sweet taste). Meat is common in curry, but it can easily be excluded in favor of a vegetarian version—as long as you double check to ensure the roux wasn’t made with meat.

5. Ramen

These egg-based noodles are served in a rich broth and piled high with aromatic toppings and soft-boiled eggs. It’s a protein-packed option for vegetarians as long as the broth isn’t made with dashi or the final dish sprinkled with bonito flakes. For the vegan ramen option, opt for noodles made from chickpeas, rice or wheat rather than egg.

6. Egg Salad Sandwiches

It’s common in Japan to find bakery shelves stocked with fluffy, savory egg salad sandwiches, occasionally paired with a slice or two of fresh tomato. Although many versions contain mayo and thus wouldn’t be suitable for vegans, vegetarians should give ‘em a try. The only exception? Kyoto-style egg salad sandwiches, which are typically made with dashi.

7. Miso Soup

Miso, which is made from fermented soybeans and koji, is 100% vegetarian. And while you may come across an asari version of the soup with clams, the majority are comprised of tofu and seaweed. The only caveat is bonito and dashi, so be sure to double check.

8. Kushiage

Also known as kushikatsu, kushiage are skewered meat and veggies breaded with panko and deep fried until crispy. They’re immensely popular in the Osaka street food scene and can be found across the country at izakayas (casual Japanese gastropubs). Popular vegetarian options include shiitake mushrooms, eggplant and green peppers.

9. Maki Rolls

Maki rolls resemble one of the more popular types of sushi in the states—a fish or veggie center with sticky white rice, all rolled up in a type of dried seaweed known as nori. It’s easy for vegetarians to find maki filled with cucumber (kappa maki), avocado and daikon radishes at convenience stores, which also sell a variety of other vegetarian snacks: boiled eggs, string cheese, rice balls, veggie trays. Don’t be thrown off by the setting... the Japanese have impeccable food safety standards, so it’s safe to purchase food from anywhere.

10. Tsukemono

Tart, pickled vegetables are everywhere in Japan, often served in smaller quantities to complement a meal and balance out the heaviness of otherwise umami-rich foods. The most popular? Takuan (daikon), umeboshi (plums), beni shoga (ginger), shibazuke (cucumbers and eggplant) and kyurizuke (cucumbers).

READ MORE: 20 Of The Best Vegetarian Restaurants In Tokyo

Language Tips For Vegetarians In Japan

Print out this list of handy Japanese phrases to avoid misunderstanding while ordering.

I am a vegetarian. I do not eat any meat, poultry, fish or seafood.
Watashi wa Bejitariandesu. Niku, Sakana, Shifudo ha Issai Tabemasen.

Does this contain meat, poultry, fish or seafood?
kore ni wa Niku, Sakana, Shifudo ga fukumarete Imasu ka?

Does this contain meat?
Niku ga haitte imasu ka?

Does this contain dashi or bonito fish flakes?
Kore wa dashi matawa katsuobushi wo fukumimasuka?

Keep an eye out over the next few weeks for more helpful information on practicing vegetarianism and veganism while traveling in Japan—including Shojin ryori Buddhist cuisine and restaurants serving vegetarian dishes in major cities.

For help planning your next trip to Japan, turn to Journy. We triple check to make sure every recommended restaurant can accommodate your dietary preferences—vegetarian restaurants, vegan restaurants, gluten-free restaurants, kosher restaurants... we've seen it all.