Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on May 2014
The principles of vegetarianism have existed in Japan since the arrival of Buddhism in the sixth century. As early as the seventh century, Emperor Temmu declared a ban on eating cattle, horses, dogs, monkeys and chickens, while decrees from subsequent rulers eventually eliminated consumption of all but a few land animals. Even today, many temples still retain the culture of vegetarian shojin ryori—literally, “fasting food.”
However, the Meiji Restoration steered the Japanese palate toward more meat-based meals, and postwar Americanization only accelerated the trend. But a growing population of financially independent young women has created an increasing demand for culinary options that are healthier and friendlier to the waistline. Once in decline, urban Japan is now abloom with eateries offering a stunning array of vegetarian options—with something for every preference and every budget.
Fanglynn Wang immigrated to Japan looking forward to promoting Taiwanese vegetarianism. She teamed up with manager Koichi Kubota to create It’s Vegetable—though the restaurant is better known to its customers as “Rin Rin Saikan” after Fanglynn’s nickname. This 28-seat eatery mixes many varieties of Asian tastes, offering a preponderance of vegan cuisine. At lunchtime, customers are free to fill their bento trays (choose from S/M/L) from selections offered on a heated buffet table. Options change daily, and may include fried Chinese dumplings, fresh salad, spicy mabo tofu and sweet and sour vegeterian “pork.” Make your choice of three different rice options, with ginger soup available as a complimentary side dish. Vegetarian ramen is available as an alternative to the bento. Dinner sees a selection of à la carte options and full-course meals. Lunch prices average ¥580-¥1,500, while dinner runs ¥2,000-¥3,000 per person.
4-1-9 Kinshicho, Sumida-ku. Open Tue-Sun 11:45am-2pm (lunch) & 5:30-10pm (dinner). Nearest stn: Kinshicho. www.itsvegetable.com
Created out of a former warehouse, Sasaya Café boasts high ceilings, ample personal space and main doors opening onto Oyokokawa Water Park, a sanctuary of silence and greenery in Sumida-ku. Separated from the rest by a glass wall, the front fifth of the restaurant even allows patrons to have their dogs sit by their tables. Manager Hisako Shinohara shares her motivation for opening this vegan establishment: “I enjoy vegetarian food, but I often find that vegetarian restaurants are either unwelcoming or their food sacrifices flavor under the pretext of healthy eating.” Taking matters into her own hands, she created a place where people walking in off the street could feel welcome—be they young people, adults with families, the elderly or people with disabilities. Sasaya Café offers time-appropriate dishes from breakfast until early evening, including muffins, curry sets, sandwiches and salad plates. Desserts include animal-free takes on classics like ice cream, puddings, pies and cobblers. All items on the menu are vegan, with meal prices typically ranging from ¥1,000-¥1,500.
1-1-10 Yokokawa, Sumida-ku. Open daily 8:30am-6pm, closed second Mon monthly. Nearest stn: Kinshicho. www.sasaya-cafe.com
When Chien-Fu Lee came to Japan as a foreign student in 1986, he found it so difficult to find vegetarian restaurants that he decided to open his own, Chien-Fu, in Kunitachi after graduation. In 2012, he opened a sister restaurant in Roppongi. The ambiance of Chien-Fu’s Roppongi branch is slightly elegant, with antique-style door frames and ceiling mouldings, as well as a vintage chandelier. Hisatoshi Otsuka, the manager at this location, estimates that 70 percent of patrons are women, and 40 percent are foreigners. “Customers find that as they live following this type of diet, it’s not only their bodies that change for the better, but their spirits as well,” he says. Chien-Fu offers vegan versions of popular Chinese dishes (like hot-and-sour ramen) as well as vegan “fish” and “meat” dishes—their meatballs being especially popular. A la carte options and full-course meals are available for both lunch and dinner, with prices ranging from ¥980-¥3,000.
Kunitachi: Naka Ichi Bldg, 1-19-8 Naka, Kunitachi. Nearest stn: Kunitachi. Roppongi: 3-1-22 Nishi-Azabu, Minato-ku. Nearest stn: Roppongi. Open daily 11:20am-2:30pm (lunch) & 5-9:30pm (dinner). www.nakaichifu.jp
Yoshiko Harimaya started G&V in Ginza because, in her words, “Ginza is to Japan what New York is to America.” The walls are plastered with diatomite, the flooring is dark hardwood and the chairs are finished in fine red upholstery. In terms of seating, customers may choose between a regular table, or one of nine individual spaces at G&V’s exclusive marble counter. Lunch options include sets and full-course meals, while dinners include à la carte selections and full-course meals. The popular “Plate Lunch” consists of brown rice with olive oil, tandoori soy meat, three salads and chick-pea tempeh. A full-course dinner option includes vegetable steak with onion sauce, fresh asparagus ribbon sauté, and fennel-and-ruccola salad. Lunch will set you back ¥1,300-¥3,100 per person, while the dinner menu ranges from ¥900-¥5,400 per person. G&V recently hired new English-speaking staff, and foreign customers will have no difficulty.
Open Tue-Sun, 11:30am-3pm (lunch) & 6-10pm (dinner). http://g-veggie.com/gandv/
Nagi Shokudo (Shibuya)
In semi-Japanese aesthetic style, this spacious restaurant offers vegetarian takes on many traditional Japanese dishes. http://nagishokudo.com
Sky High (Shibuya)
More a juice bar than a restaurant, Sky High offers a stunning variety of pick-me-ups and cleansing beverages. Also salad, sweets and a sandwich set. http://skyhigh-tokyo.jp
Dorobushi Kitchen (Ginza)
In the basement of FANCL in Ginza, the nature-themed decor includes a life-size waterfall. What the menu may lack in terms of choices, it makes up in quality. http://www.fancl.jp/ginza-square/food/dorobushi-kitchen.html
Deva Deva Café (Kichijoji)
Touted by many as the purveyor of the best veggie burger in town, this small but stylish café offers many substitutes for traditionally meat-based dishes. http://www.devadevacafe.com
Alishan Organic Center (Hidaka-shi, Saitama)
Well worth a day trip, Alishan Organic Center offers a vegetarian food store, an event space and a scrumptious café (flowing out onto a spacious riverside deck). http://alishan-organics.com