Japan is known to celebrate seasons, particularly in cuisine. Customarily, this season, restaurants and convenience stores across Tokyo begin to offer warm and comforting meals. There’s nothing quite like a toasty meal that can prepare you to battle the wintry chill. Winter cuisine in Japan consists of many healthy savoury options. The caveat — they are traditionally meat-based preparations and even with the emerging vegan food scene in Tokyo, plant-based adaptations are sparse. Nevertheless, I set out on a quest to find vegetarian renditions of Japanese winter fare. Here are my top picks for the food experiences in Tokyo that are sure to leave meat-free hearts and bellies warm this winter.
The first to strike when speaking of Japanese winter food is Nabe. The term refers to a variety of hot pot dishes, where a melange of ingredients are cooked in a potful of simmering broth for the table to share. Swishing through the pot and maneuvering chopsticks to sneak your favorite bites certainly sparks the holiday spirit.
Nabe is traditionally meat-based. However, because you choose the ingredients to stew, it can, arguably, be tailored to a vegan diet. For veggie lovers, freshly stewed vegetables are delightful when combined with a flavorful dipping sauce. Moreover, it is the novelty of the experience that makes it mandatory.
Shabu Shabu Tajimaya in Shibuya offers a 100 minute all-you-can-eat version of the shabu shabu pot in a modest and friendly ambience. The buffet offers a sumptuous choice of fresh vegetables, greens, udon and rice to bring back to your table and stew in a pot of mild kombu (kelp) broth. The ponzu (citrus and soy), goma (sesame) and karamiso (spicy miso) dipping sauces impart a rich savoury palate that completes the meal. Once you’re warm, don’t forget to cool off with the ice cream and coffee included in the buffet (for ¥864 it is a steal).
In the same neighbourhood is Nabezo, one of a chain of restaurants in Tokyo, offering a similar buffet-style shabu shabu in a more refined ambience. They are happy to accomodate a vegetarian meal at a small discount from the original meat version. (¥2,600+)
The all season favorite okonomiyaki is a winter-time winner. Even on the coldest days, you can cast aside your thick winter coats and revel in the heat from the live griddle on which these savoury pancakes are cooked.
Sakura Tei, in the back alleys of Harajuku, serves a cook-your-own okonomiyaki and comes with easy-to-follow instructions. The freedom to give the pancakes your own twist is a conversation starter and the casual ambience complements a leisurely meal. Sakura Tei has a dedicated vegan and gluten free menu and two delicious vegetarian options. One is a traditionally flavored okonomiyaki with tofu, konnyaku, onion and shiso, served with a sweet brown sauce and mayonnaise. The second is a healthy mexican version with avocado, corn and beans served with a tomato salsa. (¥1,200~ per dish)
Vegan soup for the soul (or soupy noodles perhaps?). A rich flavored broth can elevate the whole ramen experience. Here are some of the umami-flavored vegan broths in the city.
Chabuton’s vegetable-only ramen and gyoza options are clearly marked on the kiosk outside its cozy outlets. The ramen has a light garlicky broth laden with plenty of veggies. It is a filling meal, even without the complementary portion of additional noodles. Chabuton’s Tokyo outlet is in the curry shop district of Shimokitazawa, with other branches in Yokohama and Kyoto. (Ramen ¥750)
Tucked in a quiet residential part of Shimokitazawa, Chabuzen has been serving home-style all vegan meals for a decade. It is one of those rare restaurants that offers a vast menu with four whole choices of vegan ramen, vegan snacks, pasta and curry options. Their top recommended “Dragon” ramen comes in a mild yet rich brown rice yeast-based broth, filled to the brim. It can have warmth running through your body in just a few sips. (Ramen ¥950~)
Vegan instant noodle cups are nearly impossible to find in Japan, but can be worth stocking for one of those true-blue winter days. T’s Tan Tan, known for its all vegan restaurants, also sells instant vegan cup noodles in two flavors: their signature tan tan sesame soup and a spicier hot and sour soup. Available at their outlets in Jiyugaoka and Tokyo station. (¥250+ per box)
Japanese curry is worth the special credits for its ability to satisfy comfort cravings on a cold winter night.
Curry House Coco Ichibanya, with its large expanse of franchises, is one of the most accessible vegetarian japanese curry options in Tokyo. It offers vegetarian curries with a combination of different vegetables (¥638~)
T’s Tan Tan in Jiyugaoka offers a thai-style matsaman curry and spicier veggie curry option as a part of its dinner time a-la-carte menu. Why not try both with their half and half platter? (¥1,350)
If you venture further out from the city, Minami Aoyama Yasai Kichi in Yokohama’s Joinus department store serves a mildly spiced vegetarian curry served with grilled vegetables and/or pickled vegetables and salad (¥900-¥1,050)
Shabu Shabu Tajimaya, 12-9 Udagawacho, Shibuya-ku
Nabezo, 6F Shibuya Beam, 31-2 Udagawacho Shibuya-ku (Mon-Fri 11am-3pm, 5-11pm Sat-Sun 11am-11pm)
Sakura Tei, 3-20-1 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku (11am-11pm)
Chabuton, 2-10-1 Kitazawa, Setagaya-ku (11am-11pm)
Chabuzen, 6-16-20 Daita, Setagaya-ku (Sat-Thur 12-3pm, 5-11pm, Tue Closed, Fri 12-11pm)
Coco Curry Ichibanya, various branches
T’s Tan Tan, B1, 2-9-6 Jiyugaoka, Meguro-ku (Mon-Sun 11am-10pm)
Minami Aoyama Yasai Kichi, B1F Sotetsu Joinus, Minamisaiwai 1-5-1, Nishi-ku, Yokohama