Vegging out in Tokyo

In a dog eat dog city where fast foods and all-you-can-eat meat deals rule, where's a vegetarian supposed to get her creature comforts? Aeve Baldwin pigs out in some of Tokyo's meatless oases.

Illustrations by Mark Farrell

Though the traditional Japanese diet long eschewed meat consumption, relying instead on a predominantly vegetable-based diet supplemented by seafood, the modern-day reality is a far different story. Today it seems there's a McDemon's on every corner. Indeed, McDonald's opened its first store in Japan in 1971. Now over 2400 branches blight the landscape; it was even the "Official Restaurant of the 1998 Winter Olympics."

Fine and dandy for fast food junkies on the run, but this McDemonization of the Japanese diet poses considerable challenges for Japan's vegetarians, few though they may be. There's a bit of confusion over who is and isn't one, though it's actually quite simple: A vegetarian is one who does not eat any creature that once lived or byproducts of those creatures, subsisting instead on a diet of grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, fruits and vegetables, dairy products and eggs. A person who forgoes meat but does eat fish is not a vegetarian, nor is he a "semi-vegetarian." One cannot be semi-vegetarian any more than one can be "kinda pregnant."

Tokyo resident Takagi Junko, a vegetarian for the last ten years, finds eating out in Tokyo to be a lonely challenge. "I have a very hard time going to restaurants here. Some might be willing to accommodate me if I tried, but I find I'm too shy to even ask. The fact that none of my other friends is vegetarian makes it more difficult. While there are a growing number of people who eat fish but avoid meat, true vegetarians like me are still thought of as radical. On the plus side, when I travel by plane I'm always served first!"

When friends ask Brad Hall if being a vegetarian in Tokyo keeps him thin, he replies "No, it has nothing to do with the vegetarian diet itself. The problem in Japan is that I find it really hard to find food I can eat. I'm hungry all the time." One not-so-satisfactory alternative is to request your meals niku nuki (without meat). While this might suffice for some, committed vegetarians have had to learn to be a little more creative. Even healthy mainstays such as miso soup and soba use dashi, a stock that often is made with fish. Shojin ryori (the exquisite - and often elaborate - Buddhist vegetarian cuisine) is wonderful, but few of us are likely to find such temple food in our neighborhoods, nor find the time to eat at such places every day.

Gardens of eatin'

Though vegetarianism hasn't caught on here to the degree it has in the UK or the US, options are growing. In addition to the listings below, Indian restaurants, izakaya and, strangely enough, yakiniku places are all good choices. Indian cuisine has tons of vegetarian options, while izakaya and yakiniku joints let the diner build her own meal by ordering small dishes a la carte. Ignore the sizzling meat at a yakiniku place and it's one of the most well-rounded meals around: tofu, kimchi, salads, grilled vegetables, wakame soup, and rice.

Vegetarian restaurants
The places listed below eschew all animal products, with the possible exception of fish dashi in miso soup (ask if this is a concern).

African Forest
Adorable micro-sized restaurant and bar in Ekoda serves African food with live African music, often in the form of jam sessions. The action spills out onto the streets on weekends.
Open 6pm-midnight, closed Tue. 29-4 Sakaecho, Nerima-ku (03-3993-8671). Nearest stn: Ekoda.

Run by the same people who run Nataraj (see below), this is a mukokuseki (literally, "no nationality," but a term generally used by places with menus that circle the globe) restaurant serving ethnic cuisine.
Open 11:30am-2:30pm and 5:30-11pm Mon-Fri, 11:30am-11pm Sat, Sun and holidays. 5-29-11-2F Ogikubo, Suginami-ku (03-3392-3024). Nearest stn: Ogikubo.

Chinese with an unusual theme: This is where family and friends come to commemorate the death of a dearly departed. Mock meat dishes are designed to fool the senses into thinking they're still getting the real thing.
Open 11:30am-2pm and 5:30-9pm Mon-Sat (last order 8pm). 4-3-14 Shiba, Bukkyo Dendo Center Bldg 2F, Minato-ku (03-3456-3257). Nearest stn: Mita.

The owners have recently moved and expanded one of, if not the only, Indian restaurant in Tokyo that's entirely vegetarian. Their extensive menu features yummy curries, good salads and the best onion pakoras in town. Even carnivores won't miss the meat.
Open 11:30am-11pm (last order 10:30pm). 5-30-6-B1F Ogikubo, Suginami-ku (03-3398-5108). Nearest stn: Ogikubo.
Nonsmoking seats available.

Shizenkan II
The tea (yasocha - an original blend of 17 herbs) was rather reminiscent of gerbil droppings, but the kinoko (mushroom) risotto made with brown rice sure was tasty. The decor is strictly coffee shop but the food is attractively presented on faux lacquer trays. Lunch sets (JY900-JY1150) run the gamut from vegetable curry and gluten "katsu-don" to tofu teishoku (set meal). Dinner selections available by course (JY1300-JY2000) or a la carte (JY250-JY800) include gluten burgers, natto chahan and tororo (grated mountain yam) dofu (tofu).
Open 11am-8pm, Mon-Sat. 3-9-2 Shibuya, Shibuya-ku (03-3486-0281). Nearest stn: Shibuya.

Sofa Deli and Cafe
This is it - the Holy Grail. Gourmet vegetarian: No fish dashi, no gelatin, absolutely no animal products whatsoever, with recipes employing egg or milk products labeled clearly. The concept - a fusion of Chinese and New York-style Italian - sounds off-the-wall, but it works. Eschewing onions and garlic as well as meat and fish products, the chefs must thus pay keen attention to seasonings. Sublime, delicate lasagna with eggplant, thin-crust pizzas with cheese imported from Hokkaido (made with vegetable rennet) and spicy, flavorful mabo dofu are only the beginning. For those missing their meat, the imitations ("ham" sandwich, Chinese "chicken") are strikingly convincing. Triple whammy: No smoking, no alcohol, no keitai.
Open 11am-8:30pm. 4-1-18 Ebisu, Ebisu Neonata Bldg 1F, Shibuya-ku (03-5793-5236). Eat in, take out or delivery. Nearest stn: Ebisu.

Vegetarian-friendly restaurants
These places may serve fish or meat, or employ fish stock in their soups, but have plenty of vegetarian options as well.

Cute little hole-in-the-wall (the counter seats ten and there's a teensy weensy table) but the place is as quiet as a tomb. Some seafood is served but no meat. A la carte dishes run JY700-JY1200, and include dry curry, goma (sesame) soba with lots of chunky sesame seeds, potato croquette and tofu and natto dishes. Soymilk (JY400) is canned but tasty nevertheless.
Open 11:30am-2:30pm and 5-8:30pm Mon-Fri, 11:30am-7pm Sat and holidays. Closed Sun, every third Mon. Kitazawa 2-9-23, Dai-Ni Suzuki Bldg, Setagaya-ku (03-3485-3681). Nearest stn: Shimokitazawa.

The recently expanded natural foods store downstairs has perhaps Tokyo's best selection of organic, natural, and health foods, including a "Curry for Vegetarians" mix for those who like Japanese-style curry but don't want the meat by-products. The restaurant serves natural Japanese food, either sets or a la carte, and the staff make every effort to cater to individual customers' needs. Suffering from allergies? They'll try to compose a meal that helps. The food, incidentally, is delicious.
Open 11:30am-2pm and 5-10pm Mon-Sat. Ogikubo 5-27-5 Suginami-ku (03-3393-1224). Nearest stn: Ogikubo.

Good Honest Grub
Small and friendly spot serving North American food, with an emphasis on organic health foods. The often-changing menu always includes vegetarian options. The all-natural fruit shakes (made with nothing but fresh fruit and ice) are a beautiful way to start the morning or ease into brunch.
Open 8am-11pm Sun-Wed, 8:30am-2am Thur-Sat. Brunch 8:30am-4:30pm Sat, Sun and national holidays. 1-11-11 Ebisu Minami, Shibuya-ku (03-3710-0400). Nearest stn: Ebisu.

Mominoki House
While meat and fish are served, there's an extensive menu of vegetable and gluten-based entrees. I once had an exquisite tempura'd lotus root with miso and nori. The food is a little heavy on the salt and smoking is not only allowed, it's practically encouraged, but lunch does come with a complimentary half-glass of wine (Katsunuma, I think, but hey, it's free).
Open 11am-2pm and 5-10:30pm Mon-Sat. Jingumae 2-18-5, You Bldg 1F, Shibuya-ku (03-3405-9144). Nearest stn: Harajuku.

Monk's Food
Though the food is fairly austere, the "monk" in Monk's Food is a tribute to Thelonius Monk, a fact made quickly clear by the jazz-only soundtrack. Three teishoku are served at this narrow, dark wooded place. Lunch (JY870, excluding Sat, Sun and holidays) and dinner teishoku (JY1070) are usually divided into tofu or vegetable, fish, and meat choices, each with genmai (brown rice), miso soup and tsukemono (pickles).
Open 11:30am-10:30pm (last order 10pm) Mon-Sat, 11:30am-9:30pm (last order 9pm) Sun. 1-2-4 Gotenyama, Musashino-shi (0422-48-3977). Nearest stn: Kichijoji.

Natural Harmony Angolo
Meat and seafood are served but the emphasis is on vegetable cuisine. At lunch the Harmony Set (JY1100) nets you five small dishes - e.g. moroheya tempura, pickled wakame with myoga (a type of ginger), and stewed winter squash - all of which are yummy, plus genmai or bread, and miso soup (the dashi uses fish stock). At night the menu is vast, with interesting-sounding choices like natto omelet with daikon sauce. There's a small selection of wines, beer and sake, and all teas and coffees are brewed with mineral water.
Open 11:30am-2:30pm and 5:30-10pm daily. Jingumae 3-38-12, Puzzle Aoyama Bldg 1F, Shibuya-ku (03-3405-8393). Nearest stn: Gaienmae.

An Israeli restaurant with lots of Middle Eastern vegetarian food, all of it quite good. Try the falafel, hummus, warm pita bread with eggplant or any of the salads. Friendly, bustling atmosphere.
Open 5pm-midnight Tue-Fri, 12pm-midnight Sat-Sun, closed Mon. 4-11 Sakaecho, Art Bldg 2F, Nerima-ku (03-3948-5333). Nearest stn: Ekoda.

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295: Just Do It!
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294: 2 can play that game
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293: Vegging out in Tokyo
Some of Tokyo's meatless oases
292: Multiplicity
The belated arrival of the multiplex
291: After a Fashion
Zita Ohe walks through Tokyo's fall/winter fashions
290: Used and Abused
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