Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Vegetarian in Kyoto

Photos by Alessandra Zecchini ©

It can be hard being a vegetarian in Japan.
I lived in Tokyo for over three years, and survived on many plain rice balls as even the most innocent vegetable dishes are often cooked in fish stock. But I believe that most countries can
surprise outsiders (and often insiders) with a truly vegetarian cuisine and for Japan, a treasure chest of traditions; I just had to head for Kyoto.

Kyoto is famous for its elaborate high cuisine,
which does include vegetarian cuisine, or
Shojinryori, originally developed in Buddhist
temples. Beware: Shojinryori is not cheap because
of the amount of time and care it takes to prepare.
Still, I always seem to end up in inexpensive
eateries, or resort to cheap snacks because of my
vegetarianism. So it was about time that I treated
myself to a restaurant where I could look at the
menu and choose anything, absolutely anything!
The restaurant I was recommended is Izusen,
 in Daitoku-Ji Temple,  First of
all I was greeted with a bowl of freshly whisked
complementary green tea, accompanied by a
Japanese cake. Don’t think of it as odd to get tea
and cake before lunch. The tea is very bitter and
works like an aperitif, and the cake is very small
and not actually as sweet as a Western cake. It is
more like an appetizer to enjoy while looking at
the menu.

There is so much to choose from: little indi-
vidual dishes, special food cooked in clay pots,
set lunches served in beautiful lacquer boxes
and china bowls. I decided on a middle of the
range, 2500-yen set lunch, as the photo on the
menu seemed promising.
You can order tea or beer, which goes well
with Japanese food.
My lunch arrived in a big rectangular
box that opened into two trays lined with
fresh bamboo leaves, plus an assortment
of little bowls and plates. It all looked
beautiful, obviously prepared and pre-
sented with so much thought; it was the
perfect balance between a visual feast and
a selection of flavours.
Little morsels that may look like fish
in any other restaurant were skewered
onto faux pine-needles made out of super-
thin strips of bamboo. A light green sen-
sho (Japanese pepper) sauce and leaves
infused the whole tray with a fragrance
similar to citrus and pine, common in
Kyoto spring cuisine. Leaves and flowers,
plus roots and shoots of many plants
were included, as well as the full array of
seasonal vegetables, all in tiny portions,
maintaining their individual flavours and
providing a colourful display.

Then there was Yuba,
my favourite, the delicate curd which forms when making tofu.
It is very difficult to obtain and expensive, but exquisite, especially here, offered simmered in a tasty vegetable broth with a dengaku (deep fried tofu and vegetable dumpling) and celery sticks. The tempura is ever present in these set meals, and the mushroom pieces tasted particularly good. Next was goma dofu, a tofu block made with sesame seeds, to eat raw with wasabi and soy sauce.
It came accompanied by a single ume-plum tempura, its sweet taste quite a surprise.

I went through all the pieces, sometime no quite sure what I was eating, but for once not having to worry about it. There was even an individual morsel of faux meat, smeared with French-style mustard sauce, but it was delicate and did not taste at all like a chewy piece of gluten. Rice, pickles, vegetables and soup are always served in a Japanese meal and are usually eaten at the end (though you can dig in any time you like). The broth of wakame seaweed and bamboo shoots at Isuzen rated as the best I had ever had.

Around me tables were full, a few low, over tatami mats, but most were with chairs. I was the only foreigner, although the restaurant does host quite a few, mostly American vegetarians. A group of elderly ladies laughed from their tatami mat seats. They were not vegetarians, but they met here for a “girl’s” day out. “The place is nice and clean, and the food is good for your health,” they commented. Another group of six told me they were visitors to Kyoto, and while there they enjoyed the local cuisine, Shojinryori being one of their favourites. Kyoto itself is a very special city, and its people particularly kind.

I tried to explain at the ryokan (traditional Japanese hotel) where I was staying that I am a vegetarian, as Japanese breakfast was included in the price. Rice and pickles were de rigueur, and they told me they were going to prepare, especially for me, a miso soup without fish stock, and “perhaps would I like some tofu?” Would I? The ryokan waitress brought it in an iron pot and lit the paraffin fire beneath it, so that I could cook my own yudofu (tofu simmered in a kombu seaweed and vegetable broth —yet another Kyoto specialty). It was fantastic!

On the second morning, I was presented with a different soup and age-dofu (tofu lightly fried, then simmered in a vegetable stock), which I can still taste now!

I left Kyoto with a bag full of seaweed,
dried tofu and other special ingredients,
but most of all, with a full belly and plenty
of inspiration.

Isuzen Daiji-in sub-temple of Daitoku-Ji, Northwest
Kyoto. Tel: 075 491 6665. 

Ikkyu The official Daitoku-Ji restaurant, and possibly
the most famous Shojinryori restaurant in Japan. Not far
from Izusen, but more expensive. Reservations a must.
Tel: 075 493 0019/1919

Seigen-in Probably while in Kyoto you will visit
Ryoan-ji temple, with its famous rock garden. Seigen-is is
a sub-temple of Ryoan-ji, and offers both Shojinryori and
Yudofu dishes. Inexpensive and always crowded.
Tel: 075 462 4742

An interesting vegetable Restaurant in the city centre is 
Kanematsu - number 108 on the Nishiki map
Mostly vegetarian and Vegan, and if one of courses has fish stock
(they have a fixed menu) they will substitute it with another.
Tel. 075 221 0088

Note Not all ryokan are veggie-friendly,
especially the very expensive ones, as they would not compromise on
their culinary traditions. I stayed in a quiet, mid-priced
one (15,000 yen with breakfast) situated in central Kyoto,
and they provided me with a truly vegetarian Japanese
breakfast on request. A little English spoken.
Masuya Ryokan
145 Ogikucho Shinfuyacho, Sakyo-ku,
Kyoto 606-8376
Tel: 075 771 3066

I also stayed in the Village Kyoto
and this is very good for families and traveling on a budget.
We didn't have breakfast, but the rooms have large fridges, 
a kettle, and a microwave, and two supermarkets nearby.
Recommended mostly for the very good and large Japanese 
communal baths, a great way to relax after visiting the city.


  1. love the way u have desctibed kyoto :)

  2. Thanks for bringing us to Kyoto with you !
    Reading at all this food you ate there, makes my mouth water...
    I like the picture of these round 'flip-flops'!

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