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KYOTO: The Capital of Zen Vegetarian Cuisine.

In the United States, I've often met vegetarians who say that they've never visited Japan because they believe all Japanese food contains fish. However, Kyoto is a place that vegetarians definitely can enjoy.

Kyoto, located in the western part of Japan, is an indispensable place for tourists, especially those who love the good-old-days of Japan. The city was the capital of Japan for a thousand years, from 794 to 1869 CE, and still displays authentic Japanese culture that has almost vanished in Tokyo. Along with classic wooden buildings, exquisite arts and crafts, and young geisha girls in pretty kimonos, the long tradition of Kyoto Japanese cuisine adds to this old city's charm. And the good news for vegetarians is that Buddhist vegetarian dishes are included in that tradition as well.

Being the center of Japanese Buddhism for more than a thousand years, Kyoto has hundreds of temples representing various sects. These temples offer you opportunities to experience both historical buildings and vegetarian cuisine. Kyoto's vegan specialties include tofu products and wheat gluten (fu). Natives use these vegan foods daily, so they can easily understand what vegetarian means.

Entering Kyoto by the world's-fastest Shinkansen train, you'll even discover Kyoto's vegetarian-friendliness at the lunch-box shops in the railway station. Compared to the counterparts in Tokyo's station, these shops offer lunch-boxes containing much less meat, and there is even a vegan lunch-box (shojin bento). If you go to the food court of Isetan, the department store located in the station building, you will see a lot of vegetarian foods such as pickled vegetable sushi and steamed glutinous rice with vegetables. In addition to that, many Chinese restaurants in Kyoto use vegetable oil instead of lard.

Since Kyoto has a number of tourist spots, it is almost impossible to experience this classic town thoroughly. As a vegetarian traveler, I felt exactly the same tiredness trying to sample Kyoto's wide variety of vegetarian foods, even after several times visiting there. However, I would like to offer some suggestions to help you enjoy your stay in the capital of Zen Buddhist cuisine in Japan.


To follow one of Buddhas five proscriptions, "you shall not kill," monks and nuns have prepared their foods without any animal ingredients over the centuries and their cuisine is called shojin. The word shojin generally means Buddhist vegetarian in Japan but originally meant "zeal in progressing along the path to salvation." Because eggs and dairy products were rarely used in Japanese cuisine before the twentieth century, these shojin meals are completely vegan-based, including vegetables, beans, sea-weed, and grains. Even the soup stock, generally made of fish extracts in Japan, is instead cooked with kombu sea-weed, dried shiitake mushrooms, and other vegetable ingredients.

Many temples in Kyoto serve shojin meals. It would be an unforgettable experience for you if you tried their simple but profound plates that have been refined throughout history. The only disadvantage is the cost: you should expect to pay more than 5,000 yen (about $50) per person for dinner, though it is relatively reasonable priced during lunchtime.

When I traveled to Kyoto last time, I decided to have lunch at DAITOKUJI-IKKYU. This restaurant has more than a five-hundred-year tradition of serving meals at the Daitokuji-Temple, one of the most important temples in Japan. Along with its long history, Ikkyu's style of "one soup, three kinds of dishes, and rice (ichiju sansai)," using seasonal ingredients, strongly affected kaiseki cuisine, which is now served in tea ceremonies and considered authentic high-class Japanese cuisine.

Sitting in a clean, simply decorated tatami room, I felt like my body and mind were filled with the peaceful atmosphere that dominated the whole building. In spite of partitioning off the next room with only sliding paper screens, I didn't hear any sounds and naturally focused on the cuisine--not only its flavor but also its spirit.

I ordered Fuchidakamori, the lunch-box. Before the lunch-box, a bowl of powdered green tea (maccha) and a Japanese sweet (wagashh were served. The sweet was vegan. The one I had was a mound of steamed and pounded glutinous rice with sweet adzuki bean paste. Also on the plate was a black fermented soybean. Ikkyu's special product Daitoku-ji Natto, and its pungent flavor, created an exquisite harmony of flavors with the mild sweet wagashi and bitter maccha.

The Fuchidakamori lunch-box was served in a square-shaped wooden tableware in the style of "one soup, two dishes, and rice." The soup was a clear soup with yuba (soymilk skin), spinach, and matsutake mushroom. When I opened the lid of the soup bowl, the rich aroma of matsutake mushroom (picked only in wild mountains during a limited autumn season, thus very expensive in Japan), caught my nostrils. The soup's delicate flavor amazed me. You might find the taste bland but should experience the profoundness by sipping the soup carefully, as monks do.

One of the two dishes was an appetizer, a kind of cooked vegetable salad dressed with mashed tofu. Another was a mixture of foods including baked tofu with vegetables, rolled yuba, braised Daitokuji-fu (a type of wheat gluten, another original product of Ikkyu), a cooked Japanese apricot, burdock root surrounded with a meaty textured soy product, steamed eggplant, and iwatake, a black lichen collected from cliff faces. Along with those dishes, rice with Japanese chestnuts and pieces of pickled vegetables composed the menu. The profoundness I felt with the clear soup was felt throughout the entire meal. The method of cooking focused on preserving the natural flavors of high quality, seasonal foods. Even in this small box, there was the harmony of six flavors: bitter, sour, sweet, hot, salty, and delicate.

Fuchidakamori is 3,500 yen, almost $35. It might be a little expensive for lunch but worth considering to experience the five-hundred-year tradition of Zen Buddhist cuisine cultivated in Ikkyu. Ikkyu's simple but exquisite cuisine in a peaceful Zen atmosphere was one of the highlights of my trip. (Note: Ikkyu requires reservations.)


For its fairly delicate flavor, Kyoto's tofu is famous among tofu lovers in Japan. People in Kyoto have improved their skill of making tofu through their long-term relationship with Buddhist cuisine, which uses tofu and soy products as essential ingredients. Additionally, since tofu is originally made of only soybeans, water, and a coagulant (nigari), Kyoto has an advantage of making delicious tofu with its high-quality water. Therefore, tofu is one of the specialties of Kyoto's cuisine.

There are many tofu restaurants in Kyoto, including some in Buddhist temples. The dishes they serve are prepared by one of the simplest cooking styles: boiled (yudofu) in winter and in summer, raw and fresh (hiyayakko). With only soy sauce and a couple of garnishes such as chopped green onion and grated ginger, these dishes are more than tasteful because the quality of tofu is excellent.

The joy of tasting Kyoto's marvelous tofu is not limited to expensive restaurants. NAKAMURA-RO is the restaurant I would recommend. Located inside the gate of Yasaka Jinja Shrine, one of the major tourist spots in Kyoto, Nakamura-Ro is a traditional Japanese-style teahouse serving tea with Japanese sweets. However, its specialty is definitely dengaku, grilled tofu skewered with bamboo sticks. I was amazed at the mousse-like texture of dengaku that melted in my mouth. The paste on top of the tofu was a mixture of white miso (a type of sweet-tasting miso especially used in the western part of Japan), kinome (young leaves of a kind of Japanese herb), and spinach. Its savory flavor produces a fine combination with the delicate taste of tofu. Three pieces of dengaku, which would satisfy even those who think they hate tofu, costs only 700 yen (almost $7). Nakamura-Ro also has an exquisite restaurant next to the teahouse.

Another good place to sample tofu dishes in Kyoto is TOSAI, a casual restaurant that mainly serves organic tofu and vegetable dishes. (The name Tosai means "beans and vegetables.") The traditional-style building alone appeals to tourists, but the food is also a charm. The restaurant is not all vegetarian, but I could find plenty of food. Namayuba sashimi (fresh yuba with wasabi soy sauce), namafu isomaki (deep-fried fresh wheat gluten wrapped with nori seaweed), yamaimo tanzaku (a kind of yam salad), hiyayakko, and mochi (rice cake) with natto (fermented soybeans) are some samples I enjoyed at Tosai. For a vegan dessert, they serve coconut milk. Beware that although meat is rarely used in dishes at Tosai, the stock in many items contains fish extract. If you make a reservation one day before you plan on going, they will cook with vegan stock instead of fish stock. For foreigners, Tosai has a menu written in English so that you can figure out the items you can eat. The cost depends upon how much you order, but is generally 2,000 to 4,000 yen ($20 to $40) per person for dinner.


Kyoto is the homeland of mizuna (a kind of green leafy vegetable) and produces many unique local vegetables. Scarlet-colored carrots, fat eggplants, thick burdock roots, and huge turnips will entertain you even if you don't buy them. NISHIKI MARKET, five narrow, busy streets, is the best place to enjoy such colorful foods.

Nishiki market has every essential ingredient for preparing Kyoto-style cuisine. For vegetarians, besides Kyoto vegetable shops, you will find tofu shops, yuba shops, wheat gluten shops, pickled vegetable shops, tea shops, and confectioners (generally, Japanese sweets are vegan, though you need to check just in case). There is a number of stores selling high-quality beans such as black beans and adzuki beans. Miso stores are also good places to search around.

My recommendation for souvenirs is dried yuba, since it's easy to carry and useful in many dishes without any difficult cooking process. For the same reason, dried wheat gluten is another recommendation. Its beautiful color and shape would add some aesthetic sense to your soup bowl. Tea, another famous product in Kyoto, is also a good selection. Pickled vegetables, miso, and beans are worth making your luggage heavier, too.

In addition to foods, ARITSUGU, a 400-year-old cooking knife shop, whose customers include professional chefs, is a destination you don't want to miss. Touring the small space of Aritsugu, you will find many kinds of useful, well-designed kitchen tools from thin cooking chopsticks to copper graters.

You may not be able to store perishable foods, but at least you can taste them in the food courts usually located on the basement floor of department stores. Next to Nishiki market, the department store DAIMARU offers numerous food samples in their food court.


Since Kyoto is a famous tourist spot, people there are generally accustomed to foreigners. But you can't expect that they will understand English very well. For your reference, the following are some useful Japanese phrases for vegetarians traveling in Japan.



HAGINOYA (Lunch box shop selling shojin bento): JR Kyoto station (075-361-1301)

IKKYU: 20, Daitokuji-mae, Murasakino, Kita-ku (075-493-0019)

NAKAMURA-RO: Yasaka Jinja torii nai, Gion, Higashiyama-ku (075-561-0016)

TOSAI: Sakaimachi higashi-iru, Takoyakushi-Dori, Nakagyo-ku (075-213-2900)

ARITSUGU: Mikomachi nishi-iru, Nishikikoji-dori, Nakagyo-ku (075-221 - 1091)

DAIMURU: Shijo Takakura, Shimogyo-ku (075-211-8111)

You can gather more information on vegetarian restaurants in basic tourist guides found at the Kyoto Tourist Bureau (075-752-0225) and Kyoto Tourist Information Center (075-343-6655).

Hiroko Kato is a freelance journalist living in Tokyo, Japan. She is a former VRG intern.
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Author:Kato, Hiroko
Publication:Vegetarian Journal
Geographic Code:9JAPA
Date:Jul 1, 2001
Previous Article:VEGAN COOKING TIPS.

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