If it was easy to find good food in Tokyo, it was even easier in Kyoto. There were so many options I didn’t have enough time or space (in my stomach) to fit them all in. I started enjoying good Japanese food even before getting there. I searched for #veganekiben – or vegan train bento box to see if any existed. Lo and behold! Not only did it exist, but I also found a website that showed were exactly I could pick one up in Tokyo station. There were multiple locations, one of them being Ekiben Matsuri – a massive shop specialising in hundreds of different kinds of bento. Like with anything that needs to be found in a Japanese train station, this was an epic task. And once again, a task that was much easier due to the kindness of strangers and station staff pointing me in the right direction. Hello Vegetable Bento! Clearly marked as meat, fish, dairy and egg free, it cost 900 yen. It was a little beauty – 2 kinds of rice, decorated with a carrot autumn leaf, bits of vegetables – lotus root, bamboo shoot, pumpkin, asparagus tips – and a lone, but gigantic broad bean. There was also tofu – fried and some other kind, and even a little cup of pickles. It was superiorly (is that a word? it is now) satisfying, adding to the authentic Shinkansen experience.
Other highlights were my breakfasts at Vegan Minshuku Sanbiki Neko, the vegan B&B I was staying in. Freshly cooked by Craig, and different every morning I was there, the food was authentically Japanese and seriously seriously tasty. Tofu with a teriyaki sauce with stir fried lotus root. Mixed rice and an aubergine soup to wash it all down. The next morning he made tofu and carrot stir fry with this stunningly good green bean and sesame dish. It came with brown rice (sprinkled with seaweed) on the side and was served with miso soup this time. Final breakfast was a beautiful buddha bowl – soba noodles and vegan sausage topped a mountain of veggies – carrots, bean sprouts, asparagus, tomatoes, cucumber, mange tout and sprouts, covered with a ponzu dressing. And I also got vegetable gyoza on the side. Bliss. All the dishes were all so filling, fresh and seriously tasty – this B&B needs to print a cookbook of all their recipes!
Ain Soph Journey – now I intentionally didn’t go to any of the branches in Tokyo as I knew there would be one in Kyoto. I know everyone raves about the pancakes but I just wasn’t in a sweet mood so instead went for the tofu rice and a pot of tea. First impressions? I thought oh well, just a mound of salad and a ball brown stuff. But the flavours were really good and the salad surprisingly tasty. It was a massive portion! Only downside, it was a bit cold – I think it would have tasted better at room temperature. My chosen dessert, the chocolate cake with soy cream made up for it though – super dense, fudgy and oh so chocolately – it was excellent.
Mimikou – was an unexpected find. I had literally spent hours walking from temple to temple and was pretty hungry. Looked on Hungry Cow and found a place minutes down the road. It serves meat but has clearly marked vegetarian dishes – and and English menu! The service was so so friendly and they were so chatty and lovely. I got to practice my (limited) Japanese and learned a few more words. I went for the kitsune (literally means fox, but in this dish, it means bit of fried tofu) curry udon with kakiage – fried carrot, onion and cabbage. I knew when they gave me a paper bib and a tray of chilli powders to sample that this meal was going to be good. O M G. It was epic. The udon was thick and chewy, the curry sauce was thick and full of umami. The kitsune tofu soaked up the sauce and added another dimension to the dish. The tempura was also excellent. And the chilli powders – excellent (and they were also for sale). Excellent Excellent Excellent. This is one of those dishes that I still think about – I would eat it again and again.
Coco Curry – this is the same chain restaurant that I visited in Tokyo. I had the same – vegetable curry and rice (smaller portion) with extra sweetcorn and aubergine. Just as tasty and filling as the last time. I LOVE this place!!. I have also found out that they recently opened a branch in… wait for it… London!! WHOOO! I will be going to check it out soon…
Mumokuteki – Now this is one of the most popular restaurants that vegans/vegetarians visit in Kyoto, and rightly so. It is an omni restaurant, but with excellent options for all. Once again, I got there pretty late in the day (4pm, after temple hopping), and there were no queues, and no waiting for a table (contrary to what I read on the internet). The English menu was extensive and clearly marked – what had fish, what hadn’t. The set meals were what I had my eye on – and they all looked so good I took a while to decide which one I wanted. I chose well. Panko encrusted seitan fillets coated with a miso sauce (crispy and delicious), red rice (nutty and filling), cold mushroom salad (tasty, albeit a bit slimy), tomatoes (sugar bombs), pumpkin (comforting), pickles (nice and pickle-y) and really good miso soup. I couldn’t eat more even if I wanted to – it was so filling and super tasty and oh so Japanese tasting. I could live on this stuff.
Temple watching in Kyoto is serious business and takes up a lot of energy. Thankfully Kyoto is a city of snack lovers – including vegetarian friendly ones – and they are everywhere! Each temple has a tea house, and for a modest amount – between 500 – 1000 yen, depending on the popularity of the temple, you could bag yourself a cup of green tea and snack. Kiyomizu Dera’s green tea was mild and their snacks were 50/50. The mochi ball was yummy, the other sweet looked, felt and tasted like a sponge you use to wash dishes with. Horrible!.
Kodaiji Temple’s offering was so so much better. A cup of strong, tasty green tea and a beautiful adzuki bean mochi, embossed with an autumn leaf. I was sitting in a garden surrounded by autumn leaves – so corny, it but was the perfect setting, one of those ‘It can’t get any better than this’ moments.
Another very memorable snack was a matcha parfait from Kyo Cafe, down the road from Kiyomizu Dera. A combination of matcha and vanilla ice cream, pieces of matcha and vanilla cake, topped with a cinnamon flavoured roof tile cookie (seen all around Kyoto). This was a dream to eat, the matcha strong and the ice cream creamy. YUM!
Still on the search for a matcha ice cream to beat the one I had in Tokyo, I bought another one when I had finished trekking up and down the Fushimi Inari Shrine – it came close – it was super creamy – and oh so pretty! Loved it! Don’t think there is bad matcha ice cream in Japan, especially in Kyoto!
Another really great stomach filler was just outside Fushimi Inari station – Senboninari, selling inari sushi. They were little monsters (the biggest inari I’ve ever seen), and once again, there were clearly marked vegetarian/ vegan options. With the risk of sounding like a broken record – oh, so delicious, so tasty and this is another thing I still think about..
All the other foods I tried were excellent and perfectly suited to the cold weather – it was at least 5-7 degrees colder than Tokyo, at around 15 degrees. I had Dango – freshly grilled soft mochi. Warm chewy goodness with this with this sticky, miso sauce. Perfect. I also had a freshly baked doriyaki stuffed with azuki bean paste – anko. More perfect. And finally, the go to Japanese snack this is available everywhere – sweet potato. It comes in all forms – steamed, roasted, fried, sweet, salty. My version – plain, fried chips with nothing else – they were excellent again.
As ever, I could have gone to so many more restaurants, eaten so many more snacks, but I ran out of time. But if anyone ever tells you that there isn’t anything for vegetarians and vegans to enjoy in Japan, Do Not Believe Them!!!!!!