I must admit, I had more trepidation about visiting Japan than any other country I had ever travelled to in my life. Despite hours of research spent pouring over blogs, TripAdvisor and of course, HappyCow – I had absolutely no idea what to expect. Would be it too expensive? Would it be a nightmare to figure out the metro system? Would we not have enough time to do all of the things we wanted to? Would anyone speak English? Would I be able to find anything to eat?
Needless to say, the list of anxious questions went on and on. I’m not sure why I felt so unnerved (well, the 10-hour flight time might have had something to do with it) – but I’m happy to report, now that the trip has come and gone – that I had absolutely nothing to worry about.
As it turns out, Japan is nothing short of incredible. The entire experience is hard to sum up in words to be frank, but if I were to try I would say that it is truly an out-of-this-world, fascinating, mind-bogglingly unique and inspiring country in every sense of the word.
It was pricey, yes – but not as outrageous as I had imagined it would be, and considering the overall superior quality of products and services in the country, I think everything we paid for was priced fairly. The metro system was fairly straightforward (aside from the eerie Hunger Games-esque announcements and chirping bird sound-effects), and became a cinch to use within days – thanks in large part to Google maps, admittedly.
Most people did not speak English, however the language barrier was hardly an issue 95% of the time – you’d be surprised at how far politeness and a few simple hand gestures can go. As for timing – I definitely feel like a 12-day trip was not enough – it hasn’t even been a couple of months since the trip and I’m already itching to go back and explore so much more. That said, we were able to cover a significant amount of ground during that time including Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara, Osaka, Hiroshima and Hakone.
But let’s get down to the important part – food. Vegan food, to be exact. Despite the plethora of vegan restaurants listed on HappyCow, the internet scared me senseless. I went there under the impression that unless I was dining at one of said vegan restaurants (some of whose opening timings were less than convenient), that I’d be done for. Japanese cuisine famously uses fish stock (AKA Dashi) in almost all dishes, even those that are typically meat and dairy-free. Add to that the inability to adequately communicate my dietary needs – I was definitely more worried than usual (cue the packing of a hefty stash of emergency snacks and protein bars).
But as you’re about to find out – there really was nothing to worry about. Not only is Japan vegan-friendly, they arguably have some of the best, most sophisticated most intricate vegan food I’ve ever had while traveling.
In the interest of brevity, I’ll be splitting up my guides in to three parts – first up, is magnificent Tokyo.
Upon disembarking the Narita Express, a bullet train that takes you straight from the airport to Tokyo Station – we made a beeline for a place we had heard so much about – T’s Tan Tan.
A restaurant, located inside the station itself, that exclusively serves vegan ramen.
In we went, suitcases in hand, incredibly disoriented from the flight and ravenously hungry.
Luckily, they had an extensive English menu. I opted for the golden sesame ramen, which was divine.
A combination of toasted sesame seeds, a hearty peanut and miso based broth, greens, faux soy meat crumbles, sautéed vegetables and perfectly cooked noodles – this had to have been one of my favourite meals of the whole trip. On our way back to Abu Dhabi, we stopped over in Tokyo Station to get to the airport, and I sampled the black sesame bowl, which, if it was possible, was even better than the first.
I guess what I really loved about the food at T’s Tan Tan, is that it wasn’t trying to be something else – the broths were incredibly uniquely flavoured as opposed to the typical chick’n or beef-style varietal. I also appreciated the balance of said flavours – not too spicy, savoury or sour and paired perfectly with the fresh and cooked veggies. Not to mention portions were huge, and pretty reasonably priced. All in all, T’s Tan Tan is an absolute gem of a place, and a must-visit if you’re ever in Tokyo Station. Worth waiting in line for (and there will be a line).
T’s Tan Tan is located at 1F JR Tokyo Station, Keiyo Street , Marunouchi 1-9-1, Chiyoda, Tokyo| HappyCow page
Travelling with non-vegans means having to compromise, and that doesn’t bother me one bit – though I had kind of made my peace with the idea of not really being able to sample anything at the non-vegan restaurants we did eat at (and waiting instead for our next visit to a veg-friendly place).
Although it was my only sushi sampling of the entire trip, I was pleasantly surprised when the first sushi bar we frequented served me a delicious platter of cucumber and avocado sushi – totally Dashi-free.
It may not look like much, but it tasted sublime and was the perfect appetiser on our first night in Tokyo.
Sushi Seizan is located at6 Chome-10-1 Roppongi, Minato, Tokyo 106-0032, Japan| website
After an evening of exploring our neighbourhood, I stopped off at Veganic To Go, for well – some vegan food to go! I munched on a teriyaki brown rice bowl back at our AirBnB, but had to sample the organic and vegan soy ice cream on the spot, of course.
Veganic To Go is located at 7-4-14 Roppongi | Nogizaka Studios 1F, Minato 106-0032, Tokyo Prefecture| website
One of my qualms with Japan is the fact that very few restaurants that serve breakfast open before 11:00 AM – but on one particular morning I was determined to have pancakes, so we settled for brunch at Ko-So Cafe instead.
These buckwheat pancakes were some of the best I’ve ever had, covered with a light and airy soy-cream, bananas, as well as fresh and frozen berries.
They also had a great looking lunch menu, and I definitely would’ve liked to go back and sample some of their savoury options.
Ko-so Cafe Biorise is located at 3-25-3 Higashi | Lions Plaza Ebisu 1F, Shibuya 150-0011, Tokyo Prefecture | website
For a late lunch, I decided to try Umi Cafe, which was nearby according to my trusty HappyCow app.
I went for the chicken nugget set, which consisted of a salad, soy chick’n, japanese rice, pickles and tofu.
We also sampled their grapefruit salad, in the interest of getting in more fresh veg – which we were told would be a rarity at most Japanese eateries.
For dessert, we opted for the gluten-free waffles with vanilla ice cream.
All in all, the food was good – but nothing extraordinary. I’m definitely glad I tried it, but can’t say I’d be rushing back anytime soon.
Umi Cafe is located at 33-13 Udagawacho, 5F Kusuhara Bldg, Shibuyaku, Tokyo, Japan, 150-0042 | HappyCow page
Many hours, and thousands of steps later – I found myself starving, and on the brink of a freakout as there were virtually no vegan restaurants nearby that stayed open past 9 o’ clock. I had just about resigned to having a protein bar on the way home when like a godsend, we spotted this poster outside a busy ramen shop in Ginza.
I’m fairly certain this incident is proof that I have a vegan fairy Godmother looking out for me somewhere.
The shop was small, but bustling with customers. I was thoroughly entertained by the cooks, who were animated, to say the least – yelling out orders in unison and practically juggling ladels full of piping broth.
My vegan ramen bowl was the perfect remedy and end to a long and exhausting first full day in Tokyo. Choc full of flavour, piping hot and utterly satisfying. Infinitely better than the sad little protein bar that would’ve been my fate.
Kyushu Jangara Ginza is located at 6-12-17 Ginza | Ginza Katagiri Bldg. 1F, Chuo 104-0061, Tokyo Prefecture (Ginza / Tokyo Nihonbashi) | TripAdvisor page
On day two, in search of a breakfast-serving establishment – we headed to Bill’s in Omotesando.
In retrospect, I wish we had tried something a little bit more adventurous – (and perhaps somewhere with a shorter wait-time), but it was good nonetheless. Also a great option if you’re not particularly a fan of Asian cuisine.
Bill’s Omotesando is located at Tokyu Plaza, Omotesando Harajuku 7F 4-30-3 Jingu-mae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo 150-0001| website
After exploring the wacky and wonderful streets of Harajuku, it was time for a sweet pit-stop at Tokyo’s first organic and vegan bakery, Brown Sugar 1st.
We sampled the vanilla ice cream.
And their halloween special cupcakes with vanilla and pumpkin cream respectively, both topped with an organic cocoa cookie.
The perfect sweet treat, not too decadent or sugary.
I also picked up some of their own-brand snacks – some cookies and coconut caramel popcorn, which were delightful additions to our emergency stash.
Brown Sugar 1st is located at 3 Chome-28-8 Jingumae, Shibuya, Tokyo 150-0001 | HappyCow page
Next on the menu for me, was Ain Soph.Ripple.
Ain.Soph is a famous chain of vegan restaurants in Tokyo, so naturally I had pretty high expectations – and I can’t say I was disappointed in the slightest with their casual, burgers and fries-style eatery.
First up was the vegan cheeseburger, served with a side of mac ‘n cheese – because why the hell not.
I have no words to describe the indulgent deliciousness that was this burger. It tasted sumptuous and juicy, but not at all meaty or bloody – for which I was eternally grateful for as I’m no stranger to vegan burgers that taste a little too “real”.
We also sampled their chicken burger and some fries, but neither were my favourite, and I doubt I’d order it again if I were to go back.
I also grabbed some freshly baked vegan muffins for breakfast the next morning, and they were delicious. Another must-visit for me, I can’t recommend it enough!
Ain Soph.Ripple is located at Shinjuku-ku Kabuki-cho 2-46-8 Nissho Building 1F, Tokyo, Japan 160-0021| website
For dessert a few hours later, we headed to Ain Soph.Journey, a more upscale and elegant dining spot from the same chain.
As soon as I spotted it on the menu, I knew I had to order this. Matcha pancakes, covered in white chocolate matcha cream, gold leaf flakes (what?!), vanilla ice cream, whipped cream and fresh berries.
Bury me now, because I’ve seen all there is to see in this life. I can’t even describe how incredibly decadent and downright heavenly this dessert was. I frequently have dreams about it.
We also tried the cheesecake with blueberry sauce – which was also pretty tasty. This place was a definite 10/10.
Ain Soph.Journey is located at 3-8-9 Shinjuku | Shinjuku Q Bldg 1F, Shinjuku 160-0022, Tokyo Prefecture | HappyCow page
After some sustainable shopping in Jiyugaoka (more on that later) – we knew we had to check out the nearby T’s Restaurant for dinner.
Owned by the same owners of the famed T’s Tan Tan, I knew we’d be in for a treat.
We started with a simple salad and some gyoza, both of which were superb.
Followed by a hamburger hotpot with brown rice, and a general Tso’s style chick’n stir-fry dish.
As expected, T’s did not disappoint. All of the food was carefully prepared, bursting with flavour but not overly greasy or heavy at all. The servers were delightful, and the thoughtful owners who were also dining there at the time, came up to chat with us and thank us for visiting them on what was a particularly rainy day.
Dessert was a creme brûlée, which much like the matcha pancakes, I will be dreaming about for many years to come.
T’s Restaurant is located at 2 Chome-9-6 Jiyugaoka, Meguro, Tokyo 152-0035, Japan|HappyCow page
Another great quick breakfast spot was Fico & Pomum – who serve “healthy fast food” in their words. I opted for a green smoothie bowl on top of a base of granola, topped with fresh fruit and coconut flakes.
The perfect fuel for a morning of sightseeing on our last day in Tokyo.
Fico & Pomum Juice is located at 1-9-1 Marunouchi | 17F Grand Tokyo North Tower, Chiyoda 100-6717, Tokyo Prefecture | website
And that’s all for Tokyo! Stay tuned for the next two installments of my vegan Japan trip.