Saturday, 21 February 2015

Vegan Restaurants in Kyoto

Kiyomizu Dera Temple Entrance

Kyoto is, in my opinion, the vegan capital of Asia: it has over a dozen vegan restaurants, and unlike Tokyo most are within walking distance of the common visitor attractions, and their standards and variety on average exceed Taipei. With a little planning, or even without it, it would be possible to eat at different restaurants for lunch and dinner for several days. And while shojin ryori (Buddhist temple cuisine) is a must-eat at least once in Japan - and Kyoto the place to do it - many are surprisingly inexpensive, with a simple set meal often costing as little as a thousand yen, much less than a comparable meal would be in most of the world's historic or major cities. If I had to choose one city to be confined to for the rest of my life, it would be Kyoto. It should feature on any Japan travel itinerary, or if coming from Asia, the Kansai region makes a worthwhile travel destination in itself.

At a Glance (links stay in page)

Must-visit Vegans Cafe and Restaurant, Shojin Ryori (temple cuisine) at least once
Also Highly Recommended Tosca, Morpho Cafe
Best-value Simple, Healthy Meals  Sujata, Veggie Cafe
International Sujata (Indian), Veggie Cafe (Israeli, Mexican, others)
Work/Study/Hangout Space Cafe Choice
Something different Cacao Magic (raw vegan chocolate factory and cafe)


Most sites of interest, and hotels, are north of Kyoto Station, except for Vegans Cafe & Restaurant and Inari Fushima Shrine to the south. Higashiyama has the greatest density of key sites, including most famous temples and the Walk of Philosophy to to Kinkakuji (Silver Pavilion), which has three veg'n restaurants nearby. Gion is the ancient heart of Kyoto, and a must-visit, preferably during the evening; nearby are Cafe Matsuontoko, Choice Cafe Restaurant and Tamisa Cafe / Yoga studio. Morpho Cafe lies slightly to the North East, making it a good stop on the way to / from Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion) while the Veggie Cafe lies to the West, making it a good stop for Arashiyama, were most of the temples and upmarket restaurants serving shojin ryori are located.

Kyoto is a great city for walking. While the big-ticket temples in Higashiyama and Kinkakuji should be on every visitor's list, I find that the less-famous temples are often much more memorable, both large temples with friendly resident monks (as opposed to ticket salespeople found at the gates of the famous temples) or tiny roadside temples or shrines. In particular I always enjoy walking to or from Kinkakuji, perhaps stopping at Morpho Cafe (or the Veggie Cafe) along the way but otherwise just following any path which seems interesting at the time.

Must-Visit Restaurants

Shojin Ryori

While expensive, if possible I recommend trying shojin ryori (Buddhist temple cuisine) at least once in Japan, preferably in Kyoto. This cuisine has been developed over centuries (after Buddhism was imported from China) and is vegan without onion or garlic, but it never hurts to check!  

Kanga An

+81 75-256-2480
Reserve a meal at least three days in advance by phone or Facebook (use Google Translate) 
〒603-8146 京都府京都市北区鞍馬口町寺町西入新御霊口278
A feast at Kanga An includes several meals like these ones.

My favourite Shojin restaurant in Kyoto (and all of Japan) is Kanga An, the 'real deal', located inside a temple. It's not cheap, with even basic meals (once taxes and a drink are included) not leaving much change out of 10,000 Yen, but it's an experience you'll remember well after you've forgotten all the temples and train rides. 
As food is bought, prepared and served especially for the small number of customers at any time, it's necessary to arrange a meal at least three days in advance, and to honour the arrangement.


 Besides Kanga An, most Shojin Ryori restaurants are in Arashiyama, famous for the Bamboo Grove. 

Bamboo Grove, Arashiyama

I enjoyed it at Tenryuji Shigetsu (Happycow), which offers an excellent lunch deal at a comparatively low price of 3500 Yen (including entrance to the Tenryuji Temple) but it's also available at plenty of other places, with prices going up to and beyond 10,000 Yen, or more for dinner.

Most shojin ryori restaurants are located in Arashiyama in Western Kyoto. Arashiyama is a beautiful suburb which is much less crowded that Higashiyama. It doesn't have the same density of temples or historic quarters as Higashiyama, but is at least as beautiful.

If you spend the afternoon in Arashiyama but only wish to eat shojin ryori once consider a meal at the Veggie Cafe on your way there or back, and note that shojin ryori is significantly cheaper for lunch.

Shojin Ryori (from Tenryuji Shigetsu, 3000 Yen + 500 Yen temple admission)

Fake Shojin?

Unfortunately the high price of shojin ryori makes it prone to abuse, and there are many 'fake' shojin ryori restaurants (mostly outside of Kyoto) which serve similar food but not with nearly the same quality ingredients or careful preparation; while a foreign tourist may not notice a significant difference it would be a waste of this quintessential Japanese vegan experience (and a lot of money) to try an imitation. It's best to eat at restaurants in or directly attached to temples, also always read reviews first, and NEVER eat "shojin ryori" from a restaurant which also serves non-vegetarian food: it's fake shojin ryori and may well contain fish derivatives.

Alternative: Koyasan

Staying at a temple at Koyasan is a great way to experience a temple and try shojin ryori. At 10,000 Yen it's much more economic than dining in Kyoto (Eko In).

Temples at Koyasan (Mt Koya) offer excellent deals combining shojin ryori for breakfast and dinner with accommodation (starting at around 10 000 Yen), a good overnight trip from Kyoto or Osaka.

Vegans Cafe & Restaurant

Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday:
11:30-15:00 (L.O. 14:30)
17:30-21:30(L.O21:00) Sunday & Holidays: 11:30~17:30(L.O17:00)
Closed: Monday, Thursday 
Directions from your location
Kyoto's Top Vegan Restaurant
Shojin ryori is considered to be food in a class of its own, and is certainly priced so. But Vegans Cafe and Restaurant (Happycow), in my opinion, gives the temples (and private restaurants) a run for their Yen. Being vegan is about all they share, however, with shojin ryori being strictly traditional Buddhist temple food while Vegans serves up modern, delicious fusion cuisine with particular emphasis on classic western comfort foods, including the best pizza in Kyoto, making it especially popular with foreign tourists. It also appears to have become the default centre of the animal rights community in Kyoto.

I think that what gives Vegans Cafe and Restaurant its edge is that it's run a couple who are both passionate about veganism and experienced in the food industry; they ran a successful Yakinuki (fried meat) business for years before closing it to open Vegans Cafe and Restaurant after learning about animal cruelty online. This gives the restaurant a vibe which the majority of macrobiotic cafes in Japan (including some in Kyoto) just don't have when they're run by someone perhaps vaguely interested in the health aspects of macrobiotic food (which often comes after a period of ill-health) or who simply sees a business opportunity in it.

Where Vegans Cafe and Restaurant falls short is its venue: it's essentially on the 'wrong' (south) side of Kyoto Station, while most attractions and accommodation are to the north. And the venue itself is little more than a tastefully converted garage. But don't let that put you off: a visit to Vegans is a must while in Kyoto, and I recommend it for early in your stay to allow time for a possible return visit. It's only a five-minute ride on the JR Nara Line (to Inari Station) and a one-kilometre walk or short taxi ride, so can easily be managed after a long day exploring Kyoto. It's even easier of coming from Gion (a common end to a day exploring Higashiyama) requiring only a twenty-minute journey via the Keihan Main Line, including only a 600-metre walk.


Vegans Cafe and Restaurant isn't completely off the tourist path. Be sure to visit Fushimi Inari Shrine, which is famous for its path up Mount Inari through thousands of orange torii (gates). This is one of few famous Shinto shrines in Kyoto (the large, famous temples are mostly Buddhist) and being the goddess or god of rice and sake, s/he's obviously important to Japan! (She manifests as both genders!) The beautiful trails around the mountain to the thousands of sub-shrines are difficult (and dangerous) at night, so a good option would be to have a late lunch at Vegans, explore Mt Inari during the afternoon and early evening, and then either return to Vegans for dinner or head back to northern Kyoto.

Vegan Heaven

Vegan Heaven serves the finest non-Shojin Ryori meal in Kyoto. Details to come soon. 

Central Kyoto

This central area is close to Gion, and has several restaurants which don't work in perfectly with any itinerary but can easily be reached before or after a day's exploring.

Shirakawa Minami-dori (Gion) is considered one of Asia's most beaitufl streets, especially during the sakura (cherry blossoms)

Veggie Cafe

Directions from your location 
07 536-63979 (owner speaks English)
 It's a little out of the way, but well worth the effort. If you won't be digging deep for shojin ryori in Arashiyama then the Veggie Cafe makes a good stop on the way there (or back, or both).Call first to check it's open.

The owner of this charming little cafe is very passionate about healthy, organic food, particularly the use of agrochemicals in food, and he introduced me to the Fukuoka Method of Natural Farming, a system far better for the environment and its flora and fauna than organic farming. He returned to Japan from the USA to open the Veggie Cafe, which originally applied macrobiotic principles to Middle Eastern foods, particularly falafel, as he wanted to apply a familiar healthy food concept to something different to the regular curries and fake meat served at macrobiotic restaurants all over Japan. His menu now extends well beyond its falafel-and-hummus beginnings to include a range of soups, burgers and mexican dishes. During my visit he was experimenting with vegan baking using organic, whole grains.

Organic Means Organic, but Not Expensive
For many "organic" restaurants in Japan (and Taiwan, and probably most countries) the namesake food standard is little more than an aspiration to use organic foods "where possible", which generally means "when not much more expensive" which generally means that very little of the food is actually organic. At the Veggie Cafe the owner lists the ingredients of his entire menu, stating which are organic, and virtually all are (eg "organic flour, yeast, organic sultanas...". I think the food at the Veggie Cafe is among the healthiest and certainly the best value in Kyoto, which is especially rare for a restaurant which uses mostly organic food.

These delicious pancakes were made from organic, whole grains.

Morpho Cafe

Monday - Saturday: 
11:30~15:00(L.O. 14:30)
17:00~L.O. 21:00
Closed Sunday
Directions from your location  

Morpho Cafe is, in my opinion, one of Kyoto's top inexpensive vegan cafes / restaurants. The food is not quite as good as amazing as Vegans Cafe and Restaurant, or as inexpensive as Sujata or Veggie Cafe, but if you're looking for a delicious, fairly inexpensive meal, in central Kyoto, Morpho Cafe is a good option. It's not far from Gion. The staff are friendly and welcoming, and those I spoke with were clearly knowledgeable and passionate about healthy food. 

This new curry noodle dish is an impressive and certainly unusual fusion of Thai and Japanese tastes. I was told to add the rice after finishing the noodles, which worked well.


Morpho Cafe serves a fairly typical mix of western, Japanese and a good range of fusion foods, including an authentic green curry and some great desserts. Main dishes start at around 1,000 Yen, and drinks and desserts are reasonably priced.

Choice Cafe & Restaurant

Classic Macrobiotic Food, All Gluten Free

京都府京都市東山区大橋町89-1 鈴木形成外科ビル 
Directions from your location  
Mon - Thur 10:30 - 20:00 (L.O. 19:00)
Fri - Sat 10:30 - 22:00 (L.O.)
Closed Sunday


This health-focussed cafe serves typical macrobiotic food found all over Japan, somewhat westernised for the stream of tourists continually passing through its doors on their way to or from Higashiyama. It has a spacious, impeccably-clean interior, and also sells a few alternative health and body care products. Set meals cost around a thousand Yen, with about half as much again for drinks or dessert. It's a very enjoyable spot for a meal when in the Gion area but nothing particularly stands out about the food or the restaurant to make it to your 'must-visit' list.

A Place to Chill Out or Work?
Order a coffee and get some work done, using the free wifi. There are also plenty of individual tables in the large restaurant.
Need somewhere to write your Happycow reviews? Being a large restaurant with a range of table arrangements, they're unlikely to be full, so while I'd recommend not staying longer than it takes to eat your meal if customers are waiting for tables, they advertise themselves as an "eat and study space" and offer free wifi, so if you need to hang out or get some work done, Cafe Choice makes a good alternative to Starbucks. Restaurants like this generally expect customers to order a drink if staying a long time, even after eating a meal.

TAMISA CAFE (and Yoga studio)

This quiche set was excellent value at about 1,000 Yen.

Tamisa Organic Cafe is a small cafe attached to a Yoga Studio and alternative health / culture shop. With only three small tables the cafe appears to be very much a side business mostly serving the steady stream of yoga clientelle, but walk-in customers are also welcome. Basic lunch sets start at around 1,000 Yen, and it had a very peaceful, relaxing vibe. It needn't make your 'must visit' list, but it's one of the better simple lunch sets in this price range, and definitely worth stopping in for a meal and drink if in the area. It doesn't specify how much of the food is organic.

11:30 - 17:00 (L.O. 14:30) daily, with variable holidays. Call to check if open first.
Teramachi Shopping Arcade
(This can be reached, from within the arcade)

Kyoto's phantom vegan cafe is one of Kyoto's first, but it's also one of the hardest to find open; I have a record of once in about a dozen attemps. If you are in the area (around Demachiyanagai Station, perhaps on your way back from Ginkakuji after a visit to Higashiyama I recommend stopping by in case it's open; if not (and it probably will be not) then go on to Padma, or else take the subway anywhere else in the area.

075 711-7617
12:00 - 14:00, 18:00 - 22:30
Closed Tuesday or possibly other times - call ahead first.


Ninen Zaka, Higashiyama (at dawn)

Higashiyama is the quintessential Kyoto experience, but you'll be enjoying it with thousands of domestic and international tourists, especially during weekends and public holidays. The usual route is to start in Southern Higashiyama and work northwards, eventually walking the Path of Philosophy to Ginkakuji.

Unfortunately there are no vegetarian restaurants in Southern Higashiyama, so it's important to eat well in the morning before setting off. This day's exploring can be finished with a meal at Sujata or Tosca, which are both a short walk from Ginkakuji.

Ginkakuji (Silver Pavillion), Northern Higashiyama

The owner of
Cacao Magic,  'went raw' in the USA, and felt so much better for it that she decided to share the diet and lifestyle in her home country of Japan. She originally opened a raw food restaurant at the same location, but went on to find a niche in raw (vegan) chocolate as a more effective way to introduce the benefits of raw food through something everyone loves. Cacao Magic is something of a cottage industry, churning out raw, vegan chocolate for sale in the shop and online, however they may sell through larger retailers in future.

Raw vegan chocolates for sale at Cacao Magic
During my visit the attached cafe was closed to allow the space to be used for the production and distribution of the chocolates, as I understand is often the case, however boxed chocolates are always available for purchase. Chocolates cost around 500 Yen and up (per chocolate) and come in sets, starting with around four chocolates, but it's important to remember that these are 100 per cent vegan and raw, and made freshly on the premises. If you're looking for the cafe it's worth dropping in as it's a few minutes walk from Kinkakuji.

Chocolate shop: 11:00 - 17:00
Opening days vary - call ahead or drop in if visiting Ginkakuji.

Tosca is run by two sisters whose parents have been vegan for decades, at a time when even vegetarianism would have been unheard of in Japan (outside of its very limited following among Buddhist monks from certain sects). It serves typical western / fusion food in a warm, spacious dining atmosphere. If you want to 'go out for a nice meal' but enjoy more familiar food in a more familiar setting than the shojin ryori experience (and spend much less) then Tosca is the place to come.

At just under 2500 Yen Tosca's dinner sets are great value.

While it's in the upper price bracket, their dinner sets, which start at around 2500 Yen, and are excellent value for such fine food in a classy restaurant. It's located a short walk from Sujata, slightly closer to Ginkakuji. Like Sujata, it's a nice culmination of a day walking from Southern to Northern Higashiyama, finishing at Kinkakuji.

Lunch: Tues - Sat 11:30~15:00 (L.O. 14:30)
Dinner : Thurs - Sat 17:30~22:00 (L.O. 21:00)
Closed : Sunday - Monday
075 721 7779


Indian Food in Kyoto
Sujata (Happycow)  is one of my favourite restaurants in Japan. This charming, humble eatery is run by a delightful Japanese lady who is a devout disciple of Sri Chimnoy (1931 - 2007), an Indian guru who taught his disciples to meditate and encouraged them to open vegetarian restaurants around the world. Food is vegan by default, with the occasional optional non-vegan addition (such as an egg to Japanese dishes). While she has occasional helpers, Sujata manages virtually the entire running of this busy restaurant herself, serving up a delicious Indian and Japanese favourites, including some very authentic Indian dishes, making it the best Indian food in Kyoto. Sujata also offers free meditation classes at 6:00PM on Saturdays.

I don't often recommend individual dishes, but Sujata's home-style samosas, which she makes from scratch, remind me of my Indian friend's mother's cooking when I was a young child, and are a world apart from the oily, soggy equivalents served at most Indian restaurants around the world, especially Japan.

Try Sujata's Samosas!

Open During the New Year
I was especially grateful to Sujata for staying open during the New Year period, when it was otherwise almost impossible to find vegan food, even in Kyoto. She does, however, close for a period further into the year (in January in 2015) so if you find her closed I recommended walking to Tosca [link], and not the nearby Indian restaurants, as neither would honestly entertain the idea of providing trustworthy vegan food when I tried.

Not just Indian: This traditional Japanese New Years Eve dish was delicious.
Top Inexpensive Eatery
If you'll be in Kyoto for a while and are looking for a simple, inexpensive place for healthy, satisfying vegan food then Sujata is one of the best places in Kyoto (The other is the Veggie Cafe. Sunny Place (Happycow) is also very good if you can find it open.) Many of her regular customers are students from nearby Kyoto University.

Monday - Saturday: 11:30-18:00
Sunday: 11:30 - 16:00
Hours are irregular, call ahead first if coming from afar, or else just try Tosca up the road.

Places I Don't Recommend

Falafel Garden used to be a great vegan option for something different in Kyoto, and is still on Happycow. I had reasonable meals here in the past, but it's now trumped by the all-vegan, organic Veggie Cafe, to which it can't compare by any measure. There are several Indian restaurants in Kyoto, probably cashing in on a continual stream of foreign visitors wanting a break from Japanese food. I tested the waters at several, but was unable to find an owner/waiter/chef I trusted to provide trustworthy vegan food. For Indian food in Kyoto head to Sujata, or wait until Tokyo or your next destination.

Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion) is perhaps Kyoto's most famous landmark, but has no notable vegan restaurants nearby. A good option is to go to Morpho Cafe and take bus 12, or alternatively it makes a great walk back to central Kyoto.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Vegan Restaurants In and Around Fukuoka

Maizuru Park is Fukuoka's Largest Backyard and home to its castle ruins.

Fukuoka is a very live-able city and an interesting one to visit. The vegan scene has improved drastically over the last couple of years, with good options both within the city and a short train ride. If you have more than a day in the city I recommend taking the short trip to at least one of Funadeya or Haze Rouge.


Fukuoka is a merger of the two former municipalities, Fukuoka and Hakata, with both names commonly used to describe the city. Most significantly, Hakata is the name given to the main station (for Shinkansens) and is the commercial hub, but Tenjin (five minutes away on the Airport Line, or a half hour walk) is the cultural and certain culinary heart of Fukuoka, especially for vegans. It would be better, if possible, to stay around that area, but the city is covered well enough by buses and the subway that transport isn't a problem at all. Note that the only "Fukuoka Station" is in fact in Toyama Prefecture.

Vegan Restaurants in Fukuoka

Evah Dining (Vegan Cafe and Bentos)

Company Website

Evah Dining Hakata Station Kiosk
1-1 Hakataekichuogai Hakata-ku Fukuoka Fukuoka
福岡県福岡市博多区博多駅中央街1-1 JR博多シティ1F
Lunchboxes often begin selling out mid-evening. 


Evah Dining Cafe
Riverrain Mall (English website)

10:30 - 22:00 (L.O. 21:30)
Lunch Menu: 11:00 - 15:00


The vegan heart and soul of Fukuoka is the famous Evah Dining. Unfortunately they recently closed their flagship restaurant, and they now run a simpler cafe inside the Riverrain shopping mall. It's a shadow of its former self as one of Japan's best and best-value vegan restaurants, but if you just want an easy, affordable vegan meal it's worth a visit.Portions, which mostly cost from 800 to 1000 Yen, are small, so I recommend ordering a couple per person. As usual in Japan, lunch sets are better value.
 The mall is closest to Nakasukawabata Station, two stops from Hakata Station on the Kuko Line . Car parking is available.

Bentos (Lunchboxes)

A bento from Evah Dining on the Shinkansen (800 Yen)

But Evah are best known for their incredible bentos, or Japanese lunchboxes, which are available in two outlets in Hakata Station. They are especially good for taking to Maizuru Park or Ohori Park (the heart of Fukuoka, famous for its castle ruins). A small meal starts at around 500 Yen, and a take-out feast can be had for 1,000 Yen. While it's generally food which doesn't keep too well, consider getting one for the next day's breakfast if you'll be up early to explore the city. If you are passing through Fukuoka on the shinkansen (in which case you're probably not reading this) it's worth stopping by to stock up on the day's food. The largest kiosk is the easiest to find, and is in Ippin Dori "street" (inside the station, so not really a street), not far from the main  Shinkansen ticket gate. If in doubt just ask at information where Evah Dining (エヴァダイニング) is.

Coffee Hiruneko

福岡市城南区友泉亭2-3 〒814-0122
Wed - Mon: 12:00 - 23:00 (L.O. 22:00)
Website / Happycow (as Hiruneko Shokudo) / Facebook


The friendly vegan owners of this cat-themed cafe serve Fukuoka's best Western and international fusion food, including the best pizza in Fukuoka. It's open late and a great place to stop in for a coffee or satisfying meal.

Sky Walk (スカイウォーク)

Mon - Fri: 9:30 - 19:00, Sat - Sun: 9:30 - 17:00
3-1-28 Kego Chuo-ku Fukuoka Fukuoka
福岡県 福岡市中央区 警固 3-1-28 アーバン警固 1F

This charming, inexpensive little organic shop serves delicious sandwiches and smoothies in a small cafe. It's a very limited menu, but a great lunch option nonetheless.

Haze Rouge

Lunch: 11:30 - 2:30 (LO)Dinner: 18:00 - 20:00 (LO)
(reservations required for dinner)
0942 27 6750
〒839-0827 福岡県久留米市山本町豊田1849-1
Website / Happycow / Facebook

In nearby Kurume is the incredible Haze Rouge, which serves some of the finest vegan macrobiotic food in Japan to guests who dine in their own room in this 120 year-old Japanese house in the inaka ( Japanese countryside). This experience is similar to eating the famed Shojin-Ryori (Japanese temple cuisine, best eaten in Kyoto or at Koyasan), however it uses Western tables and chairs and utensils, and the food is also more Western / international fusion in its style. Dining here is a unique experience, and with delicious, multi-course lunch sets starting at 1650 for a four-course menu or 2,950 for a five-course menu. Walk-ins are welcome for lunch, but reservations are required for dinner, which start at around 5,000 Yen.

To get there, take the Nishitetsu Tenjin Omita Line from Nishitetsu Fukuoka Station, and then transfer to Bus 25, and get off at Shimono (下野) stop after about twenty minutes. The whole journey from Fukuoka, including the pleasant ten-minute walk, should take about an hour and cost about a thousand Yen. If you have a Japan Rail Pass, more money than sense or are coming from the south already, Kurume Station is also a stop on the Kyushu Shinkansen. It would of course be easier with your own wheels, but don't let the public transport put you off.

Near Haze Rouge

The amazing Daihonzan Naritasan Kurume (Buddhist) Temple (久留米成田山) with its 62-metre high Kannnon statue . If you're there early enough (it close at 5PM) it's possible to climb up and look out the eyes of the Buddha, and to witness Buddhist Hell beneath the Buddha (500 Yen). Note that there's also another Naritasan Temple in the other Narita City in Chiba, best known for Tokyo's Narita International Airport. To get there from the restaurant it's necessary to change buses again at the Nishitetsu Bus Station.
See also: Wikitravel Kurume

Veggie Funadeya (船出屋)

Tue - Sun 11:30 - 16:00 (Last Order 15:00)
福岡県 古賀市日吉3丁目17-12 
3 Chome-17-12 Hiyoshi, Koga, Fukuoka, Japan, 811-3106
092-980-2631 (call first before visiting)
Website / Facebook / Happycow

The owners of Funadeya are passionate about promoting vegan food and animal rights, passion that's obvious by the animal rights stickers on the door and especially the quality of the food and generous portions. This is the place to come for a hearty, inexpensive feast while staying in Fukuoka. Set meals start at around 1000 Yen. Bentos (take-out lunchboxes) start at around 600 Yen.

Unfortunately for the casual visitor, Funadeya is near Shishibu Station, about half an hour north of Fukuoka on the JR Kagoshima Local Line (鹿児島本線). It's essential to call before travelling out there, as they sometimes close to run their catering service.It's not far from the station, but is a little tricky to reach, so it's best to have a smartphone with a data connection, or at least have the directions saved on your phone.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Mana Burgers

As of February 2015 Mana Burgers have sadly closed. I'll keep this page here until I find out whether or not there's any chance of them re-opening anywhere else.

I first went to Mana Burgers in 2010, when I had a day in Fukuoka on a whirlwind tour of Japan on the Japan Rail Pass. I went to Mana burgers, did a load of laundry, slept, got up and whipped around the old castle ruins, all in less than a day, and then had to jump back on the Shinkansen to get back to Tokyo before my pass ran out.

Mana Burgers, Fukuoka, 2010 (now closed)

I was delighted to recently learn that they've re-opened in Yokohama. I also learned that Island Veggie is also inspired by the same owners.

"Natural junk" in a nutshell!

My burger was delicious, and it's always nice to find a fresh soy smoothie!

Mana Burgers meal (Yokohama, 2014)

They also serve steamed buns from the Loving Hut.

Steamed Bun from the Loving Hut

While they're officially the only vegetarian restaurant in Yokohama (disappointing for a city the size of New Zealand) they're a long way from Yokohama Station or tourist areas, and it's faster to reach them from Tokyo (25 minutes from Shibuya Station on the Den-en Toshi Line) than from Yokohama. But when you're feeling like a healthy (??) junk-food meal they're well worth a visit from either city.

The interior is large and pleasant, with indoor and outdoor seating.

It's not easy to find Mana Burgers, and as of August 2014 they aren't on Google Maps (and only the owner can add them, and I can't find an email address to suggest it). But his location should be correct, and their own map is here.

View Mana Burgers in a larger map

Monday, 4 August 2014

Vespera's Falafel

Unfortunately Vespera's Falafel has permanently closed. I will leave this page open for posterity, and in case the owner hopefully reopens (he has closed and re-opened in the past). 

An advertisement for vegan food is always a good sign!
The original Vespera's Falafel closed down at its previous location after the owner was unfortunately hit by a car, but he's now recovered and re-opened his store in Koenji. I found it on Happycow, and decided to make the half-hour trip from where I was staying in search of Tokyo's newest falafel eatery, and it was my best find in months (thanks Happycow!). Unfortunately it'll be a while before I make it back since I'm leaving Japan soon, but Vespera's Falafel should top any travellers list, and if you live in or around Tokyo, I recommend it as a great place to go for delicious, affordable meals and a pleasant and interesting place to hang out. I was amazed to find myself the only customer on a Saturday night, though I guess that's to be expected for a newly-opened restaurant in a quiet suburban location.

Not just falafel: This Pad Thai was the best I've had outside Thailand.

While Vespera's namesake falafel was fresh, crispy and delicious as falafel should be, it turns out that this restaurant isn't just about falafel. While the menu is predominantly Middle-Eastern, it offers an expanding range of other international cuisines. I enjoyed a falafel wrap, fried potatoes (chips) with a delicious chilli seasonings and the best Pad Thai I've had outside of Thailand. They serve a range of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, including organic ginger beer. They have an English menu and the friendly and helpful waitress spoke fluent English.

Not the most healthy, I still occasionally enjoy fried potatoes (as they are known in
Japan) and these were the best I've had anywhere, owing to their fresh, spicy seasoning. 

The vegetarian owner, Eiji, is passionate about serving healthy vegetarian food at affordable prices, and that he certainly is: At 650 Yen for a falafel wrap or 500 Yen for a Pad Thai - both prepared cooked perfection - prices are incredibly low for Tokyo, especially for such quality vegan food. Two dishes, fried potatoes and a drink came to 2000 Yen.

Vespera's Falafel has a very pleasant dining interior.

Vespera's Falafel has a very pleasant, spacious dining area, which includes western-style tables and traditional Japanese low tables on a raised platform (for which shoes should be removed). There's also a table selling a few local and imported vegan groceries, most of which I haven't seen for sale anywhere else in Japan. I bought some vegetable crackers to snack on when I can't make it to vegan eateries.

The vegetable crackers are delicious, and make a great on-the-go snack. They remind
me of similar crackers available in convenience stores all over Taiwan.

The inspiration for Vespera's Falafel comes from Eiji's visits to Inforshops in Europe, while touring with his band. Infoshops are centres for the distribution of information and social and political ideas, including alternatives to capitalism and the current consumer-oriented society, and often animal rights. While anyone with any background in grassroots activism, punk culture or anarchism will undoubtedly appreciate some of the posters and books tucked away on a corner bookshelf, Eiji is quick to point out that his restaurant is first and foremost a vegan restaurant, and for anyone not interested in this subculture it will appear to be no more than a light, pleasant touch of alternative decor. The balance is struck perfectly, with alternative information available for anyone interested in it, but a stylish vegan restaurant with delicious, healthy, affordable food for everyone else.

Koenji Station area would be very pleasant if it wasn't used primarily as a smokers lounge.

Vespera's Falafel is a 10 minute walk from Koenji Station, which is itself 10 minutes from Shinjuku Station on the Chuo Rapid train. Koenji (Wikipedia) is considered to be the centre for underground or alternative youth culture and music in Japan, and in particular it is said to be the birthplace of punk culture in Japan. It also boasts parks, temples and interesting shopping arcades, including a large number of second hand music and clothes stores. Also within walking distance are Meunota (also good, and I intend to post on it soon) and Poleyale (vegetarian) which I haven't tried (links to Happycow). I recommend visiting Vespera's and another cafe for lunch and dinner, and in between times exploring this interesting suburb of Tokyo.

Hours (from Happycow): Wednesday - Sunday 11AM - 11PM.
Address: 杉並区高円寺南2-15-18 汐沢ビル2F
Phone: 03 - 59298998 (owner/chef and waitress both speak English)

View Koenji Vegan Restaurants in a larger map

Sunday, 6 April 2014


Ichi-no Hashi (lit first bridge) to the Okuno-in cemetery.

Koyasan is a Buddhist mountain retreat about 100 km south of Osaka. A pilgrimage site for over a thousand years, Koyasan is the best place to experience a taste of life at a Japanese Buddhist temple, including sampling the all-vegan Shojin Ryori (Japanese Buddhist Cuisine).

Koyasan is home to Kongonui-ji, the administrative centre of the Shingon Esoteric Buddhist sect, which was founded by Kukei (known posthumously as Kobo Daishi) in 819. The temple appears similar in size and style to major temples in Kyoto, but has a particularly impressive stone garden, probably the most beautiful I've ever seen. The 500 Yen entrance fee includes a cup of tea and a rice cracker, which, while rather insipid, were vegan (March 2014).

As well as a very influential Buddhist Master and founder of the Shingon sect, Kukei was also a scholar, poet, calligrapher and civil servant, and he is perhaps most famous for inventing Kana, Japan's two phoenetic alphabets (which, together with Kanji, or Chinese characters, make up the Japanese writing system). A popular legend is that Kukei is still meditating in his tomb, waiting for the liberation of all souls.

stone garden at Kongonui-ji

Kukei learned much of his Buddhist teachings on a pilgrimage to Chang-an (present-day Xian), then the capital of the Tang Dynasty, from 804 to 806. During this period (as difficult as it may be to believe today) Japan revered China, and as a result both Kanji and Buddhism were 'imported' to Japan. Many Kanji (Chinese characters) have two pronunciations, with one being the original Japanese one and the other being a variant on the Chinese pronunciation. The Chinese ones are more commonly used for long words, but there are no strict rules. For example the 'san' of 'Fujisan' is a variant of the Chinese 'Shan' (mountain), whereas the traditional Japanese word for mountain is 'Yama'. Buddhism and Shintoism (the native animistic religion of Japan) didn't fit so well together at first, however they now enjoy a harmonious relationship with Shintoism dealing with matters of life (eg weddings, new year blessings) and Buddhism matters of death, such as funerals. Most Japanese consider themselves both Buddhist and Shintoist.

Of particular interest to vegans, however, is that Chinese Buddhism (including that practised in Korea, Taiwan and other countries) strictly prohibits the eating of animals, and from my limited knowledge of Buddhism (especially Japanese Buddhism) Kobo Daishi appears to have kept this important Buddhist tenet of Ahimsa (non-violence) much better than other Japanese sects, presumably as a result of his study and connections with Chinese Buddhist Masters. The Koyasan temples which invite guests for shukubo (pilgrimage lodging) serve strictly vegan food (almost, see below), and, like in Taiwan,  the food also does not contain onion or garlic.

the more traditional view of a room at Eko-in

I stayed at Eko-in because I was recommended it by a colleague, and would recommend it to anyone else, however there are plenty of other temples offering lodgings. Eko-in has particularly young monks who speak good English.

Shojin-ryori (Buddhist temple cuisine) dinner at Eko-in.

The dinner was a typical, delicious shojin ryori meal, with a perfect balance of colours, tastes and textures, with breakfast being a simpler but still very satisfying meal. I opted for the simplest meal set, which (with accommodation) cost 10 000 Yen, an excellent deal given that this meal itself elsewhere would easily be at least half that. There are more elaborate options available, and with vegan food being so hard to find - and shojin ryori so expensive - it was tempting to splurge, but I personally find something a little unsettling about coming to a Buddhist pilgrimage site to gouge myself with food, however difficult it is to find elsewhere. The simplest meal was more than sufficient for my large appetite, but I'm sure the larger meals are extraordinary.

breakfast at Eko-in

 There are cheaper lodgings available at other temples and guesthouses, and many temples offer shojin ryori to guests not staying with them.

Okuno-in cemetery

The key attraction is Okuno-in, a cemetery containing over 200 000 burial sites, dating back over a thousand years. The cemetery is surrounded by Japanese Cedars, which give it a peaceful but sometimes eerie feel. The trees are an average of 200 - 600 years old, but some are over a thousand years old. They are chopped down (I wonder how) when they become at risk of falling over during typhoons.

Some of the graves are over a thousand years old...

and some aren't.

 There are some strange monuments, including one for victims of world War II who died in Malaysia (of all nationalities), and apparently one (which I couldn't find) from a termite control company for the souls of its white ant victims.

Not so traditional offerings to the dead: beer, sake and an energy drink.
The cemetery is divided into sections separated by three bridges, and at the end is the tomb of Kobo Daishi himself. It's important to remember that this is a sacred site, and visitors are asked not to take photographs beyond the third bridge (including Kobo Daishi's tomb and its associated temple).

These mausoleums for Daimyo (territorial lord) Matsudaira Hideyasu and his mother are about 400 years old, and are made entirely of stone.

I took the highly-informative evening tour (provided by a young monk from Eko-in who studied English in the UK, who was clearly passionate about Buddhism) and highly recommend it. It's aimed at foreign tourists with no background in Buddhism, so anyone who has studied Buddhism before probably won't learn a lot more, but the information about the cemetery and the history of Koyasan still makes it well worth the 1500 Yen. It's also available to people not staying at Eko-in.

The torii (gate) shown here is always used at the entrance of a Shinto shrine, but not at Buddhist temples. Their presence in this Buddhist graveyard reflects how most Japanese have, for centuries, considered themselves both Buddhist and Shintoist.

These wooden monuments, in stream close to the third bridge, are to "water babies", which are either miscarried or aborted.

I couldn't help but feeling, especially at first, that Koyasan is now so commercialised that it's lost a little of the charm it must have had for most of its thousand plus-year history. Clearly shukubo (temple lodging) is big business, and the one might perhaps feel that the Shingo Sect is cashing in, and this article discusses how the temples have lost millions in investments with the declining value of the yen. During the morning chanting session there were about 40 guests, of which I counted four not Caucasian, two of whom were North Asian and another two East Asian, possibly Korean; I don't think there were any Japanese in the audience. However, it is a bona fide temple, and the rituals are authentic (so must be respected as such) and it's just a sign of the times that so many tourists (mostly foreigners) want to come to Koyasan, so it's expanding and developing to keep up with the times, Japan style.

Despite a huge foreign audience taking photos (flashes not allowed) these morning rituals seemed very authentic.

Like climbing Mt Fuji, this long-time pilgrimage is now a tourist event, and disappointing as that is, it also brings its own conveniences: I woke up in Yokohama, had lunch at my favourite restaurant in Osaka (Genmai Harmony) and was at Koyasan before dusk. Just don't expect to have to climb a mountain or beg for alms along the way: every self-respecting 21st century pilgrim needs luxurious public transport, wireless internet and flat screen TVs in their lodging. That said, the pilgrimage route up the mountain is still a beautiful hike, which I hope to do at some point in future. Take plenty of food and drink, as there's little available along the way, and be prepared for the weather to drop and the temperature to change suddenly.

A flat-screen TV is essential to any Buddhist mountain-retreat (same room as shown above).

One disappointment, and a warning, is that the cake in the rooms (with the tea) contains egg. One can never be too careful in Japan, but this was disappointing for a Buddhist temple!

Disappointing: this complimentary cake at Eko-in contains egg.

For lunch I went to Bon An Sha International Cafe, a charming little establishment run by a French woman and her Japanese husband. The lunch set could easily be made vegan, including a tofu cheesecake, and it was very reasonably priced. According to Happycow there is also San Bon, but when I visited they had sold out by early afternoon.

Lunch from Bon An Sha Cafe, Koyasan

I went for a walk into the mountains behind the main town. There was nothing spectacular about the views, but the scenery was still very beautiful, and I always enjoy breathing the mountain air.

the view from the mountains behind Koyasan township

And it's always nice to stumble on small shrines and temples. Like in Kyoto, I often enjoy visiting these serene, deserted sites more than the big-ticket temples.

walkway up to a mystery shrine I found while exploring the Koyasan mountains

Getting to Koyasan (the easy way) is an experience in itself. The easiest way is to take the a Nankai train from Namba(Nankai) station to Hashimoto, and take the spectacular cable car up the mountain. It's well worth buying a Koyasan Discount Ticket, which includes round-trip train tickets, bus travel at Koyasan and discounts to some attractions.

The train ride to Koyasan passes through some beautiful mountain scenery.

Koyasan cable car

Note that the more expensive 'Limited Express' ticket only entitles one to a limited express on the way TO Koyasan; to ride a limited express on the way back is another 500 Yen (nothing to worry about, but I thought it was a bit strange). The whole journey by limited express takes about 1.5 hours by limited express trains, and  two hours by normal (express) trains. It's a very enjoyable ride.

If you go to Osaka by shinkansen, I highly recommend a visit to Genmai Harmony, which is on the way from Shin-Osaka.

lunch at Genmai Harmony, near Shin-Osaka Station.

Overall I would highly recommend a trip to Koyasan to anyone spending a few days in Kansai. I would make at least two days (preferably three or more) in Kyoto a higher priority, but I would put Koyasan ahead of Osaka. I aim to write up Kyoto in the near future, but for the meantime I recommend spending hours and hours just walking and finding your own beautiful, sacred spots, and eating at Morpho Cafe and Vegans Cafe and Restaurant (upmarket) and for simpler but still amazingly delicious meals at Veggie Cafe and Sujata.