Monday, 30 March 2020

Koyasan (高野山)

This page has been updated as a sample chapter of my Vegan Travel Guide to Japan. For more information please see the Japan Vegan Travel Guides website.

Japan GuideKoyasan official website



Koyasan has been a Buddhist retreat for over a millennium, ever since Kūkai (空海), Japan’s most famous monk established the centre for his new Shingon Esoteric sect of Buddhism here after returning from a period of scholarship in China. Kūkai is known posthumously as Kōbō-Daishi, and, while both are used in Japanese (and in English) I use Kōbō-Daishi throughout this book for the sake of consistency.
No one knows why, as a private monk, Kōbō-Daishi was awarded a state-sponsored trip to China to study Buddhism (from 804 to 806 AD), but most scholars assume that he had family connections with powerful samurai. His expedition, which was Japan’s sixteenth diplomatic mission to China, comprised of four ships, and also included the Buddhist monk Saicho, who founded the famous Tendai Buddhism sect, whose temples include Nisonin in Arashiyama and Shōrenin in Northern Higashiyama (both are in Kyoto). One ship was lost at sea during a storm and another had to turn back, and then Kōbō-Daishi faced identification problems when he turned up at Fujian (opposite Taiwan), but he was eventually allowed to proceed to Xian, which was the capital of the Tang Dynasty at the time. Kōbō-Daishi originally planned to stay in China for twenty years, but after receiving the Buddhist transmission from Master Huiguo (746-805), who was famous for translating Buddhist scriptures from Sanskrit, Kōbō-Daishi decided to return to Japan to establish his own esoteric Buddhist school after only one year.
There are several legends as to why Kōbō-Daishi chose Koyasan as the headquarters for his new sect, with the most magical being that he threw his sankosho (ceremonial Buddhist tool) towards Japan from China, and upon his return he found it stuck in a tree at what is now the Danjo Garan (see below). What is known is that he was granted the land by Emperor Saga in 1816, after which he began setting up his new school in earnest.
Due to his direct study under Chinese Masters, especially Huiguo, with his understanding of Sanskrit scriptures, Kōbō-Daishi’s Shingon Esoteric school of Buddhism is more spiritual than other Japanese Buddhist sects, and it has always placed a higher emphasis on vegetarianism and compassion towards non-human animals. I was particularly impressed by the continual references to the importance of leading a compassionate lifestyle by my English-language tour of the graveyard by a monk from Ekoin (see below). Kōbō-Daishi brought back sutras (scriptures) and Buddhist paraphernalia from China, and he focused much more on rituals than other Buddhist sects in Japan at the time. A popular legend, which is famous all over Japan, is that Kōbō-Daishi is still meditating in his tomb, awaiting the liberation of all souls.
For most of its history a visit to Koyasan has been a serious pilgrimage, requiring a long, challenging trek up Mount Koya, probably from Kyoto. But “pilgrims” can now enjoy a beautiful train ride through valleys, followed by an exciting cable car ride up the steep mountain slope. And shukubo (temple lodging) has become a luxurious Japanese affair, with many temples offering large, ornate rooms, flat screen TVs and of course wireless internet (see Accommodation below). Koyasan is also very much on the tourist trail; during the morning prayer session I attended at Ekoin there were about a dozen observers, ten of whom were Caucasian. But tourists with big cameras needn’t take anything from the authenticity of these morning prayers, and the tomb of Japan’s most decorated Buddhist monk of all time is as holy a site now as it was a thousand years ago. It’s just keeping up with the times, Japanese style.

Preparation & Timing

The town of Koya is located in a valley at an altitude of 800 metres, and is surrounded by 8 mountain peaks, so it’s usually significantly cooler than Osaka and Kyoto. Temperatures generally range between 20 and 30 degrees Celsius during the summer, and often dip below freezing point during winter. Like all mountains, the weather can turn bad suddenly, so bring wet weather gear if you intend to hike, but an umbrella should suffice for around the temples and the graveyard. Public transport can be suspended during and after bad weather, especially the cable car up the mountain, so please don’t visit Koyasan immediately before an international flight.
Bon An Shya, the only vegetarian café with official opening hours, is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, and according to Google the unofficial opening hours of Chuoshokudo Sanbo (a vegan Japanese restaurant which doesn’t have a website) is also closed on Mondays, making these days less preferable. However, as most lodgings provide a shojin ryori dinner and breakfast as part of their package, it’s possible to come on a these days if you eat well for breakfast (probably in Osaka or Kyoto) and bring enough packaged food with you (perhaps breads from Apelia in Kyoto) for lunch and to tide you over until you return to Osaka on the following day. Even on other days of the week it’s advisable to have a backup supply of snack food in case Bon An Shya or Chuoshokudo Sanbo are closed, or for emergencies. Since most temples provide food to guests there’s little other food for sale in the town.

Transport & Discount Tickets

Transport to and from Koyasan is managed by the Nankai Electric Rail company, a private railway company which was established in 1884. It takes around two and a half to three hours to reach the centre of Koyasan from Osaka.

Koyasan cable car station.

Several trains run from Namba or Shin-Immamiya Station along the Nankai-Koya line to Gokurakubashi Station, often requiring a change at Hashimoto Station. From Gokurakubashi Station the Nankai Koyasan Cable (a funicular / cable car) whisks passengers up to Koyasan Station in five minutes. Buses run from the station to the centre of the town, from which it’s a short walk to the famous Oku-no-in graveyard, Bon An Shya, and most of the temples which offer shukubo (lodging). For safety reasons, visitors are not allowed to walk from Koyasan Station into the town, so visitors must use the buses (which are included with the pass – see below) or take a taxi. If you need to wait for a bus at the ropeway station, then get a drink from the vending machines and walk up to the second floor. There are seats around large panoramic windows, which during good weather offer stunning views of the surrounding mountains.
There are several pilgrims’ trails still in use from before cable cars were invented. The original 23.5-kilometre Koyasan Choishi Michi Trail is marked by stone lanterns along the way and takes around seven hours to hike. Please see ➚this Japan Guide article➚ for more information on hiking up Koyasan, including an easier hike to the lower cable car station. Also, please note the warning about bears (and snakes) under Hiking.

Koyasan World Heritage Ticket

The main tickets are for trains. Break the small tabs off the envelope (shown at the top) for discounts to attractions in the town.

This two-day pass includes travel from Osaka (Namba Station or Shin-Immamiya Station) to Koyasan, unlimited bus travel around Koyasan, and a 20 per cent discount on admission to most popular temples and museums. The regular pass costs ¥2860, and the limited express pass, which oddly allows travel on the limited express trains to Koyasan but not back, costs ¥3400. Passengers without the limited express pass can pay an extra ¥780 to ride the express train, which usually saves about 20 minutes and a change of trains at Hashimoto Station. Depending on your departure time it may not be any faster to wait for an express train, so unless you buy the pass and reserve your ticket at the same time I recommend purchasing the regular pass and paying the extra for the express train at the station if it works out faster at that particular time. Likewise, when coming back from Koyasan (whichever pass you bought, if any) I recommend only paying the extra to upgrade to the express train at the station if it works out to be faster at that time.
To determine the fastest route, here are ➚Directions to Koyasan Station➚ from your current location.

Combination Ticket (Not Recommended for Most Visitors)

This ¥1,500 sightseeing pass covers entry to the hall and pagoda at Garan (total ¥400), the Reihokan Museum (¥600), a jukai service (Buddhist initiation, at which the guest receives the precepts) at Daishi Kyokai (¥500). It also includes the Tokugawa Mausoleum (¥200), which I would recommend only to people with a lot of time or those especially interested in the Sengoku (Warring States) period of Japan, as there is so little to see there. Please see ➚this Japan Guide article➚ for more information on the Combination Ticket. It offers the convenience of not having to pay at each site (if the effort of going to a tourist information office to buy the Combination Ticket is less of an inconvenience) but it brings little saving even if you visit every attraction it’s valid for. Most tourists are better off purchasing a Koyasan World Heritage Ticket (see above) and using the 20% discounts at the sites they wish to go to.

Koyasan Map

Most visitors stay at a temple and eat dinner and breakfast there as part of the shukubo (temple lodging) experience. The two vegetarian restaurants are located in the city centre. All the attractions are walkable from the centre except for the Okonoin graveyard, which is a short bus ride (or a twenty-minute walk) to the east. The temples are mostly located between the town and the graveyard.
Accommodation (mostly temples), attractions and restaurants are all listed separately below.

Temples & Other Accommodation

A key drawcard of Koyasan is the opportunity to experience shukubo, or temple lodging, which usually includes shojin ryori (temple cuisine) for dinner and breakfast. While shukubo is relatively expensive (generally starting from ¥10,000 per person, or more during peak times or for luxurious rooms) when considering that it usually includes two vegan feasts, and a comfortable night’s accommodation, it’s excellent value, as just the two meals could easily cost that much in Kyoto. Guests are also usually invited to attend the temple’s (very early) morning prayer ceremony, which can include chanting, bells, a fire, and sometimes a short lecture (in Japanese). Some temples also offer guests the chance to try out Buddhist activities such as copying sutras (scriptures), which has been a popular devotional practice in Japan for centuries and was a popular pastime of the samurai to (supposedly) atone for their violent way of life.

Alternatively, ➚Guest House Kokku➚ offers capsule-style beds from ¥3,500 per night, or double rooms from ¥4,500 per person per night, and many temples serve lunch or other meals to non-staying guests. I wouldn’t, however, recommend visiting Koyasan if you aren’t staying at temple. I would personally prefer a shorter trip to Japan with a night at a temple than either of these options.
When I first learned of shukubo I imagined that Buddhist temples had simple (and inexpensive) rooms out the back for devout pilgrims who had found their way up the mountain. At first I felt that the temples were ‘fake’: Many have large accommodation wings which look and function more like ryokans (traditional, luxurious Japanese inns) than religious institutions. But this is Japan, the land of convenience and of customer service, and despite the underlying religious context, guests at temples are very much paying customers. Unlike in India and most other Buddhist countries, where monks and nuns serve a spiritual role in society and have their material needs mostly taken care of by their lay followers, Buddhist monks in Japan play practical roles in society – for money – just like everyone else. Elsewhere in Japan these roles are usually directing traditional rituals (mostly funerals and memorials for deceased family members), but at Koyasan it’s cleaning rooms and serving their famous cuisine to guests. And, like most other working men – and increasingly women – in Japan, after their hard day’s work they go down to their local izakaya (traditional Japanese pub) to eat meat and drink beer.

Due to the rise in popularity of “Christian” weddings, Japan has many fake (non-consecrated) churches, staffed by fake priests (actors), purely for the purpose of weddings (as I explain in the religion chapter of my book, Japanese are “born Shinto, married Christians and die Buddhists”.) But the temples in Koyasan are bone fide temples, and most have been Buddhist institutions for centuries. But unfortunately, because Buddhist monks in Japan gave up their commitment to the fundamental precept of Ahimsa (non-violence) when they gave up their ascetic lifestyle, many temples now use fish stock in their food. While Kōbō-Daishi would probably turn in his grave (can I say that if he’s still meditating there?) if he saw what his spiritual descendants serve to their guests, most Japanese visitors aren’t vegetarian and are there to enjoy the experience of dining on what they consider to be temple food (that is, based on tofu and fresh vegetables). So most temple guests are quite happy to have a little fish stock added to their shojin ryori if it improves the flavour for them, just like most diners at an Italian restaurant would be happy for a little soy sauce to be added to their pasta for the same reason, and it wouldn’t detract from their Italian dining experience.

Based on temples’ websites, reviews, my own email exchanges with staff, and my experiences staying at them, I have concluded that two temples are trustworthy: Ekoin and Daienin (see below for both).  I am confident that none of their shojin ryori meals contain any animal products (but please let me know via the ‘updates’ link of each if you find or suspect otherwise). This does not include the complementary crackers in most rooms, which are an unwelcoming welcome snack for vegan guests because they often contain egg. There may well, of course, be other temples which serve genuinely vegan food; please let me know if you would like to recommend others.

Like most traditional Japanese accommodation, many temples do not offer private bathrooms. Instead most offer an ofuro, or public bath, which is essentially the same as an onsen but it uses electrically heated water instead of geothermal water. Bathers are separated by gender and expected to bathe naked; it would be very strange (and probably offensive) to wear a swimsuit of any kind. As at all onsen, there is a row of showers alongside the bath, and it’s an important custom for guests to wash themselves at a stool before entering the bath, even if they have recently showered. Of course, it’s acceptable to just wash and then not use the bath, but either way this requires being naked right beside others, so please consider not staying at a temple without private bathrooms if you are not comfortable with this. Ekoin (see immediately below) has rooms with private bathrooms.
Even compared with other accommodation in Japan, there is little saving per person for double or larger rooms; for example, at Ekoin (see below) a single room costs ¥18,000, and four people sharing a room costs around ¥16,000 per person. This might reflect what is perceived as a fairness, and also that in such a remote location much of the cost is in the food and the facilities (instead of the space itself, which is the limiting factor in most hotels).

Ekoin (恵光院)

Overnight accommodation costs from ¥16,000–¥30,000 per person.
648-0211 和歌山県伊都郡高野町大字高野山497
497 Koyasan, 高野町 Koya, Ito District, Wakayama 648-0211
The best way to book is by emailing them directly at; they also accept bookings through their website, which is a little ‘old-school’ but functional. It’s also possible to call, as many of their resident monks speak English.
Staff speak English and are comfortable serving foreign guests.
The experience is less authentic than at temples which serve fewer foreign tourists.

My room at Ekoin.

Ekoin is popular for its young, friendly, English-speaking monks, who are comfortable serving foreign guests. This makes it, in my opinion, the best option for most foreign visitors to Japan wanting a comfortable – if slightly less authentic – shukubo experience. During my visit virtually all the guests were Caucasian, and of the few Asians I don’t think any were Japanese. The staff are responsive to emails, and, perhaps in a large part because of their foreign vegan visitors, they appear to keep their promise of serving only vegan food. They allow non-flash photography of their early-morning Goma Fire Ritual, which is a hypnotic blend of chanting, bells, fire and scriptures; however, the snapping of cameras does somewhat detract from the experience. The wood symbolises human desires, and the fire symbolises the wisdom of the Buddha, which cleanses us of material desires. Visitors can give the names of ancestors before the event, and their souls will be prayed for during the ceremony.

Rooms are large and comfortable, with all modern amenities including flat-screen TVs. All rooms now feature wireless internet, and at mine it was fast and reliable (which many aren’t in this remote mountain town). The bathroom is open for most of the morning and the evening, and in keeping up with the demands of its foreign guests, it has recently increased the number of rooms with private bathrooms (for double and larger rooms, for around an additional ¥5,000 per person) and it now even offers gluten free meals.

Prices depend on the room type, meals (see below) and time, with weekends and April (for cherry blossoms) being the most expensive.

At the time of reservation guests must choose a meal size from an extravagant “middle-sized meal” to an outrightly indulgent “sumptuous meal”).

The most basic dinner set at Ekoin. While I can understand why many tourists wish to make the most of this opportunity and splurge on one of the finest traditional vegan meals available on Earth, I personally feel uncomfortable gouging myself on food in a Buddhist centre. This meal was more than adequate for my large appetite.

Daienin (大円院)

Single rooms with breakfast and dinner start at around ¥12,000.
Reservations can be made on JapaniCan and other online travel agencies such as Agoda.
648-0211 和歌山県伊都郡高野町大字高野山594
594 Kōyasan, Koya, Ito-gun, Wakayama 648-0211
Authentic; inexpensive.
Limited (and public) bathing facilities; staff speak little if any English.

My room at Daienin

For a more traditional shukubo experience, I recommend the thousand-year old Daienin. Single rooms here are great value for solo travellers, but double or larger rooms offer little, if any, saving over other temples.

While the accommodation wing at Ekoin feels somewhat like a ryokan (a traditional, usually luxurious Japanese inn), rooms at Daienin exude a humbler Buddhist vibe, and many overlook a small Japanese garden and Shinto shrine.

Meals here are also much simpler, but as authentic shojin ryori they are still perfectly satisfying, and of course they are beautifully presented. They are served in the temple’s main rooms (not guest rooms), with each travelling party assigned their own private room for dining. An English-speaking monk or nun first introduces the meal and explains how to eat it. In fitting with the Buddhist tradition, guests are provided tea but no teacup; the rice bowl is used for the tea after the meal, to ensure that any leftover rice which sticks to the bowl isn’t wasted.

Meals at Daienin are simpler and smaller, but it’s still a great vegan meal for the price.

The bathroom is only open during the evening, so guests cannot bathe (or shower) in the morning. Also, the Buddhist ceremony is an hour of chanting followed by a half-hour lecture (perhaps akin to a sermon by the senior monk), and of course it’s all in Japanese. And, being a religious ritual, photography is not allowed. Unlike the photo-snapping tourists watching the fire ritual at Ekoin, the Japanese guests sitting beside me at Daienin clearly took it very seriously, and I guess it was the main purpose for their visit to Koyasan, perhaps along with paying their respects to departed family members in the graveyard.

Koyasan Restaurants

Most visitors stay at temples, so the only meal to have out is lunch, possibly on both days. Chuoshokudo Sanbo offers the most traditional experience, and is really a must for anyone not staying at a temple, but if two traditional meals are enough for one day, then Bon An Shya offers delicious, healthy international cuisine.

Chuoshokudo Sanbo ($$, Japanese Bento / Lunch Boxes, 中央食堂 さんぼう)

In central Koyasan, close to where the first bus stop in the town.
722 Kōyasan, Koya, Ito-gun, Wakayama 648-0211
Best traditional meal outside of temples.

This traditional Japanese restaurant serves bentos (lunchboxes), and staff assure me that it is all vegan – without sakana dashi (fish flakes), and I couldn’t taste any in mine. Meal sets are good value, mostly from ¥1,000 to ¥2,000. If you are coming up for the day (or staying at a hostel or otherwise not getting food at your accommodation) then I strongly recommend dining here for a taste of the Buddhist cuisine which has developed here at Koyasan over the last millennium, particularly koyadofu (Koyasan tofu), which has been frozen and thawed out, giving it a unique spongy texture. A very believable legend is that many centuries ago it was so cold that even the tofu froze, and as off-putting as its spongy texture was, people had nothing else to eat. They then somehow came to like it so much that it developed into a famous specialty of Koyasan, and then spread across Kansai and the rest of Japan. It has interesting parallels with – but a very different flavour from – Stinky Tofu from China (also popular in Singapore and Taiwan), which was ‘discovered’ when a man buried his surplus tofu hoping to preserve it, dug it up and found that it tasted good even though it had gone rotten.

Bon An Shya ($$, Western, Fusion, 🥚)

Official hours: Wed-Sun: 6:30-17:00; closed Mon, Tue.
It’s best to arrive around 11:30–12:00 for lunch.
150 metres past the traffic lights on the way to Okuno-in Cemetery
648-0211 和歌山県伊都郡高野町高野
730 Koyasan, Ito-gun, Koya-cho 648-0211, Wakayama
Delicious international food; vegan friendly.

The vegan set is excellent value at ¥1,200, including a drink and cake.
This charming vegetarian café and art gallery is run by a French woman and her Japanese husband. It’s popular even among non-vegetarians for its Western foods, including European dishes, cakes and coffee. Their lunch set, which includes a few main dishes, a piece of cake and a drink, is excellent value at ¥1,200. The owner seemed pleased when I asked for my set to be vegan, because he prepares vegan options for every part of the set (including the dessert) every day, but it is rarely asked for vegan food. If you are getting tired of Japanese food (or will be soon), then this is the place to come for a Western lunch before heading back down to Osaka.

 If you prefer to work at a table with a chair than at the low table in the beautiful tatami room you are staying in, or if your temple doesn’t provide WiFi, then Bon An Shya has both, and the owners are happy for customers to stay for hours as long as it’s not too busy (thus causing the shop to lose other customers). The café opens early in the morning, so if you have seen everything in Koyasan it’s okay to order a coffee and wait until the lunch is ready (which is usually around midday).

Bon An Shya doesn’t have a website or a Facebook page, so please consider calling first before making a special trip there (the staff speak English). Or if you turn up and find them closed, just go to Chuoshokudo Sanbo (see above).

Koyasan Attractions

Most sights in Koyasan take about an hour to visit, except for the small (but worthwhile) museum, which takes about half an hour. It’s easily possible to visit all the attractions in Koyasan in one day, but spending two days here, either side of a night in a temple and an evening trip to the graveyard, makes the whole experience much more rewarding.

Oku-No-In (奥の院)

Cemetery: always open.
Torodo Hall (beside mausoleum): 6:00-17:30
Gokusho Offering Hall: 8:30-17:00
Admission is free to the graveyard and all the buildings.
The traditional Ichinohashi entrance to the graveyard is about ten minutes’ walk from Bon An Shya, in the city centre.
The Okunoinmae bus stop, by the newer entrance to the graveyard which is closer to Kōbō-Daishi’s tomb, is about ten minutes by bus from the town centre (¥220, please have correct change, or get it from a vending machine beside the bus stop if necessary). Alternatively, it’s about a twenty-minute walk (1.7km) from Bon An Shya and the city centre.  
648-0211 和歌山県伊都郡高野町大字高野山555
555 Kōyasan, 高野町 Koya, Ito-gun, Wakayama 648-0211
Directions (to the Ichinohashi entrance).
Surreal experience unparalleled in Japan, if anywhere.

This eerie but very peaceful graveyard has a history of over a thousand years, and as the site of the mausoleum of Kōbō-Daishi himself it is the heart of the Shingon Esoteric Buddhist sect and one of the most important spiritual sites in all of Japan. The traditional entrance is the Ishinohashi (literally “First bridge”), from which it’s a two-kilometre walk through two hundred thousand graves to Kōbō-Daishi’s mausoleum. Most are small, unmarked, moss-covered graves, but those of feudal lords stand out for their grandeur, including the four-hundred-year-old tombs of the warlord Matsudaira Hideyasu and his mother, which are built entirely of stone. While this is a Buddhist graveyard, there are many toriis (ceremonial gates to Shinto Shrines) signifying the graves as holy places; many of these built before the separation of Shinto and Buddhism into distinct religions (in 1868).
A shorter path from the Okunoinmae bus stop cuts the walk (to the mausoleum) in half, and passes instead through more modern graves identifiable by the corporations which paid for them rather than the deceased they entomb. This is partly because, during Japan’s bubble era, corporations became the new ‘family’ for Japanese people, so they were expected to provide for all their employees needs in life, so why not in death too? But, in reality, many of these graves are advertisements for the companies themselves, the most famous of which is one for a termite control company, officially praying for the souls of its white ant victims.

Both paths meet at the Gokusho Offering Hall, where visitors throw water at the Buddha statues, which is believed to wash away bad karma from themselves or their departed family members. Behind the temple the path continues over the Gobyonohashi Bridge to the temple and Kōbō-Daishi’s mausoleum. The region beyond Gobyonohashi Bridge is a very, very sacred spot (even relative to the rest of the graveyard), and photography here of all types is prohibited, as is the use of mobile phones or other electronic devices, and the consumption of food and drink. Visitors are expected to bow towards Kōbō-Daishi’s mausoleum before and after crossing the bridge. To the left of the bridge, in the stream, are small wooden memorials to “water babies”, placed there by mothers for their miscarried or aborted babies.

A few metres past the bridge is the Miruko Stone, housed inside a small thatched structure. Visitors are invited (after throwing in a few coins as an offering) to reach their hand in and try to lift the stone onto its upper platform. If you can’t lift it, you need to go vegan – or work out more – as it’s believed that it feels lighter for people with better karma. It also offers a direct connection to the Mirukou Boddhisatva, the future Buddha, who followers of Shingon Buddhism believe will return to Earth to save those unable to reach enlightenment themselves, thus bringing universal salvation to all sentient beings (including, presumably, all those white ants).

Buddhas outside the Gokusho Offering Hall

Kōbō-Daishi’s tomb itself is a surprisingly modest wooden structure and is barely visible from its ceremonial gate. Faithful followers can often be seen chanting and prostrating outside it. In front of the tomb is the Torondo Hall (Hall of Lamps), the main hall of worship in the Okunoin cemetery. Visitors are free to enter the hall, which is the largest and busiest hall of fire rituals and offerings that I have seen in Japan, with paintings of Kōbō-Daishi himself on the central altar. But the most striking feature of this ornate building is its more than 10,000 namesake lamps, two of which are believed to have been alight since AD 1088. The basement contains 50,000 statues which were donated to the temple by worshippers in 1984, to mark the 1150th anniversary of Kōbō-Daishi’s passing. The hall is free to enter and closes at 17:30.

The graveyard takes on a surprisingly peaceful atmosphere at night. But my favourite time to visit is at dusk, when the graves are still visible, but the lamps come on to light the way towards Kōbō-Daishi’s resting place (see photo above). Please be careful, however, as these ancient stone paths can become slippery, especially during or after rain, or worse still frost. If you don’t mind missing the chance to see the goings on in the Torondo Hall (or going back at another time), I recommend entering the graveyard by the Ishinohasi Bridge shortly before dusk, walking up the two-kilometre path through the old graves as the lamps along the main pathway come on, and then walking around the mausoleum after dark, when the sanctuary is usually deserted and is lit up by its 10,000 lamps (but please don’t be tempted to take photos, out of respect for Kōbō-Daishi and because of the many security cameras quietly watching over his tomb). Then walk back along the newer, shorter route (which is also safer at night) to the Okunoinmae bus stop, and either take the bus or walk back to where you are staying. Bring warm clothes (except during fine summer evenings), a mobile phone for emergencies and a good torch (flashlight) if your phone doesn’t have one.
I highly recommend the night-time tour (¥1,500) offered in English by the Ekoin Temple (although other temples’ tours may be just as good). The Koyasan Interpreter Guide Club run tours of the cemetery (as well as Danjo Garan and Konbuguji Temple – see Daishi Kyokai below) starting from 9:00 for the same price. Tours start from Ishinohashi, and can be reserved by emailing or calling 090-3263-5184 or 090-1486-2588, or emailing ➚➚.

Danjo Garan (壇上伽藍)

Temple grounds: always open.
Konpon Hall and Pagoda: 8:30-17:00
Ten minutes’ walk west from Bon An Sha and the city centre.
648-0211 和歌山県伊都郡高野町大字高野山152
152 Kōyasan, 高野町 Koya, Ito-gun, Wakayama 648-0211
Temple grounds: free.
Konpon Hall and Pagoda: Both ¥200 (and covered by the Combination Ticket).
I recommend both.
Most important temple complex at Koyasan; grounds are free to enter.

Commonly referred to just as Garan, this is the most important temple of Koyasan, and a must-visit while up the mountain. The two main buildings are the Konpon Daitō Hall (根本大塔) and the enormous, two-level Konpon Daitō Pagoda. Legend has it that when Kōbō-Daishi began searching for a centre for his new Buddhist school, a black and a white dog (symbolising two local deities) led him to this sacred spot, surrounded by eight peaks which resemble lotus petals, so he chose the site for the heart of his new Buddhist school. (As beautiful lotus flowers grow out of muddy water, in Buddhism they symbolise the purification of the spirit to reach enlightenment, despite being born into the murkiness of the material world.)

Kōbō-Daishi began building both structures himself; however, he was not able to finish either in his lifetime, and the main pagoda was completed around 876, forty years after he entered his “eternal meditation”. All the structures have burned down several times over the centuries, and the current hall dates to 1932 and the pagoda to 1937. Additional buildings and pagodas have been added over the centuries to what is now a large complex which offers some good photo opportunities.
The Konpon Daitō Hall enshrines a statue of Yakushi Nyorai, the Buddha of medicine and healing; however, on my visit it was hidden in a cabinet, but its surrounding altar was interesting enough. Inside the pagoda there is a three-dimensional Mandala (a Buddhist model of the cosmos) which includes a statue of the Dainichi Nyorai (Cosmic Buddha). Both the pagoda and the hall cost ¥200 to enter and are worthwhile in their own ways, but if you are only entering one then I recommend the pagoda, because I found walking around the Mandala and observing the model of the cosmos from different angles to be a more interesting experience. Photography is not allowed in either the hall or the pagoda.

Kongobuji Temple (金剛峯寺)

8:30-17:00 (last entry: 16:30).
In Koyasan centre, five minutes’ walk west of Bon An Shya and five minutes’ walk east of Danjo Garan.
Admission: ¥500.
648-0294 和歌山県伊都郡高野町大字高野山132
132 Koyasan, Koya, Ito District, Wakayama 648-0294
Largest stone garden in Japan.  

The largest stone garden in Japan, at Kongobuji Temple

The Kongobuji Temple (literally Temple of the Diamond Mountain) is the head temple of the Shingon Esoteric sect and its administrative centre. It was originally constructed in 1593 by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the Second Great Unifier of Japan, in memory of his deceased mother, and was rebuilt in 1861. It’s home to the largest stone garden in Japan at 2340 square metres, which includes 140 granite stones which were somehow brought up from Shikoku, the birthplace of Kōbō-Daishi. They are arranged to represent a pair of dragons emerging from the clouds to protect the temple, but you’ll need to have a better imagination than I do to see it.

The most famous room in the temple is the Willow Room (the third room visitors pass after entering the temple) which witnessed one of the most pivotal (and perhaps most gruesome) events in Japan’s long history. It was here that Toyotomi Hidetsugu, Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s nephew, was ordered by Hideyoshi to commit seppuku, or ritual suicide by disembowelment, along with his three wakashū (adolescent male apprentices) in 1595. As Hideyoshi had no children, Hidetsugu was raised to be his heir, however their relationship began to deteriorate after Hideyoshi’s concubine gave birth to a son in 1593. Rumours were spread of Hidetsugu committing unjust murder, and finally of plotting a coup, which resulted in his order to commit seppuku. Hideyoshi also ordered the murders of Hidetsugu’s entire family, including 39 women and children, a decision which may have led to his downfall: seven years later, in the Battle of Sekigahara, many powerful families and warlords, who were still shocked by the brutality of these murders, chose to support his rival Tokugawa Ieyasu instead. Tokugawa won a decisive victory and went on to establish the Tokugawa Shogunate which ruled Japan (from Edo, present-day Tokyo) until the Meiji Restoration in 1868.

The rooms in Kongobuji feature some stunning old Fusuma (painted sliding doors); however, visitors are not permitted to photograph them or even to sketch them. The newer wing of the temple contains Fusuma which tell the story of Kōbō-Daishi’s pilgrimage to China. At the end of the wing is a large tatami room, where visitors are invited to enjoy basic rice crackers and green tea (help yourself to the tea from the vending machine). On both my visits (most recently in June 2018) the crackers were vegan, but I recommend checking the ingredients on the packet, perhaps with Google Translate, in case they have changed. The green tea should just be matcha (pulverised, unoxidized green tea) so milk is very unlikely to be used. I was impressed by the old kitchen and the chimney, covered in soot, which appears in its day to have been able to prepare shojin ryori for hundreds of monks and pilgrims at a time. They would have wanted plenty of hot food during the long, cold winters.

Daishi Kyōkai (大師教会)

8:30-17:00 (last entry: 16:30)
Five minutes’ walk southwest of Kongobuji.
Ten minutes’ walk west of Bon An Shya and the town centre.
Admission: free.
Jukai (Buddhist initiation: ¥500 for)
347 Kōyasan, Koya, Ito-gun, Wakayama 648-0211
648-0211 和歌山県伊都郡高野町大字高野山347
Admission is free (except for Buddhist initiation).
Not much to see or do here.

Henjoden (traditional hall)

This administrative centre of Shingon Buddhism is divided into two parts: the Henjoden, a traditional-style Buddhist hall built in 1915, and a modern administration building. Visitors may receive Jukai (受戒), the Buddhist initiation ritual, in which participants recite the ten Buddhist Precepts (the first of which is not to ‘take life’) and “take refuge in the Buddha”. Visitors can also copy Buddhist sutra (scriptures), which is considered an act of meditation and devotion. There is also a modern (1915) temple dedicated to Kōbō-Daishi, and a set of paintings which tell his life story.
In the foyer of the administrative building there is a Visitor’s Centre, from which English tours by members of the Koyasan Interpreter Guide Club depart for Kongobuji and Garan at 13:00 and 15:00. The tours take 1.5 hours and cost ¥1,500. They also offer tours of Okunoin (the famous cemetery) daily at 9:00, starting from Ishinohashi Bridge. Tours can be reserved by calling 090-3263-5184 or 090-1486-2588, or ➚emailing➚.

Reihokan Museum (霊宝館)

May-Oct: 8:30-17:30; Nov-April: 8:30-17:00
Last admission: half an hour before closing time.
The museum closes over the new year holiday period.
Opposite Daishikyokai (to the south/west).
Five minutes’ walk from Danjo Garan & Kongobuji Temple.
648-0211 和歌山県伊都郡高野町大字高野山306
306 Koyasan, Koya, Ito District, Wakayama 648-0211
Admission: ¥600 (also covered by the Combination Ticket).
“Treasure trove of Buddhist art.”
The museum can be quite cold during winter.

Koyo (autumn colours) were just beginning at this altitude on my visit in late June.

This official Wakayama travel guide rightly describes the Reihokan Museum as “a treasure trove of Buddhist art”. The main hall was built in 1921 to preserve and display the religious and cultural treasures of Koyasan, making it the oldest wooden museum in Japan (the Special Exhibition Hall of the Kyoto National Museum is older, but it is built of stone).

Treasures from the museum’s extensive collection are rotated several times a year, so it’s possible to visit twice and see different treasures. On my visit most exhibits were paintings of Mandalas and scrolls, and carvings of Buddhas, some so peaceful that they could send you straight to Nirvana (Buddhist heaven), and some are so ugly and ferocious that they could give you nightmares in your temple lodging. Some of the exhibits are over a thousand years old, including a ninth-century bronze Buddha image from China.

It’s an expensive admission fee for what is quite a small museum (the whole museum can be seen in less than an hour), photography is not allowed, and at the time of my research visit English explanations of the exhibits were limited, although it appears from online reviews that more have been added recently. If time permits, I recommend a visit to anyone with an interest in Buddhism, especially its art or history; if, however, you are visiting the Kyoto National Museum you may see similar exhibits (and more) there, depending on which are on display at the time.

Hiking at Koyasan

There are some good hikes around Koyasan; however, these change regularly due to weather conditions and temple developments, and some are not made public if they pass by sacred sites. I recommend asking at your accommodation (especially if you stay at Ekoin, where the monks speak good English) for a suitable hike for your schedule, level of fitness and the weather conditions.  Alternatively, just take enough food, water and warm clothes, set out and see what you find. The mountain is dotted with historic temples and shrines.

Signs warn of wild bears and advise hikers to carry a bell or radio (A mobile phone playing music or a podcast might be more with the times?) as the bears are afraid of humans. If you do encounter one stay calm, and don’t shout or run away. If they do attack you guard your face with your arms. Signs around the trails ask hikers to call the town office on +07-365-630-00 if bears are spotted.
Like everywhere in Japan, there is also a risk of venomous snakes. If you encounter one walk slowly away, or if that’s not possible stand still and stay calm. Never corner or trap them, as (like the bears) most snakes are afraid of humans and will retreat if given the opportunity to do so. If bitten try to remember what the snake looked like, tie a tourniquet (such as a bag from a backpack) around the affected limb and call 119 with as specific details on your location as possible, or else carry the injured person to the closest sign of civilisation and ask for help. It’s also possible to hike up to Koyasan; see Transport (above).

This image is left from my original blog post, while the rest of this page has been updated from the Koyasan chapter of my Vegan Travel Guide to Japan as a sample chapter. 

Wednesday, 25 March 2020

Tokyo's Best Vegan Restaurants in 2020

Updated in October, 2020. The nation remains closed to foreign tourists. While I am endeavouring to keep this up-to-date for the benefit of expatriate residents and anyone who must visit Japan, I strongly recommend as little travel in Japan as possible while it overcomes the pandemic. 

Japan is, more than anywhere else in Asia, somewhere that it's worth making the extra effort to visit wholly vegan restaurants, and even to plan a day sightseeing around meals, and the purpose of my guidebook (please see opposite) is to save travellers hours of time on this. Staff at most 'ordinary' Japanese restaurants won't have any understanding of veganism, and most restaurant owners are reluctant to adapt dishes to suit vegans.

Also, for many vegan restaurants in Japan, foreigners make up a significant proportion of customers, and given that few new vegan restaurants in Tokyo survive longer than two years, that extra time you spend may just make a difference to a restaurant staying in business or not. It's tragic how many former vegans start making "compromises" or become "flexible" in Japan, and I hope this page (and my guidebook) will make it that bit easier not to.

Tokyo Outings

In this post I follow these four itineraries from my guidebook. The areas described are not official city districts but simply definitions which are intended to be useful to foreign tourists, because dividing up the city this way allows travellers to see Tokyo's main attractions in about four days.

Harajuku, Shibuya, Omotesando, Yebisu & Roppongi

This itinerary covers Tokyo's youth fashion and shopping districts, the more upmarket Omotesando district (for older shoppers), the business and nightclub capital of Roppongi, Yoyogi Park (Tokyo's 'backyard'), and the Yebisu neighbourhood, which is famous for its namesake beer which used to be made there but is now popular as an interesting old neighbourhood which features some of the capital's best-value vegan restaurants. Eat well on this itinerary.

Omotesando (表参道)

Omotesando is a shopping fashion centre for Tokyoites -- and tourists -- in their thirties and fourties. If you're too old for Harajuku, and too young -- or just too poor -- for Ginza, then you may find yourself at home here in Omotesando. 

Brown Rice Canteen ($$, Macrobiotic, Organic, 🌱)

Mon-Fri: 12:00-17:00; Sat-Sun: 11:30-18:00 (last order one hour before closing).

One minute’s walk from Omotesando Station, Exit 1. Take the first left into a small alleyway, and it will be on your right.

150-0001 東京都渋谷区神宮前5-1-8 1F
5-1-8 jingumae, Shibuya-ku Tokyo 150-0001


website, Happycow


Delicious, healthy, beautifully presented macrobiotic meals.
Moderately expensive, but excellent value given the food, interior and location.

Update this listing.

This trendy, healthy, macrobiotic café was one of the earliest vegan cafes in Tokyo, and it has stood the test of time to become famous among vegans and health-conscious Tokyoites. It’s now connected to Neals Yard, a large, UK-based supplier of healthy and organic foods, and goes by that name and also the Brown Rice Café.

Like most Japanese macrobiotic restaurants, it turns brown rice and seasonal vegetables into delicious, satisfying and (of course) beautifully presented meal sets, starting at around ¥2,000. This is a slight premium over similar restaurants around Tokyo and Japan, but perfectly reasonable for such quality food at a famous restaurant, in one of Japan’s most upmarket shopping districts. I wouldn’t make a special trip here as this type of food can be found all over Japan, but while in Omotesando or Shibuya it’s well worth a visit for what may be one of your best Japanese meals outside of Kyoto.
Compared with other good macrobiotic restaurants in Tokyo, Nezu No Ya (near Ueno) serves much simpler meals for about half the price, while Ain Soph Ginza (Tokyo’s most upmarket vegan restaurant) serves much more elaborate sets for around double the price. I consider all three to be of equal value, given their food, service, interior and location.

Compared with other good macrobiotic restaurants in Tokyo, Nezu No Ya (see below) serves much simpler meals for about half the price, while Ain Soph Ginza (Tokyo’s most upmarket vegan restaurant -- see below) serves much more elaborate sets for around double the price. I consider all three to be of equal value, given their food, service, interior and location.

Organic Table by Lapaz ($$, Fusion, 🌱)

Wed-Sun 11:00-19:00; closed Mon-Tue

150-0001 東京都渋谷区 神宮前3丁目3811 原宿ニューロイヤルビル
Shibuya-ku, Jingu-mae, Harajuku 3-38-11, New Royal Building (1st Floor)


Quality, inexpensive food in a spacious, sunny interior.  
Real deer head on the wall (unless the vegan community has persuaded them to remove it).

Happycow, Facebook, website


Update this restaurant.

 This stylish, organic vegan restaurant has also stood the test of time, probably for its balance of healthy food, its large, sunny interior, and especially its surprisingly inexpensive meal sets, starting from around ¥1200 for a South-Indian meal. But you’ll probably be tempted by some of the best desserts in Tokyo (from around ¥700) and perhaps some take-out goods, which they also sell online.
Unfortunately, there is a deer head in the dining area, showing that (like at so many good restaurants in Japan) the owners are not motivated by a concern for animals.

Restaurant 8ablish ($$, Fusion, 🌱)

Mon, Wed-Sat: 11:30-20:00; closed Tue
Two minutes’ walk from Omotesando Station, Exit B1.
Twenty minutes’ walk from Harajuku Station and the entrances to Yoyogi Park and Meiji Jingu Shrine.   
107-0062 東京都港区南青山5丁目10−17
5 Chome-10-17 Minamiaoyama, Minato City, Tokyo 107-0062
A pioneer of vegan food in Tokyo. Pleasant vegan interior and great food. Open for dinner.
A little expensive for the portion sizes. 

On my first visit to Tokyo almost a decade ago, high on my restaurant list was the famous Café 8, which at that time was a class ahead of anything else in Japan, if not in much of the world. Its owners never gave up the tough battle to keep vegan restaurants alive in Tokyo, and this is their latest venture after the sad closure of Café Eight and its sister cafe, the even more famous Pure Café. They also own a couple of small vegan bakeries. I personally find their food a little overpriced compared with other options in Tokyo, but it offers the same quality fusion food that its owners have been serving up for many years, and its string of great reviews confirms that its loyal customers are happy with the food and the dining experience.

Olu Olu Café ($$, Hawaiian, 🌱, ❓)

Temporarily closed due to the pandemic. Please check their Facebook page for updates. 
12 minutes’ walk from Sangejaya Station on the Tokyu Den-en-toshi Line, two stops southwest of Shibuya Station. It’s also on the Tokyu Setagaya Line.
Wed-Sun: 10:00-17:00; closed Mon-Tue. 
154-0001 東京都世田谷区池尻1丁目11−1
1 Chome-11-1 Ikejiri, Setagaya, Tokyo 154-0001
03-3795-6060 (staff speak English). 
Great Hawaiian food at surprisingly low prices, served in a relaxed and welcoming store by vegan hosts. 
A little bit off the tourist route, but well worth the trip on the subway. 

This vegan restaurant has been one of my favourites for many years. The friendly couple who run it wanted to run a vegan restaurant for all the right reasons, and they felt that Hawaiian food and culture has a happy, welcoming vibe, which would make customers feel good about their food and about veganism. And their formula has clearly worked. If you would like a unique (for Asia), vegan meal without spending a fortune, then it’s well worth the short subway trip to get here. Their recently introduced burgers are very popular.

Shibuya (渋谷) 

Peace Café Hawaii ($, Western, 🌱)

Mon-Sat: 9:00-20:00; Sun: 9:00-15:00

Inside the B2 food court of the Shibuya Scramble Building, five minutes’ walk southeast of Shibuya Crossing. Peace Café is just beside the information counter at the far right-hand corner of the building if coming down the escalators from the building’s main entrance. 

東京都渋谷区渋谷2-24-12 渋谷スクランブルスクエア

Tokyu Food Show Edge B2F, 2 Chome-24-12 Shibuya, Shibuya City, Tokyo 150-0002

Healthy, inexpensive vegan deli.
Only standing room for eating (but excellent for take-out meals). 

This new deli, which came to Japan from Hawaii in late 2019, offers a large array of vegan salads, proteins and other light dishes, as well as smoothies and ice cream. The best deal is the lunch set, which for around ¥1,000 includes a main dish (options include fried tempeh, soy meat and other proteins), a side dish and two salads, all of which are colour coded to make selection easier. These take-out meals are a good alternative to ones from T’s Tantan or Ekiben (both inside Tokyo Station -- see below) if you are staying closer to Shibuya Station than Tokyo Station. This is the most convenient option for a quick meal in Shibuya.
Some customers complain that dishes here are served cold. Just around the corner from Peace Café (in the middle of the food court) are some standing tables where customers can eat, and beside them are two microwave ovens which customers are free to use. Meals could also be taken to the nearby Yoyogi Park for a picnic.

Nagi Shokudo ($$, Macrobiotic, 🌱, ❓)

Temporarily closed due to the pandemic. Please check their Facebook page for updates. 
Five minutes’ walk uphill from Shibuya Station, South Exit. It can be very difficult to find without Google Maps.
15-10 Uguisudanicho, Shibuya City, Tokyo 150-0032
Good, big, Japanese meal for a reasonable price.
Crowded, run-down interior.

Kuppuro Setto (Couples’ Set): ¥4,500

Nagi is one of Tokyo’s oldest and most famous vegan restaurants. Despite being operated out of a dingy and usually overcrowded basement, its loyal following of both local and expatriate Shibuyites eat here for its generously sized portions, and especially their set meals. Nagi serves typical macrobiotic fusion cuisine, but because most vegan and vegetarian restaurants in Tokyo serve burgers, falafel, Indian and Taiwanese food, Nagi is one of the most authentic Japanese restaurants between Kyoto and Sapporo. If you need a large, satisfying Japanese meal in Shibuya, especially if you’re out late, then this is the place to come.
While this may change before you read this, at the time of research the Singles Set is only available to people who enter the restaurant on their own; two people who visit together cannot order two single sets, nor can one of them order a Single Set and another order something different. The food is similar but probably slightly better, and certainly more international, at Meu Nota (see below). The atmosphere there is also more pleasant, but it requires reservations in advance for dinner. But both are restaurants which I would only advise dining at if you are in the area (or, for Meu Nota, if you know that you will be ahead of time), because there’s nothing unique enough about either to make them worth a special trip to.

Kuumba Du Falafel ($$, Middle Eastern,  🌱)

Tue-Sun: 11:30-2:30, 5:30-8:00; closed Mon 
Fifteen minutes’ walk west (uphill) from Shibuya Station, Exit 3
150-0045 東京都渋谷区神泉町23
ME Building.1F 23-1 Shinsen-chou, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo 151-0045
Large, inexpensive meal sets with great falafel. 
Long walk uphill; little seating in or near the café; unfriendly staff. 

This inexpensive Middle Eastern café has been serving up the same delicious falafel plates for several years. It’s always had a bit of a strange vibe, it’s a long uphill walk from Shibuya Station, and it has limited seating, so customers often need to wait, or purchase takeaway meals without anywhere to eat them nearby. And its staff are unfriendly at best and often quite rude. But its delicious meals, which start at around ¥1,000, make up for all of that.

Ebisu (恵比寿)

Ebisu is best known for its namesake beer, which is why most people visit, especially for the beer museum which is housed in the former berwery. But its Ebisu Garden place is an interesting old district to explore even for people who don't drink like myself. The large pedestrian-only area often hosts festivals during weekends, and sometimes free film viewings on evenings during the warmer months. It's also home to some of Tokyo's healthiest and best-value mid-range vegan restaurants. 

Rainbow Raw Food / Hemp Café ($$$, Raw, Hemp,  🌱, ❓)

Rainbow Raw Food Café
Temporarily closed due to the pandemic. Please check their Facebook page for updates. 
Tue-Sat Lunch: 11:00-14:30 (L.O. 14:30); Café: 14:30-17:00

Hemp Café
Mon–Sat: 11:00-23:00

For Both Cafes
150-0011 東京都渋谷区東3-17-14-8F
3-17-14-8F, Higashi, Shibuya-ku, Japan 150-0011
Healthy raw food.
Small, expensive portions (but prices are fair for raw food). 

This schizophrenic restaurant serves healthy raw food by day, and then morphs into a Hemp Cafe at night, when similar dishes have Hemp products added, and the prices increase. It also features a unique Hawaiian surf theme. The Google (and Happycow) locations are correct, but it’s better known as Rainbow Raw Food than the Hemp Café, and finding it can be confusing if you don’t know in advance that they are the same place.

Ko-So Café ($$, Western, Fusion, 🌱)

Thu-Tue: 11:00-21:00; closed Wednesday
Three minutes’ north of Ebisu Station, West Exit. Follow the road around to the right and under the overhead train tracks. Then take the second left, and Ko-So is on the ground floor of the third building on the right, and is well-signposted in green (and in English).
(Ko-So is actually on the east side of the train tracks, but due to the layout of the roads it’s faster to get there from the West Exit).  
150-0011, 3-25-3 ライオンズプラザ恵比寿
3-25-3 Higashi | Lions Plaza Ebisu 1F, Shibuya 150-0011, Tokyo
Best-value Western restaurant in Tokyo; gluten free options. 

Ko-So probably serves Tokyo's best salads.

Ko-So cafe is, on balance of cost, nutritional value, location and dining experience, one of Tokyo’s best vegan cafes. It offers simple, healthy cuisine, mostly Western comfort foods, with basic sets like pasta (with a choice of delicious sauces) starting from around ¥1,000. Gluten free options are available, including the pasta. It also serves a good range of desserts, with daily options from around ¥500. While food at the nearby Rainbow Raw Food / Hemp Café is probably healthier, Ko-So Café serves the best salad I’ve found in Tokyo.

Ballon Tokyo ($$, Falafel, Ice Cream,  🌱)

5 minutes’ walk from Nakameguro Station, two stops south of Shibuya Station on the Tōkyū Tōyoko Line which connects Tokyo and Yokohama, and one stop southwest of Ebisu Station on the Hibiya Line. 
153-0061 東京都目黒区中目黒3丁目2−19 ラミアール中目黒
153-0061 Tōkyō-to, Meguro City, Nakameguro, 3-chōme−2−19 Ramiaru, Nakameguro 153-0061
Falafel and Ice Cream make an unusual but palatable combination, especially during summer.
It’s a convenient stop on the way to Yokohama, and close to the famous Meguro River cherry blossom promenade.
Limited choice compared with other falafel joints in Tokyo. 

Tokyo’s fourth vegan falafel joint is unique in that it also serves soy-based ice cream. There is only a choice of two falafel pitas: with or without coriander, so the menu is much less tailored to individual taste than are the other three falafel stores. The soy ice creams are somewhat small for ¥500, but delicious nonetheless, especially on a hot summer’s day. I never like seeing places offering bribes for Happycow reviews, as this place does (or did): add a review to their long list and you’ll receive your scoop of ice cream for free. They appear to have discontinued this policy, but I can see that the reviews they bought (with ice cream) have earned them “Top rated restaurant in Tokyo” status. 

Roppongi (六本木)

Mention Roppongi to anyone in Tokyo, and they’ll think booze & nightclubs. If you’re ‘going out’ in Tokyo, chances are it will be here in Roppongi. But many tourists also visit for the gaudy and old but ever-popular Tokyo Tower, and the city-in-a-district Roppongi Hills tower.

Veganic To Go ($$, Western, Fusion, 🌱, ❓)

Temporarily (or permanently) closed due to the pandemic. Please check their Facebook page for updates. 
Mon-Sat: 12:00-1:00; closed Sunday.
Seven minutes’ walk from Roppongi Station and five minutes’ walk from Nogizaka Station
This restaurant is located in a small back street, so it is best to find it using Google Maps. It doesn’t have an obvious storefront, but the sign above the door shows clear directions to the restaurant just inside the building. 
106-0032 東京都港区六本木7丁目414 乃木坂スタジオ 1F
1F Nogizaka studio, 7-4-14 Roppongi, Minato-ku
Delicious comfort foods cooked by a vegan chef; gluten-free options.
Tiny restaurant without a store front. 

You’ve got to be dedicated to run a vegan restaurant in Japan, but the purpose of Veganic to Go is so strong that you can almost taste it in your meal. Food is typically good Japanese macrobiotic/fusion food, but a little more creative than most, with some especially unique, healthy and delicious burger options. In keeping with the purpose of the restaurant to promote veganism, prices are low enough to entice non-vegan residents in.

Falafel Brothers Roppongi (ファラフェルブラザーズ, $, Takeout Only, 🌱)

Mon-Sat 11:00-20:00; closed Sun
3 minutes’ walk from Roppongi Station, Exit 5. Turn right as you exit (to walk down Roppongi Dori Ave), and then take the first right down Imoarai Zaka Street (芋洗坂), a small one-way street which comes off at the intersection with the busy Gaien Higashi Dori Ave. Fafafel Brothers is well signposted at the end of Imoarai Zaka Street (about 100 metres).
1F, 5-1-10, Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo, 106-0032
Great falafel.
Often nowhere to eat it.

Nothing really stands out about this falafel shop, but nothing needs to: they just serve good vegan falafel, mostly to foreigners out and about in Roppongi. The only problem is that there’s very little space to eat inside, and no good nearby place to eat, so you may end up committing the faux pas in Japan of eating on the street. 

Akihabara (秋葉原), Ueno (上野) & Asakusa (浅草) 

This itinerary covers many of Tokyo's most popular tourist districts. In my guidebook I recommend visiting on a weekend, as Ueno and Akihabara are more interesting at these times. While it's likely to be slightly busier during weekends, Asakusa is always busy with tourists (except during the Coronovirus outbreak!) so it doesn't really matter when you visit. 

Komaki Shokudou Kamakura Fushikian ($$, Japanese, こまきしょくどう 鎌倉不識庵, 🌱)

Tue-Sun: 11:00-19:30; closed Mon
Inside the Chabara Building (grocery store) underneath the Yamanote Line tracks just north of Akihabara Station
Walk out the main exit of JR Akihabara Station into a large courtyard. On your right you should see the Yamanote Line tracks running north-south, and steps leading up to a raised walkway to the left. Walk north, just to the right of the raised (Yamanote Line) railway tracks, cross one road, and the Chabara store will be on your right underneath the train tracks. 
101-0022 東京都千代田区神田練塀町8-2 CHABARA
Chiyoda-ku, Neribeicho, 8-2 Kanda 101-0022
Shojin-ryori (Buddhist temple cuisine) is healthy, and not easy to find in central Tokyo.
It’s not nearly as good as shojin ryori served in temples; it’s expensive; rules about minimum purchases.  

This budget shojin ryori (Buddhist temple cuisine) café has a string of bad reviews on Happycow from foreigners who are not familiar with Japan. It serves some delicious shojin cuisine, with plates starting from around ¥1,000 on weekdays during the lunch period (11:00-15:00), and increasing to about ¥2,000 on weekends, when customers are expected to order a drink – not an uncommon expectation in Japan. Many foreign customers expect shojin ryori to be high-end dining, as it usually is at Buddhist temples. But shojin ryori literally means ‘devotion cuisine’, the diet of Buddhists who must have been devoted to follow it before Emperor Meiji dissolved the requirement for Buddhist monks to be vegetarian in the 1860s. So shojin is defined by being free of animal products, onions and garlic, not by its elegance or price tag. This is certainly at the cheaper end of the spectrum (especially compared with offerings in Kyoto, where most tourists experience shojin ryori) but it’s still the real deal – just a cheaper, mass-produced deal. ‘Fake shojin’ is served at restaurants which also serve animal products, but not here.

They also serve some healthy desserts for a little under ¥1,000, but (needless to say) they can only be ordered with a main meal, not as a meal.

Don’t make a special trip to Akihabara just for this – it’s not great food or great value, but if you’re here, you’re hungry, and don’t balk at the price, then it’s a decent lunch option, especially on weekdays. Fans of Indian cuisine (especially South Indian) should head north to Vege Herb Saga or the Veg Kitchen instead (see below). 

Taiwan Shokudo ($, Taiwanese, 🥛, ❓)

Hours are uncertain due to the pandemic; please call first. 
Three minutes’ walk southwest (towards the river) of Ryōgoku Station on the JR Chūō-Sōbu Line (from Akihabara Station). 
Eleven minutes’ walk northeast (and across the river) from Higashi-Nihombashi Station on the Asakusa Line (from Asakusa Station).
A pleasant half-hour walk south along (and also across) the Sumida River.
130-0026 東京都墨田区両国1丁目14−6
1 Chome-14-6 Ryōgoku, Sumida City, Tokyo 130-0026
- Veggie House in Sumida, near the Tokyo Skytree (see below) has a more extensive Taiwanese menu, and a more pleasant interior.

This casual Taiwanese restaurant offers the most inexpensive meal in this day’s itinerary, with large meals at under ¥1,000. It serves typical Taiwanese favourites, and (as always) I recommend Ma po tofu, or any other dish which doesn’t use fake meat (see my article on fake meat in Taiwan).
Taiwan Shokudo recently moved into this new store about 1.5 kilometres east of Akihabara and a little further south of Asakusa, so I’ve moved the listing to Akihabara, partly because it’s slightly closer to there and partly because it’s a good alternative to Kamakura Fushikian (see above), while there are more options around Asakusa. It’s not so easy to reach from Ueno, which requires a subway transfer or a short walk to Okachimachi Station.  Taiwan Shokudo was previously located in a windowless second story room, and it doesn’t sound like the new branch is much different. But the staff are welcoming, the meals are hearty and generously sized, and it can’t be beaten on price.

Ueno (上野)

Ueno is one of Tokyo's oldest, poorest and most characteristic suburbs. It's famous for its cheap clothing stores which sell discounted old or seconds stock under the railway tracks. It's also home to a large Jain (Indian vegetarian) community, many of whom work in the diamond trade. Ueno Park is one of the best spots in Tokyo for cherry blossoms, and the adjacent Tokyo National Museum is one of the country's best art museums.  

Nezu no Ya ($$, Japanese, Macrobiotic,  , 根津の谷, 🌱)

Mon-Tue, Thu-Sat: 11:30-21:00; closed Wed, Sun.
Ten minutes’ walk north of Ueno Park (Bentendo Temple); fifteen minutes from Starbucks in the centre of the park.
Beside Nezu Station on the Chiyoda (subway) Line (from Tokyo Station). 
113-0031 東京都 文京区根津1丁目114
1-1-14 Nezu, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo
Tokyo’s most inexpensive macrobiotic restaurant, and one of the best-value in the city.
The attached organic shop sells animal products.

This vegan gem serves up delicious, healthy macrobiotic meals for a little under ¥1500, including a Japanese curry and a daily set (which I recommend). On the balance of price, location, décor (simple, but very pleasant) and food quality, this is one of the best value restaurants in Tokyo. The menu in the café is all vegan, but, unfortunately, the attached organic store sells animal products. 

Vege Herb Saga ($$, Indian, ヴェジハーブサーガ, 🥛)

11:15-15:00, 17:15-23:00; last order half an hour before closing time. 
Two minutes’ walk southeast of Okachimachi Station, South Exit 2 (for the JR Yamanote and Keihen/Tohoku lines) and one minute’s walk west of Naka-Okachimachi Station, Exit 2 (for the Hibiya subway line). 
110-0005 東京都台東区上野5丁目22 地下1 東鈴ビル
5-22-1, Ueno, Taito-ku, Tokyo
It’s like being in India.
It’s like being in India.
Hours can be irregular; it sometimes closes for long periods of time when the staff return to India. If closed, I recommend the nearby Veg Kitchen (see below).

The best dosa in Tokyo. A dosa is a thin crispy pancake made from fermented grains. I recommend the Masala dosa, which is filled with a spicy potato filling. But be sure to tell the waiter “No butter or ghee,” as Indian chefs often smear it over the dosa before adding the filling out of habit, although I’ve never had it happen at this restaurant, where staff are careful to ensure that the dietary requirements of vegans and Jains are met.

My favourite restaurant in Tokyo, this is a little piece of India, so passports should be stamped – and expectations left behind – at the door. The owner, a devout Jain (the world’s oldest religion of non-violence, which arose around the same time in India as Buddhism, and out of the same Hindu roots) is a diamond trader, and he started this restaurant as a tiny, cramped, underground kitchen for himself, his family, and his visiting friends and business associates, who as Jains have a stricter set of dietary rules than vegans. (They eat dairy products, but not root vegetables, because their harvesting causes harm to insect life underground and the plants themselves.)

The restaurant has since moved from its first premises into a larger underground basement, but it’s still far from elegant. But Saga’s loyal following (including myself) come for the delicious, authentic Indian food, including south Indian specialties like masala dosas (shown in the photo above) and idlis, which are difficult to find elsewhere in Tokyo or Japan. The owner regularly imports spices from India and roasts them in store; this is (in my opinion) why his food tastes so much better than at other Indian restaurants in Japan. Several years ago, it ranked in the top few Indian restaurants in Tokyo on a Japanese TV show, despite being vegetarian, and it has been famous among Japanese fans of Indian food ever since. 

One possible issue for some Western diners here is that many of the staff come straight from India and are thus not accustomed to Western, or especially Japanese, levels of personal distance. It’s also not uncommon for them to rearrange food on the customer’s plate in front of them to make it look perfect – a common practice in India but not in the West and certainly not in Japan, where diners usually don’t even touch their own food. But, cultural differences aside, the long-term chef at Saga is among the most kind and warm-hearted people I have ever met, and it’s disappointing to see cultural differences put people off such good food. 

If you would like a more conventional Western or Japanese dining experience, a Japanese-Indian fusion meal can be had at Gopinatha in Nakano. Or, if you really need a Japanese dining experience with a token Indian twist (if we can even call it that), try any of the Nataraj branches, such as this one in Harajuku. 

Veg Kitchen ($$, Indian, ベジキッチン, 🥛)

11:00-15:00, 17:00-23:00
A few minutes’ walk east of Naka-Okachimachi Station (for the Hibiya subway line) and Okachimachi Station (for the JR Yamanote and Keihen/Tohoku lines).
110-0016 東京都台東区台東3丁目44−8
3 Chome-44-8 Taito, Taitō, Tokyo 110-0016
The décor and dining experience are ‘better’ (or at least more predictable) than at Veggie Herb Saga.
Food is not as authentic (or, in my opinion, as good) as at Veggie Herb Saga.
Unlike Veggie Herb Saga, the Veg Kitchen serves alcohol, and sometimes allows diners to smoke at their tables.

Momo are a Tibetan specialty, but here they come with an Indian twist.
Up the road from Veggie Herb Saga is the Veg Kitchen, a rival vegetarian restaurant run by its former chef. It’s disappointing that he chose to open his restaurant in the same district and serve much the same food, when he could have found his own niche elsewhere in such a large city; however, both restaurants seem to be doing just fine. Compared with Veggie Herb Saga, the Veg Kitchen serves similar food for similar prices, although it also serves Indian Chinese food, which I can’t recommend to anyone who likes Indian or Chinese food.

Both restaurants have their own followers of Indians, Japanese and Westerners, but to me the Veg Kitchen feels less ‘special’ than the Jain-motivated Saga, being run with a profit motive (not that there is anything wrong with that) rather than to promote vegetarianism and support vegetarians in the area. It also serves alcohol and allows customers to smoke at their tables, which may be a drawcard for some travellers, but certainly isn’t for me. The Veg Kitchen’s food is certainly good, and probably among the best in Japan. But, in my experience, it just doesn’t quite have the edge that Veggie Herb Saga does.

Asakusa (浅草)

Asakusa offers a glimpse of what Tokyo (or at least its wealthier districts) looked like during the Edo Period (1603-1868), when Japan was ruled by the very strict Tokugawa Shogunate. Asakusa developed as an entertainment district which mostly served the wealthy owners of rice storehouses in neighbouring Kuramae district. While Asakusa certainly an enjoyable experience (at least to anyone not adverse to large crowds of tourists) and I recommend visiting for the new Vegan Store (see immediately below), in my Vegan Travel Guide to Japan I recommend visiting the nearby old town of Kawagoe for Edo history instead, because it has many authentic Edo-era buidings, whereas most of Asakusa was reconstructed after it was destroyed by bombing during World War II. Kawagoe also makes a great day trip when combined with the nearby (all vegetarian) Alishan Organic Cafe.

VEGAN STORE ($$, Convenience Store / Cafe, 🌱)

Tue-Sun: 12:00-19:00; closed Monday.
If a Monday falls on a public holiday the convenience store will open and will close the following Tuesday. 
150 metres west of Tsukuba Express Asakusa Station.
10 minutes’ walk (700 metres) northwest of the main Asakusa (subway) Station.
Six minutes’ walk west of Sensoji Temple and the tourist district. 
2 Chome-25-9 Nishiasakusa, Taito City, Tokyo 111-0035
A vegan café and convenience store near the heart of Asakusa.  

Japan’s first vegan convenience store opened in December 2019 amid much fanfare in the vegan community. The store sells a range of grocery items which are perfect for travellers, including snack foods, drinks, toiletries, and a few grocery items suitable for self-catering. Freshly brewed kombucha is available ‘on-tap’. On my research visit a group of Taiwanese travellers came in and bought about a dozen packets of instant noodles. The store’s manager, who is passionate about promoting veganism in Japan and other good causes, already has plans to open more restaurants and cafes around the country. She is passionate about supporting small, ethically run businesses like her own, and this is reflected in the range of products on the shelves.

At the time of my research visit (in late January 2020) the café served simple bowls of rice, vegetables and soy meat products; these can also be taken out as bentos (Japanese lunchboxes). The owner has plans to expand the range of offerings significantly in the near future, so by the time you read this there will probably be a more extensive menu. All food in the café is allium free (made without onion, garlic or other of the “five pungents”, suitable for followers of the Oriental Vegan diet) and grocery items are marked as to whether or not they contain these ingredients.
The opening of this store is an exciting step for the growth of veganism in Japan, and I highly recommend dropping by the Vegan Store while you are in in Asakusa. 

PQ's ($, Fusion, 🌱)

10-15 minutes’ walk north of Asakusa Station (depending on which line) or Senso-ji Temple.
Tue, Wed, Thu, Sat: 11:00-17:00; closed Sun-Mon.
On Friday the café serves gourmet feasts, but these must be reserved in advance.
4 Chome-38-7 Asakusa, Taitō, Tokyo 111-0032
07-3154-8285 (staff speak English)
Great cause supporting marginalised people.  

This friendly vegan café was set up with the purpose of supporting all marginalised groups in Japan, especially the LGBTQ+ community, which faces more discrimination here than in other comparably developed countries. The staff’s eyes lit up when I said that I lived in Taiwan, which they quickly identified as one of the most progressive countries in Asia (that was before the recent passing of Asia’s first marriage equality bill in May 2019). Unlike most ‘gay bars’, which mostly serve as a social space, PQ’s has much more of an activist foundation, and anyone with a background in anarchism or other forms of grassroots activism will appreciate this place very much.

But you don’t need to have any political background to appreciate their honest good food. PQ’s offers a set menu of pasta, curry and bagels, with meals starting from ¥1,000. They also serve good drinks, making this a great place to hang out after visiting Asakusa.

Sasaya Café ($$, Japanese, Indian, Fusion,  , ササヤカフェ, 🍯)

Fifteen minutes’ walk from the Tokyo Skytree, Tokyo Skytree Station, Kinshicho Station, Honjo-Azumabashi Station and Oshiage Station.
130-0003, 1丁目-1-10 横川 墨田区 東京都
1-1-10 Yokokawa, Sumida, Tokyo
Great Japanese/Indian/Western fusion food.
Close to Skytree and Asakusa.

Tempeh curry set. 

Sasaya is one of Tokyo’s best cafes: It serves delicious, large meals, with hearty sets going for around ¥1,000-¥1,500. Like Gopinatha, it serves Indian-inspired dishes with a Japanese twist. I recommend Sasaya’s Tempeh cutlets and South Indian sambar (shown in the photo above); the two complement each other surprisingly well. Its interior is warm and spacious, and it overlooks a small park which follows a stream almost all the way to the Tokyo Skytree. If you don’t take my advice to go up Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building instead of the Skytree, then I recommend coming here while you wait for your turn to queue up, or (if you get the Fast Ticket) any time before or after your visit there.
But it’s worth considering coming here even if you don’t go to the Skytree, especially if you have PC work (or reading) to get done, as it’s only one stop on the Asakusa Line (¥180) and a pleasant ten-minute walk from Asakusa Station. Despite being so close to the Skytree, most of Sasaya’s clientele are local Japanese, many of whom come to bring their children to the park outside. The menu is vegan except for honey in some items (please ask).

Veggie House ($$, Taiwanese, ベジハウス 東京台湾素食,  🥛)

Tue-Sun: 11:30-15:00, 17:00-21:00; closed Mon
Eight minutes’ walk north of Kinshicho Station on the JR Sobu Main Line (from Tokyo Station) and Hanzomon Line (from Oshiage Station, which is beside the Skytree Station).
130-0012 東京都墨田区太平4丁目7
4 Chome-7 Taihei, Sumida-ku, Tōkyō-to 130-0012
Best Taiwanese food in Tokyo.
Not all vegan.

Veggie House is arguably Tokyo’s best Taiwanese restaurant. It’s also one of the oldest, if we include its previous life as It’s Vegetable, before it moved into this much more pleasant, two-storey building and changed its name. The main drawcard is the Taiwanese-style buffet; however, to anyone who lives in or has travelled to Taiwan that’s nothing special. Their a la carte dishes are also good value (starting at around ¥1,000) and come with a slight Japanese twist, including (of course) in their presentation.

Unlike managers of many vegetarian buffet restaurants in Taiwan, these friendly, English-speaking staff have an excellent understanding of veganism. With all Taiwanese food except from Loving Huts, however, I recommend avoiding fake meat, because it often contains dairy and egg products (and occasionally even real meat) and staff at Taiwanese restaurants are often unaware of this. As a general rule, problems come most often with fake meat which is designed to resemble a specific type of meat, not the small pieces of soy protein found in Ma po tofu (shown in the photo above) or dumplings. (I discuss this problem briefly in my listing for Taiwanese restaurants.)

Ginza & Chiyoda

Ginza is Tokyo's most famous upmarket shopping district,and is home to the original Ain Soph restaurant (which has since become a small empire, including several branches in Tokyo and one in Kyoto). Chiyoda includes Tokyo Station, the Imperial Palace East Gardens, and the famous but controversial Yasakuni Shrine, which is dedicated to Japan's war dead. This itinerary culminates nicely in a trip to the Japan's only Loving Hut (see below). 

Ginza (銀座)

Ain Soph Ginza ($$, Japanese, 🌱)

11:30-16:00, 18:00-21:00
Beside Higashi-Ginza Station, Exit A7 on the Hibiya (subway) Line and the Toei Asakusa (subway) Line.
Seven minutes’ walk from Ginza Station and the Ginza shopping district.
104-0061 東京都中央区銀座4丁目12−1
4 Chome-12-1 Ginza, Chuo City, Tokyo 104-0061
One of Tokyo’s best Japanese meals.
Great price given the location.
Still expensive.

This branch of the large Ain Soph chain is a fittingly posh restaurant for Ginza, and the perfect place to finish off your Ginza shopping spree, with sets in the ¥2,000-¥4,000 range. Their pancakes are especially popular. The food is certainly good, but the value is better at the ‘Journey’ branches, including the Shinjuku branch and Kyoto branch.

Chiyoda (千代田) 

Food Inside Tokyo Station

This article is covered in my Vegan Food inside Tokyo Station page. It has more photos but the same practical details. 

T’s Tantan ($, Japanese Noodles, T's たんたん 東京駅京葉ストリート店, 🌱)

Keiyo Food Street, inside the Japan Rail ticket gates of Tokyo Station, but not inside the shinkansen ticket gates. If arriving by subway, it’s necessary to leave the subway system and enter the JR (Japan Railway) system by any one of its ticket gates (which is free with a Japan Rail Pass). If you arrive by shinkansen (the high-speed train) then leave the shinkansen gates but not the final JR gates.
From within the JR ticket gates, follow signs to the Keio Line, and then to the Keio (underground) “Street”. Walk down Keio Street almost to the end. Starbucks will be on your left. T’s Tantan is well signposted (in green) on your right, shortly after Starbucks, just before the end of the ‘street’. There is usually a long queue, but it moves fast. 
Facebook, Happycow, Website (some English)
Directions (probably won’t work inside Tokyo Station without GPS)
Great Japanese food, inexpensive, with fast and efficient service. 
Tokyo’s most famous vegan restaurant, popular even among non-vegetarians.
Inexpensive take-outs available, although the bentos (lunchboxes – see below) are more practical.
This is fast food, so it’s important to eat and move on reasonably quickly.

T’s Tantan is undoubtedly Japan’s most popular and most famous vegan business, and is the only eatery at which virtually all vegan (and vegetarian) visitors to Japan dine at least once and usually several times. After the owner’s oldest child left home, she decided to open a restaurant (T’s Jiyugaoka, which I recommend visiting on the way to Yokohama) to serve the kind of healthy food that she liked to eat herself and cook for her family. It was so successful (despite being in an underground basement well off the tourist trail) that when a special health-focussed food “alley” (the underground Keio Street) opened inside Tokyo Station she was invited to open a store. She came up with the idea of a fast, healthy, inexpensive but still very Japanese menu, and it was such a success that what started out as a retirement project has now become the career she never planned, having spent most of her adult life raising a family. She has since opened branches in Ueno Station (recommended in that itinerary) and also one at Narita Airport, Tokyo’s main international airport. She also sells packaged ramen (available in the stores) and bento boxes at Haneda International Airport.
While the focus is its namesake tantan (a type of thin noodle, commonly confused by foreigners with ramen) the menu has expanded to include a (seasonal) Thai Masaman curry, and more recently sandwiches. There is a limited breakfast menu until 11:00. If you are passing through the station and don’t know where you’ll eat in your itinerary (which hopefully won’t happen with this guide) then eat well here and take out a sandwich or two. It’s especially important for this itinerary, because it involves a lot of walking, and there is nowhere good to eat around the Imperial Gardens.

Ekibenya Matsuri ($, Lunchboxes, 駅弁屋 祭)

Inside the JR Ticket gate of Tokyo Station (but not inside the shinkansen ticket gate), in the Central Passage between tracks 6 and 7. The location has recently moved (in late 2019).
This large passageway is in between the Yaesu Central Exit and the Marunouchi Central Exit. The Keio Line (for T’s Tantan – see above) comes off the South passageway. All three passageways have stairs leading up to the main (JR) train tracks.
If in doubt I suggest asking at one of the information counters for directions to the Ekiben Matsuri (駅弁屋 ) store and showing the photo (below).
Great option for take-out meals.  
See below for directions.
These bentos also appear from time to time at other small kiosks inside Tokyo Station.

Bentos (便當) are single-portion Japanese lunchboxes. They traditionally include rice (or noodles), fish (and/or meat) and pickled vegetables. Bentos are a way of life in Japan, and many people (especially office workers) eat them several times per week, especially at work.
Ekiben (駅弁) (Eki=station, ben for bentos) are special bentos made for train journeys, often using local ingredients or cuisine styles which the store or the region is famous for. The packaging can then become a souvenir. 

Needless to say, in Japan they are virtually never vegan, but this store sells a vegan version. 

Please show this photo to an information counter and they should point you in the right direction. Alternatively, follow directions to the Yaesu Central Exit or the Marunouchi Central Exit and walk down the main passage between them, from which stairs and escalators lead up to the tracks. Ekiben Matsuri is between tracks 6 and 7.

Loving Hut Tokyo ($, Japanese, Taiwanese,  , ラビングハット, 🌱)

 Fri-Sat: 11:00-18:00; currently closed Sun-Thu
A-la-carte dinner: 17:00-20:30 (reservations recommended)
Five minutes’ walk from Jimbocho Station (Toei Shinjuku Line, Toei Mita Line, Tokyo Metro Hanzomo Line), Exit 5.
Twenty minutes’walk from Yasakuni Shrine, or one stop on the Shinjuku Line (Kudanshita Station to Jimbocho Station).
101-0051 東京都千代田区 神田神保町1丁目54 岡田ビル 2F
Okada Bldg 2F, 1-54, Kandajinbocho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo, 101-0051
03-5577-6880 (Staff speak English and Chinese.)
Great-value all-vegan buffet. 
Update this restaurant.

The Saturday buffet is Japan's only regular vegan buffet, and the best-value buffet meal in the country.
Unfortunately, it is suspended due to the pandemic.  

The Loving Hut is the world’s largest vegan restaurant chain. The Taiwanese owners of this branch have kept this pioneer vegan restaurant open against all odds, but, unfortunately, it’s now only open on Saturdays. It serves a delicious mix of Taiwanese and Japanese dishes, including its weekly buffet, which is the best-value meal in Tokyo (even if Nataraj’s buffet is slightly cheaper).
Loving Huts don’t serve alcohol, in fitting with the spiritual teachings of the chain’s founder, international humanitarian and spiritual teacher Supreme Master Ching Hai. This must make running the restaurant so much harder, because the standard business model in Japan is to give away food at little over cost price and to make profit from alcoholic drinks, and this model sets the prices which people expect to pay for food. 
The peaceful atmosphere inside the Loving Hut, and the noble work of the organisation behind it, makes for a welcome contrast with the horrors of World War II when visited after Yasakuni Shrine.

Shinjuku, Nakano & Koenji

Shinjuku is the home of the sarariiman (salaryman, or male office workers), although the Japanese business world is now slowly becoming more open to women. Nakano is home to Japan's largest mall selling manga (comic book) and other related paraphernalia, and also the city's best Japanese-Indian food and its only vegan pub. Koenji is the home of the underground music and cultural scene, and features a lot of used clothing stores. All have some good vegan restaurants.

Shinjuku (新宿)

Ain Soph Journey ($$, Western, Fusion, 🌱)

11:30-1:00, 18:00-20:00
Beside Shinjuku-sanchome Station, Exit C5, one stop from Shinjuku Station on the JR Shinjuku Line or the Subway Marunouchi Line; it’s also on the Fukutoshin Line. 
160-0022 東京都新宿区新宿3丁目8 新宿Qビル1F
Shinjuku Sanchome, 8-9 Shinjuku Q Building, 1F
Excellent healthy food.
Reliable hours.  

Ain Soph Journey serve typical healthy, Japanese-style macrobiotic foods, but some of the best in Japan, and that’s saying something. That, of course, includes good burgers, salads and wraps, but Journey is most famous for its pancakes, perhaps because they are so good (which they are) but probably more because they look so good in photographs.
If you just need a meal in Shinjuku you can’t go wrong here (except that prices are slightly higher than elsewhere). And if you don’t plan to visit any other branches (such as its first, best and most expensive branch in Ginza, or its newer branch very similar to this in Kyoto) then it’s worth coming for a taste of Ain Soph hype. But I personally prefer the vegan passion behind Veganic to Go, and the mission and purpose (of creating a peaceful world with easy, equal communication by everyone) behind SOJO.

SOJO Esperanto-Vegana Kafejo ($, Fusion, 🌱)

Wed-Fri 17:00-21:00; Sat-Sun: 15:00-21:00; closed Mon-Tue.
Five minutes’ walk north of Waseda Station, Exit 1 on the Tokyo Metro Tozai Line.
From Shinjuku, take the JR Yamanote (loop) Line or JR Shonan-Shinjuku Line or Saikyo Line north to Takadanobaba Station, and then change to the Tozai (subway) Line east towards NishFunabashi. Waseda Station is the first stop.
111 Wasedatsurumakicho, Shinjuku, Tokyo 162-0041
162-0041 東京都新宿区早稲田鶴巻町111
03-6302-1639 (owner speaks English and Japanese if you can’t speak the preferred Esperanto)
Hearty, inexpensive meal sets.
A chance to learn about Esperanto from a friendly, multi-lingual owner.
A short trip on the subway from Shinjuku’s attractions, but well worth the trip.

SOJO is one of Tokyo’s most unique and best-value dining opportunities, so I highly recommend a visit to anyone who can make it to Waseda, which is twenty-five minutes by subway from Shinjuku Station, and home to Waseda University, one of Japan’s most prestigious academic institutions.
SOJO means Soy in Esperanto, the world’s most widely spoken constructed language. Esperanto was developed by a Polish Jew in the late nineteenth century, while he was still in high school. He was motivated by a dream of a world in which everyone could communicate with each other, and the peace and understanding which he believed this would foster. As a constructed language, Esperanto has none of the difficulties inherent in languages which evolved over time, such as irregular verbs and tenses, so to reach the same standard in German, English and Esperanto takes 2000, 1500 and 150 hours respectively. Most nouns come from Germanic languages (and many are recognisable from English) and the grammar is mostly from Slavic languages – chosen of course to be as simple to learn and use as possible. Studies have shown that teaching Esperanto to young children makes learning other languages easier in the future.

While many people believe that English has become the world’s language, and Google Translate now makes instant communication possible among almost anyone, the talented owner and chef of SOJO, who is quite a linguist himself, passionately believes that there is still a place for an international language which puts everyone on an equal footing, and while discussions about Esperanto are not compulsory, the restaurant’s décor and trilingual menu (Esperanto, Japanese and English) can’t help but inspire one to at least ponder the merits of everyone in the world speaking one universal language (as well as their own mother tongue).

The menu includes a changing daily dish (for regular visitors from the university), and a few other hearty meals, including a chick-pea curry. The set meals are especially good value; a meal, drink and delicious banana-based ice cream come to around ¥1,200.

Nakano (中野)

This small ward, officially called Nakano City in English, is famous for its manga centre (below) but is also worth visiting for a cluster of vegan and vegetarian restaurants, especially since it’s so easily accessible from Shinjuku.

Gopinatha ($, Vegetarian, Indian/Japanese Fusion, 🥛 , やさい食堂 ゴピナータ)

Wed-Sun: 12:00-14:30, 18:00-20:00; closed Mon-Tue
Five minutes’ walk east of Nakano Station, a few small blocks north of the railway line. Take the North Exit, and then use Google Maps (directions link below) as it’s located in a small alleyway and somewhat difficult to find otherwise. 
164-0001 東京都中野区中野5丁目17−10
Nakano 5-Chome, 17-10
Excellent value meal sets, including both Indian and Japanese fusion food.
Difficult to find without Google Maps.

Gopinatha serves Japan’s best Japanese Indian fusion food. This is no easy feat, because Indian cuisine is based on aromatic spices, while the elegance of Japanese cooking lies in its simplicity, and how its delicate preparation brings out natural flavours. While fans of authentic Indian food may be more satisfied at Veggie Herb Saga (or the neighbouring Veg Kitchen) in Ueno, fans of Japanese and Indian food are likely to enjoy Gopinathas more, as the talented chef here somehow captures the essence of both cuisines. I especially like their Pakoras and the aromatic tomato sauce which comes with them. It’s also great value, with satisfying set meals starting at around ¥1,000.
Sasaya Café (in Asakusa, near the Tokyo Skytree) also serves great Indian Japanese fusion food. Overall Gopinatha’s menu is more Indian and Sasaya’s is more Japanese, but both are very good.

Koenji (高円寺)

Koenji is the centre of Japan’s alternative (underground) culture, and is home to many live houses (pubs which host live bands) and used clothing and record stores, mostly on the south side of Koenji Station. Despite being so close to the hub of Shinjuku, Koenji escaped most of building boom during the 1980s bubble, so it preserves an older Tokyo vibe, with smaller houses and restaurants, in stark contrast to the usual skyscrapers which dominate Shinjuku (and almost everywhere else in Tokyo). This led to cheaper rents, which encouraged artists and musicians, who over the decades have given Koenji its unique character.

Meu Nota ($, Macrobiotic, Fusion, 🌱)

Wed: 17:30-21:30; Thu-Sun: 12:00-14:30, 17:30-21:30; closed Mon-Tue
Five minutes’ walk from Kōenji Station, South Exit.
166-0003 東京都杉並区高円寺南3丁目45−11
Koenji South 3-Chome, 45-11
Variety of delicious vegan fusion cuisine in a cosy atmosphere. 
Reservations required for dinner.

Meu Nota has stood the test of time and become one of Tokyo’s more popular vegan restaurants. Its focus is on healthy grains, but it serves a much wider range of cuisines than most macrobiotic restaurants, including Middle Eastern and Indian options. Lunch sets are excellent value at under ¥1,000, and this is when I recommend visiting. Dinner courses must be reserved in advance (by phone or Facebook) and are either ¥2,500 or ¥3,000, but customers are also expected to order a drink (around ¥500). These prices are reasonable, and the food is good (but not exceptional), so it’s worth considering if you know you’ll be in the area and will be hungry at the time, but I wouldn’t go to Koenji just for dinner (or lunch).

The menu at Meu Nota is not unlike Nagi Shokudo in Shibuya (where most visitors to Koenji are also likely to spend some time) but its prices are lower and its interior is more pleasant, perhaps because rents are cheaper. 



Prices include a drink and dessert if it would be normal to have one at such a meal.

$ = inexpensive ( <¥1000)

$$ = midrange (¥1,000-$2,000)

$$$ = expensive (>¥5000)

Veg Status

For practical reasons I categorise restaurants by the ‘worst’ ingredients used.
🌱 = fully vegan restaurant. 
🥛 = uses dairy, but not egg or meat. 
(In my guidebooks I also have symbols for egg and meat, but I don't recommend any restaurants in these categories in Tokyo except for ones inside Tokyo Disneyland. 
❓ = temporarily closed due to the pandemic or has an uncertain future. 

General Advice for Being Vegan in Tokyo

Use HappyCow

Happycow (Android App) is great for finding nearby restaurants. I recommend keeping it set to vegan, as these restaurants are generally the best (even for vegetarians). As a nation Japanese are probably the most honest in the world, and it's rare to find vegan restaurants serving animal products, but of course it's always a good idea to keep an idea out for animal ingredients, especially fish products, because occasionally foreign travellers misunderstand that a restaurant is vegan (especially tofu and/or vegetable-based restaurants) and then add them to Happycow.

However, I suggest two cautions with Happycow. Firstly, take reviews with a grain of salt. In Japan standards of food (and everything) are very high, and portions are very small. So almost every restaurant has had a few foreign diners turn up hungry having just arrived in Japan -- or having been travelling rural Japan where there are no vegan restaurants) and be so delighted with their meal that they consider it the best of their life, go back to their room and write it a glowing review. Likewise, many restaurants have had a foreign tourist horrified by the 'Japanese' (small) size of the meal and go and write a bitter review on how they spent ¥2,000 on what was like a snack.

Happycow is much more useful in Tokyo than in Kyoto. In Tokyo most restaurants serve either macrobiotic food, falafel, or Indian food, and while I have a few favourites (like Vege Herb Saga and the Loving Hut) there are few-standouts, while Tokyo's tourist attractions are very widely spread out, so I suggest planning your day around attractions and eating at whatever restaurants you can find nearby on Happycow.

Kyoto, by comparison, has a huge range of vegan restaurants, from 'cheap & cheerful' tourist traps to high-end shojin ryori (vegan Buddhist) cuisine. Also, the city is much smaller, so with careful planning (which I do for my readers in my guidebook) it's possible to go visit your chosen tourist attractions (which are mostly on a few well-trodden temple hopping paths) and restaurants, wherever you decide to eat. It's therefore very important to choose your Kyoto restaurants carefully. While Happycow is certainly invaluable, the downside is that most reviews are written by people who are not familiar with Japanese cuisine and only dine at a small number of restaurants, so comparing restaurants by their Happycow reviews can be misleading.