Shojin Ryori

 Buddhism in Japan is an abomination of the Buddha’s message of compassion and non-violence (and the first precept of not to 'take life'), perhaps in part because it’s been mostly carried down through the generations by samurai warriors. Buddhist Temples have, however, preserved the traditional of shojin ryori (精進料), traditional Japanese Buddhist cuisine, which applies principles of Japanese cuisine – especially its standards of elegance and simplicity – to the traditional Chinese Buddhist diet.

Shojin ryori is (or at least should be) vegan (see below) and it also shouldn't contain onion, garlic or similar “pungent” root vegetables.

This is a typical mid-range shojin ryori meal, from what was previously Hiroshima's only vegan restaurant, but unfortunately it has permanently closed.

Shojin ryori is usually expensive, with simplest sets (like the one in the photo above) starting at around ¥4,000. Most real shojin ryori restaurants are located inside temples and serve only a limited number of guests at a time, who normally eat in their own private dining rooms. Food is brought out in several servings, each beautifully presented, and should be enjoyed over a long period of time. The meals are carefully crafted to include all taste sensations, resulting in a very satisfying meal without the diner feeling heavy or bloated afterwards. Shojin ryori is dining at its very best, and the experience can really feel like you’ve reached Nirvana, especially after days of juice-and-peanut cuisine from convenience stores (see below). But it’s also dining at its most expensive: a traditional shojin ryori meal can easy cost over ¥10,000 (US$100) per person.

While Tenryu Shigetsu in Kyoto (see photo below) takes walk-in individual customers during the quiet season (that’s most times except during the cherry blossoms and autumn leaves) and serves basic shojin ryori meals at the bargain price of ¥3,800, most shojin ryori restaurants require reservations well in advance (usually at least three days) as the food is bought and prepared especially for the number of scheduled diners.

By far the most popular most inexpensive and most convenient place to try shojin ryori is Tenruji Shigetsu in Arashiyama, Kyoto. This meal costs about ¥4,000, and while reservations are always recommended, they sometimes allow single walk-in customers.

By tradition, shojin ryori should be all vegan, with meals made only from fresh fruits and vegetables and legumes, often grown locally. Unfortunately, however, Buddhist monks in Japan eat meat, and unlike in China, Korea and Taiwan, where Buddhist temples at least promote vegetarianism to non-vegetarians little if any effort is made by Buddhist monks in Japan to promote vegetarianism or veganism as a lifestyle. Shojin ryori is simply offered as a special treat to lay followers, usually for families or groups on special occasions. It’s not surprising, therefore, that there have been recent cases of dairy and egg-based ingredients turning up in meals, with monks explaining to disappointed vegan diners that, since animals aren’t killed for these ingredients, they consider them acceptable. This is the exception not the norm, but unfortunately it’s still necessary to be on the alert for animal products in your food at all shojin ryori restaurants.

While Japanese are on average among the most honest people in the world, the high price tag of shojin ryori relative to its low ingredients costs (fresh vegetables and dried legumes), makes it prone to abuse, especially in Kyoto, where an ever-growing stream of visitors (both domestic and foreign) are arriving with shojin ryori on their agenda. I recommend only eating shojin ryori in bone fide Buddhist temples, and never eat “shojin ryori” from restaurants which also serve non-vegetarian food; it’s almost certain to be fake.

A meal like this costs most of ¥10,000, but is a dining experience of a lifetime. 

If your budget will allow it, I highly recommend trying shojin ryori at least once in Japan, even if it means cutting your travels short by a day or even cutting out big-ticket temples (it’ll take a lot of temples though) because you’ll probably remember the dining experience well after the memories of the temples have faded. Tenryu Shigetsu, located inside Tenruji Temple in Arashiyama, which everyone visits for the adjacent Bamboo Grove, offers a taste of shojin ryori dining, but it’s not the full experience because the meals are prepared in bulk, and diners share a large tatami room with other guests. But it’s a great option for lunch in Arashiyama, whether or not you try the more authentic (and more expensive) shojin ryori experience at Kanga An (see photo above) or several other temples like it.

An extra special way to enjoy shojin ryori is to stay at a Buddhist temple. While it's not cheap (a night's accommodation and to meals typically costs ¥10,000-¥20,000) it usually works out cheaper than an equivalent night's accommodation and the two meals would cost separately. The best place to enjoy shukubo (temple lodging) is at the beautiful mountain retreat of Koyasan

dinner at Eko-in, a temple at Koyasan which is famous for having young, English-speaking monks. This meal is brought to the guest's room. At other temples, guests enjoy their meals in separate, private temple rooms.

Little Heaven in Arashiyama serves shojin-like meals in the comforts of a Western-style restaurant, and its food is at least as good as the top temples. Its owner used to run a vegan restaurant in Tokyo when I lived there, and I am more confident that his food is vegan than I am at any temples in Japan.

Other Japanese Cuisines

If you're interested in Japanese cuisine, you may also enjoy macrobiotic cuisine, Japan's other mostly-vegan cuisine. It's usually not a fine dining experience, but it doesn't (usually) require reservations in advance, it's almost as healthy, and it's usually quite inexpensive. If you travel all over Japan then chances are you'll eat a lot of macrobiotic food outside the main city centres, as it's usually all that's available. There are also some great macrobiotic restaurants in Kyoto.

There are also several great Taiwanese vegetarian restaurants in Japan, especially in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka. They are especially popular for Taiwanese tourists and others who for spiritual or religious reasons don't eat onion, garlic or other 'pungent' vegetables.

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