Sad but true, as a vegetarian or vegan, often times restaurants in Japan are either going to be too treacherous or have too limited a selection for you. There’s the sushi restaurant, which is naturally going to be mostly about raw seafood on rice. Then there are all those very meaty restaurants with their yakiniku (primarily grilled beef), Kobe steak, or grilled chicken parts (“yakitori”).
Your best options when faced with a selection of mainstream restaurants is going to be the izakaya.
Simply put, the izakaya is a restaurant for enjoying various small plates. In a way, you could say it’s like the Japanese version of a Spanish tapas restaurant. Lots of people also get their drink on at izakayas, but this is a completely optional aspect of the experience. The atmosphere tends to be boisterous, fun, and uniquely Japanese.
It’s doubtful that a vegetarian, let alone vegan, izakaya exists, but there are dishes that will meet your needs. Edamame, something you may be familiar with from Japanese food abroad, is nothing more than steamed and salted soybeans in the husk. Pop ‘em out right into your mouth — they’re delicious!
Vegetarian stir-fry is not a standard menu item, but your wishes can most often be accommodated. Country-style Japanese eggplant (“nasu”) or boiled spinach (“ohitashi”) dishes, both generally served chilled, are also sometimes available. On the starch front, white rice is also always at the ready, as is usually a mound of fried potatoes — though strict vegetarians should be vigilant amount what else might be fried in that same oil. Potato salad is an always popular item too, but can sometimes be made with bits of ham or seafood, so do be sure to ask before ordering (see our handy language guide for assistance).
The cold tofu dish “hiyayakko” can be made vegetarian, but usually comes with some dried fish flakes (“katsuo bushi”) on top, so you’ll have to make some tweaks at time of order. Other standbys include pizza, tamago yaki (a firm, cubed omelette), rice balls, tsukemono (japanese style pickles), and vegetable kushi yaki (grilled, skewered vegetables).
Izakayas are nothing if not casual and friendly, so you’re not going to get attitude about trying to eat vegetarian. Just explain your dietary restrictions, and most likely they will come up with some good ideas for you!