Vegan eating in Kyoto means much more than shōjin ryōri

by Ashley Owen

Contributing Writer

With its multitude of temples, Kyoto has a long history of the typically vegetarian or vegan Buddhist cuisine known as shōjin ryōri. It’s no surprise then, that Japan’s ancient capital is still something of a mecca for vegetarian and vegan visitors. Those wishing to sample this traditional vegetarian Buddhist cuisine have plenty of options to choose from, with numerous temples in the city offering set meals to suit a range of budgets. Whichever you choose, you’ll invariably be treated to an impeccably presented selection of simple, yet delicious, meat-free dishes.

Plant-based food in Kyoto is by no means limited to this kind of fare, however. Many modern vegetarian and vegan restaurants are popping up all over the city, complete with inspiring menus that challenge common preconceptions about vegan food being bland and boring.

One such establishment is Ukishima Garden, which opened two years ago in Nakagyo Ward. Its website describes the menu as “contemporary vegan meets shōjin cuisine.” Intrigued by this concept, I asked the owner, Naoko Nakasone, to elaborate over tea in the restaurant’s elegant rear dining room. “Shōjin is always in our hearts,” she explained. “But it’s sometimes too simple. We want to incorporate modern types of food so that it becomes more exciting. How we present it is more contemporary, too.”

This feeling is evident in Ukishima’s menu, which features a mixture of dishes that range from vegetarian versions of carbonara, risotto and “hamburger” steak to Japanese classics like ramen and sushi. The restaurant specializes in using millet and other grains to create meat- or fish-like textures, the creativity and versatility of which Nakasone hopes will help to change people’s perspectives on vegan food. The restaurant also uses only local, organic and seasonal ingredients. “We think about what everyone wants to eat in this season, this temperature, together with the vegetables that are in season,” Nakasone explains. “We hope to harmonize all those aspects.”

Of course, not every establishment in this new wave of vegan restaurants is so keen to retain this connection to the city’s traditional veggie cuisine. When I ask Harue Suzuki, the owner of the vegan restaurant Choice in Higashiyama Ward, whether shōjin ryōri was an inspiration for her menu, the answer is a flat “no.” Instead, she wants people to be able to come to Choice and “eat what they eat at other fancy restaurants, and then find out that as well as being delicious, it’s also vegan.”

As a medical doctor, Suzuki’s decision to open a vegan restaurant was also driven by a desire to be able to show her patients the type of meals she believes they should be eating. “We studied what food is best for us and for our health, as well as what tastes good, and used this to determine the menu we should provide,” she says. As well as being plant-based and almost completely gluten-free, this means using only organic, unprocessed, whole food ingredients.

Choice’s strong focus on vegan cheese illustrates how far the plant-based food scene in Kyoto has developed from conventional shōjin ryōri. Suzuki and her team traveled to the U.S. to study how to make properly fermented vegan cheese and, having tweaked the techniques to suit Kyoto’s climate, now create a truly impressive range of flavors on-site including smoky, rum raisin, chlorella and cranberry, and a unique variety made with sanshō (Japanese pepper).

Unlike many vegan restaurants which merely use their cheese alternatives as a pleasant but unremarkable addition to their dishes, Choice proudly places its versions center stage with cheese plates and even a fondue. And justifiably so — the flavors and textures they’ve created easily surpass the competition, and are authentic enough to satisfy even the most ardent cheese connoisseur.

It’s not just restaurants that are embracing plant-based cuisine outside of the temple environment. Hitsuji no Kaze is an all-vegan bakery in Nishikyo Ward run by Naomi and Shinya Hikami. As well as bread and cakes, they create animal product-free versions of classic Japanese baked goods such as meron pan (a sweet bun with a crispy exterior) and different flavors of cream buns, including green tea, chocolate and kinako (roasted soy bean flour).

“Green tea bread is our specialty,” Naomi explains as she shows me around their small and homely shop. “It’s quite rare.” As well as being uncommon it’s also very reasonably priced, and I can’t help but leave with a bag full of tasty treats.

There’s no doubt that Kyoto’s long history of shōjin ryōri still has an influence on the veggie food scene here today, however both Suzuki and the Hikamis point to another factor they believe has helped to create the city’s vegetarian-friendly nature: foreign visitors. “There are a lot of foreign tourists and students in Kyoto,” Naomi tells me. “That’s another reason why there are lots of vegan places here.”

Much like the city itself, the vegan scene in Kyoto is a fascinating blend of the historical and the modern, the traditional and the innovative. One thing’s for sure: you won’t get bored of either.