Vegan Kyoto Travel Guide
Kyoto was the first city I explored on my month-long visit to Japan, and I was amazed at how easy it was to be vegan in Kyoto.
When I first became vegan five years ago, I researched vegan food in Japan in anticipation of traveling there one day. The results were pretty discouraging. It seemed that every dish had fish lurking in it somewhere.
And while that’s still true today, Japan has become much more vegan friendly in the past five years. Or even in the past two years, since this guide to being vegan in Japan was first written. I’ll be updating that guide very soon, so stay tuned for that!
Local restaurants have realized that many foreign visitors are looking for vegetarian or vegan food, and they have responded to the demand.
This is especially true in Kyoto, one of the country’s top tourism destinations.
Also, despite the almost ubiquitous presence of fish, there are some Kyoto specialties that are already naturally vegan. One of the most famous local specialties is shojin ryori, the vegetarian cuisine found in Buddhist temples.
In this vegan Kyoto travel guide, I’ll share with you some of my favorite vegan and vegan friendly restaurants as well as intrinsically vegan local foods to seek out.
Vegan Kyoto Specialties
Here are a few local Kyoto dishes and cooking styles that are vegan by default.
Sometimes known as temple food, this purely plant-based cuisine originated in Buddhist temples. A series of small dishes, usually featuring tofu, yuba and local vegetables, are carefully prepared and presented.
I recommend going to an actual temple to eat shojin ryori, as that’s the best way to ensure that what you’re getting is authentic and vegan. Some restaurants claim to serve shojin ryori but actually use fish-based dashi (stock) in many of the dishes.
See my description of the Tenryu-ji Shigetsu temple restaurant in the Vegan Restaurants in Kyoto section below. Note that Ukishima Garden, one of the more well-known shojin ryori restaurants among foreigners in Kyoto, has now relocated to Okinawa.
These traditional Japanese sweets also have their origins in Buddhist traditions and are therefore completely plant-based, with no eggs, milk or gelatin used.
At least, that’s the case for the ones served at Japanese tea ceremonies. The ones sold in convenience stores are more likely to have extra ingredients like eggs or dairy added. If you buy them at pure wagashi shops, where the quality is much better, you should be safe.
Wagashi is actually a very broad term that encompasses any kind of local Japanese sweet, as opposed to Western-style cakes and pastries. Mochi is a popular type of wagashi made from sticky rice flour.
This traditional Kyoto sweet is made of rice flour, sugar and cinnamon. It’s sold in many shops in Kyoto as a souvenir.
There are two types of yatsuhashi — baked and raw. The baked ones are like crunchy cinnamon cookies, whereas the raw ones are soft and often shaped into triangle pockets with red bean paste or another filling inside. All the fillings are vegan apart from the chocolate paste.
And then there are other Kyoto cooking traditions that are very much vegetable-forward, but often not completely vegan. Like everywhere else in Japan, you have to watch out for dashi, the ubiquitous stock used to make soups and sauces.
While it’s possible to make vegan dashi with kombu seaweed and/or shitake mushrooms, the most common types are katsuo dashi and niboshi dashi, both of which are made from fish.
This is a type of home-style cooking in Kyoto that is very much focused on using local, seasonal vegetables. It’s the kind of food that local mothers and grandmothers cook for their families.
In order for food to be considered as obanzai, at least half of the ingredients have to be produced or processed inside Kyoto.
Another important aspect of obanzai is reducing food waste as much as possible. Obanzai chefs are adept at finding uses for ingredients that are normally thrown away.
Again, just because it looks like a vegetable dish doesn’t mean it’s vegan, and sea creatures do feature rather heavily in obanzai. One vegetarian obanzai restaurant is Arashiyama-Kan, recommended by Craig and Helen who run the Sanbiki Neko vegan guesthouse.
Tofu and Yuba Restaurants
Kyoto is famous for its tofu and other soy-based products such as yuba. Yuba, also known as tofu skin, is made by drying the film that appears on the top of soy milk when it’s boiled.
In Kyoto, you’ll find a number of restaurants that specialize in soy products and serve multi-course meals featuring many different kinds of tofu. While it sounds like a vegan’s dream, you still need to check carefully.
Most chefs will still use fish-based dashi to make what would appear to be a fully vegan tofu dish. Fellow vegan travelers may add these restaurants to HappyCow without realizing this.
Always read several reviews first, and try to find at least one review written by someone who speaks Japanese and has confirmed that the dishes are in fact vegan.
Some tofu restaurants and yuba restaurants can adapt their dishes to be vegan if given advance notice. Yuba Seike, for example, offers high-end, multi-course meals served in the traditional kaiseki style. It’s possible to request a vegan version when reserving through their website.
Where to Eat as a Vegan in Kyoto
Vegan Restaurants in Kyoto
If you want to experience shojin ryori Buddhist temple cuisine while you’re in Kyoto, I highly recommend Shigetsu. Firstly, because it’s actually located inside a temple. And secondly, because it’s one of the most budget-friendly options for shojin ryori, which can be quite expensive at other places.
The restaurant is located inside the gardens of the Tenryu-ji temple in the Arashiyama area, near the famous bamboo forest. It’s open only for lunch and offers a few different set menus.
We got the cheapest one, at 3,300 yen per person, which was more than enough food. Keep in mind that you also have to pay the 500 yen entrance fee for the temple grounds.
According to the description on the website, our lunch set included rice, soup and five side dishes. But really there were more like seven dishes, and I was very full by the end of it.
You sit on the floor on tatami mats and eat at a low table while gazing out at the beautiful gardens. At the time I didn’t really know what I was eating, but when I emailed the restaurant afterward they sent me the menu.
Most of the ingredients were seasonal, so it will be different if you go at another time of year. Shojin ryori is a quintessential Kyoto experience, and I highly recommend trying it at Shigetsu.
Advance bookings are essential and can be made on the temple’s website. You’re supposed to give at least three days’ notice, although we managed to get a reservation for the next day.
Tucked away down a narrow corridor inside the loud and bustling Nishiki Market, stepping into this traditional Japanese restaurant is like stepping into a whole different world. The peace that reigns here is quite a contrast to the chaos just a few steps away.
For 1,500 yen, they offer a lunch set menu that changes daily. When I visited, the main dish was a yuba and mushroom rice bowl, accompanied by various tofu and vegetable dishes.
This place is listed as vegetarian in HappyCow, but everything in my lunch was vegan, and I’ve been told by locals that’s always the case.
It’s very easy to miss, so keep an eye out for the small glass door pictured below. If you need to ask the market vendors for directions, it’s pronounced as two syllables (ha-leh).
Itadaki Zen Kyoto
As much as I enjoyed my meal at Hale, as Japanese set lunches go I liked the one at Itadaki Zen even more. I’d actually eaten at a branch of Itadaki Zen a couple of years earlier, but not in Japan.
In addition to their branches in Kyoto, Sapporo, Kanazawa and Nagoya, Itadaki Zen also has a couple of locations in England. My first Itadaki Zen experience was at the one in King’s Cross in London (yes, King’s Cross of platform 9¾ fame).
This was the first fully vegan and organic Japanese restaurant to open in the UK. And until my trip to Japan, it was one of the only places where I’d ever tasted Japanese food that wasn’t sushi.
After spending one month in Japan, I can look back and say that what I ate in King’s Cross was very authentic. And of course, so is the food at the Kyoto location.
The lunch set comes with a main dish, rice, soup and three side dishes. Usually, in Japan, everyone is served the same lunch set meal, but here you get to choose from four main dishes.
I jumped at the chance to have a Korean pancake, which I had been craving ever since we’d left South Korea. The other main dish options were spring rolls, veggie meatballs and tofu steak.
Everything was incredibly delicious, and at just 1,000 yen it was one of the best value meals of our whole Japan trip.
Vegan Ramen TowZen
Located in the north of the city, TowZen Ramen is a bit far from most of Kyoto’s attractions, so you might be tempted to skip it. Don’t!
The ramen here is absolutely incredible. Trust me, you don’t want to miss it.
With low tables and tatami mat seating, it looks like any typical ramen joint in Japan. The difference is, this one is fully vegan. And, unlike most vegan restaurants in Japan, it’s actually run by vegan owners.
You start by choosing from two types of broth — the tantan broth with soy meat or the musashi broth with mushrooms and nori. Both are made with a soy milk base, and you can choose how spicy you want it.
Then you choose the amount and type of noodles you want (rice noodles are available if you’re gluten-free) and any healthy add-ons like chlorella, charcoal or B12.
Get ready to be wowed by the umami flavors! I’m still dreaming about this bowl of ramen.
To get here, the closest train station on the Keihan line is Chayama Station. Or you could get off earlier at Demachiyanagi Station and enjoy a 25 minute walk along the Kamo river.
My friend Lilia from Blue Vagabond took me and Nick to dinner here and told us it was one of her favorite restaurants in Kyoto. She has good taste! The food was so amazing that we went back two more times.
Morpho’s menu is a mix of Asian and Western dishes. I’m absolutely in love with their fish burger and also their curry ramen soup. I normally like to try as many different restaurants and dishes as possible, but Nick and I couldn’t help ourselves from ordering these same two things over and over again.
The guy who runs the place is quite friendly too. This place is conveniently located on a major street called Horikawa-dori, close to Nijo Castle and the Kyoto Imperial Palace.
Ain Soph is a popular vegan restaurant chain with several branches in Tokyo, and in 2018 they opened one in Kyoto as well. You’ll find mostly Western food on the menu, so it’s not the place to come for a traditional Japanese experience.
I was actually planning to skip this place in favor of more local restaurants, but when we passed by the burgers on the menu out front looked so good that we had to try them. And they did not disappoint!
At the Kyoto branch, I ordered the crispy soy chicken burger, which was very good but a little too salty. Later on, in Tokyo, I tried their classic Ripple Cheeseburger, and it was one of the best burgers I’ve ever had. Nick also ordered that one in Kyoto and confirmed that it was equally good at both locations.
Asian options include some curry dishes and kara age (Japanese fried chicken), but I could never make it passed the burger page of the menu. The restaurant has a cozy interior and is in a very central location near Nishiki Market.
This is a very health-focused restaurant where everything is gluten-free and plant-based. There’s a bookshelf full of titled on plant-based nutrition and healthy eating, so you can read How Not to Die by Dr. Greger while you wait for your food to arrive.
We went here just for their vegan cheese platter and a couple of glasses of wine before heading elsewhere for dinner. Their fermented cheeses come in a variety of flavors and were all made in house.
Platters include three, four or five different kinds of cheese and range in price from 1,200 to 1,800 yen. One of our cheeses was a curry flavor that was a bit odd, but the others were really delicious and paired well with the wine.
They’re a bit stingy with the crackers, though, so you’ll probably need to order extra.
The rest of the menu didn’t look that inspiring to me. It was a mix of organic pasta, brown rice dishes, quiches, burgers and sandwiches. They do serve pancakes and vegan egg sandwiches for breakfast, though, which could be interesting.
Kyoto is famous for its tofu, and there used to a family-run tofu shop on virtually every street corner. A few of them have survived, like this one that’s been around for more than 200 years.
Soy milk and various types of tofu are made fresh each day, along with vegan doughnuts and cakes. As far as I could see, everything in the shop was vegan.
Keep in mind that there are no places to sit, as it’s not a restaurant. It’s not even really a takeaway eatery. Instead, it’s where locals come to buy tofu that they then use in the meals they cook at home. But the owners are very friendly and will warm up the tofu if you want to eat it on the spot.
There’s no English sign, although there is a chalkboard out front with one English word that sticks out amidst all the Japanese. Wanna guess what that word is?
To find the shop on Google Maps, search for 入山とうふ店. It’s near Nijo Castle.
The majority of Kyoto’s veggie restaurants are fully vegan. It wasn’t until I was putting together this list that I realized I didn’t eat at any Kyoto vegetarian restaurants.
However, there are a number of vegan-friendly restaurants that cater to vegans and non-vegans alike. They offer some of the best opportunities to taste vegan versions of traditional Kyoto foods. Here are some of my favorites.
Vegan-Friendly Restaurants in Kyoto
Mimikou is a no-nonsense, budget-friendly eatery that specializes in udon noodle soup. The paper bib they give you when you order should be a hint that this is not a fancy schmancy place.
At about 1,000 yen for a bowl of udon, it’s a pretty great deal. Although I recommend paying an extra 250 yen or so to add some vegetable tempura to your bowl. It really adds a nice crunchy texture.
I do recommend wearing the bib, as those udon noodles can really splatter when you slurp them! The broth is thick and flavorful. Overall, a solid choice near the Yasaka-jinja shrine.
They have a separate vegetarian menu, which is actually a vegan menu. It states clearly at the top that all dishes are completely free of animal products, and that the dashi (stock) is made from seaweed, not fish.
Just a couple of doors down from Mimikou, this place is very hidden up a tiny stairwell. I walked past it several times without realizing it and eventually had to add a local shopkeeper how to find it.
It’s certainly a step up in both price and ambiance compared with Mimikou. But if you’re not on a supertight budget it’s a great option for a special dinner, particularly for couples.
They offer a six-course veggie set menu that costs 5,200 yen for two people. Each dish was full of flavor and was carefully presented, although the low mood lighting meant that I didn’t get any great photos of the food.
Even the daikon radish, which I normally don’t like, was melt-in-your-mouth and topped with a delicious shitake mushroom sauce.
My favorite course, though, was the Kyoto-style okonomoyaki. This is a local specialty in the Kansai region and is a type of filled, savory pancake. There’s also a variation famous in Hiroshima that’s made with noodles.
Normally okonomoyaki contains eggs (and often many other non-vegan ingredients too), but Oagari can make a vegan one!
And if your budget won’t stretch to cover the full set menu, you can also get just the okonomoyaki for 1,300 yen.
This is a very popular option if you want to have the class conveyor belt sushi experience in Japan. And when I say “very popular”, I mean get here before 6:30 pm if you don’t want to wait to be seated for dinner.
They have two locations, one near Kyoto station and another one near Gion, which is the one we went to. Like at all conveyor belt sushi restaurants, also known as “sushi train” restaurants, you sit at the bar and watch as small plates of sushi roll past on a conveyor belt.
When you see one you like, just grab it off the belt. Once you’ve finished eating, the staff will count up the plates to determine your bill. Prices vary depending on the color of the plate.
One advantage of being a vegan in a conveyor belt sushi restaurant is that the vegan options are inevitably the cheapest ones.
Musashi Sushi offers four types of vegan maki rolls (cucumber, Japanese pickle, Japanese plum & labiate, and fermented soybeans) and two vegan sashimi (grilled corn and eggplant)
We spotted a few other vegan options on the belt, like candied sweet potatoes and inari sushi. The latter are triangles of rice wrapped in tofu and have a sweet taste.
If there aren’t enough vegan options coming through, ask the staff and they will get the chef to make some for you.
While there are enough options to make a full meal, I must say that in general I was disappointed with vegan sushi in Japan in general. It’s tasty enough, but it’s not very creative.
I’ve had incredible vegan sushi at Legumi Sushi, one of the best vegan restaurants in Lisbon. And at Sushimar, an all-vegan restaurant in São Paulo, Brazil where the sushi is as beautiful as it is delicious. I never found anything like this in Japan. If you do, please let me know!
Chao Chao Gyoza
This is a small, casual eatery specializing in gyoza (Japanese dumplings). They have a separate vegetarian menu, but, unlike at other Kyoto restaurants, most of the vegetarian items are not vegan.
Of the various gyoza, the only vegan ones are the yuba gyoza. These gyoza are unique because yuba is used in place of the usual wheat-based wrapper. On the inside, they’re filled with freeze-dried tofu. Actually, the apple pie sweet dumplings are vegan too, they’re just not marked as such.
We also ordered deep-fried tofu as a side dish, which was excellent. Other vegan sides include cabbage in salty sauce, bean sprout salad, vegetable salad in salty sauce and French fries. Everything we had was good, but I wish they’d add a few more vegan gyoza to the menu.
This famous market in the center of Kyoto is a fun place to explore if you’re a foodie. And there’s plenty of vegan stuff here if you know where to look.
My friend Lilia has been living as a vegan in Kyoto for several years now and has written a thorough guide to all the vegan options at Nishiki Market. She has lots of other great articles on vegan stuff in Kyoto too, so be sure to browse around her blog Blue Vagabond while you’re there!
Of course, like in all markets, you’re bound to see dead animals being sold as food. But since Japanese people eat mostly fish and other small sea creatures rather than land animals, I found this market to have fewer gory sights than those in other parts of the world.
This national chain specializes in Japanese curry, which is quite popular in Japan and also quite different from curry in India or Southeast Asia. Some branches have a vegetarian menu, which is completely vegan.
But beware, not every branch offers this menu! And the ones that don’t basically have no vegan options, since even the vegetable curry uses a non-vegan stock as the base for the sauce. In Kyoto, the Nakagyo and Shimogyo-ku branches both offer the vegan menu and are marked on HappyCow.
Another word of warning: the spice levels are really quite spicy here! I ordered a level three but would go down a notch to level two if I ever returned. It’s not really a must-try in Kyoto, where there are so many great vegan restaurants, but it’s useful to know about in case you’re traveling to cities with fewer options.
In addition to Coco Ichibanya, there’s another curry restaurant in Kyoto called Makarimo Curry that’s fully vegan. It gets great reviews, but I didn’t have a chance to try it. If you make it there, tell me about it in the comments!
We actually ate our very first meal in Japan at Falafel Garden. Which seems a bit weird, since I was really excited about discovering Japanese cuisine. But Nick had been craving hummus for months (it’s rare in Asia), so when we saw an ad for Falafel Garden in the train station we followed it.
This Israeli-run place is in the north of the city and offers falafel, hummus and other Middle Eastern fare, with plenty of marked vegan options. Their food is delicious, but the hummus portion was tiny! We only got a few bites each and it was gone.
Of course, portion sizes are small in Japan across the board, but this seemed like pretty poor value for 700 yen. I would go back for the yummy falafel sandwiches, but I wouldn’t order hummus again unless I was desperate.
For a traditional Japanese nightlife experience, head to Renkon-Ya. It’s an izakaya, which is sort of the Japanese equivalent of a tapas bar in Spain. They are often called gastropubs, due to the equal emphasis on both eating and drinking.
I absolutely loved the atmosphere in this intimate bar, which has just a couple of tables, some bar seating and a tatami mat area, which is where we sat. It’s run by two friendly women who don’t speak much English, but they do have an English menu.
The vegan options are clearly marked, but when we visited there weren’t enough of them to make a full meal. It was mostly bar snacks like edamame, roasted gingko nuts (ginnan), cooked black soy beans (kuro mame), and rice balls filled with salted plums (umeboshi onigiri).
This was in November, though, and then menu does change seasonally, so maybe you’ll find more options when you go. In any case, I recommend coming here for sake and snacks either before or after dinner.
As an aside, I later visited izakaya with lots more vegan options in Tokyo and Matsumoto, but this one still had the best atmosphere of the three of them.
Vegan Kyoto Map
Here’s a map with all the vegan restaurants, vegan-friendly restaurants and accommodations desribed in this article.
Vegan Gourmet Festival
We didn’t plan this at all, but our visit to Kyoto happened to coincide with the annual Vegan Gourmet Festival! To be honest, it definitely wasn’t among the best Veg Fests I’ve been to.
Even so, it was exciting to see so many locals coming out to try the vegan food. Most of which sold out pretty quickly!
But I managed to grab a couple of veganized local specialties before they disappeared. The first was curry bread, a typical Japanese bread roll stuffed with curry, and the second was takoyaki, fried balls of batter than in this case were filled with mushrooms rather than octopus.
Where to Stay in Kyoto
Vegan Minshuku Sanbiki Neko
I stayed in three different accommodations in Kyoto, and this was hands down the best of the three.
It’s run by a couple of longtime vegans and offers a traditional Japanese minshuku (guesthouse) experience, with comfortable tatami mat rooms and an incredible homemade vegan breakfast. Yukata (Japanese-style robes) are provided for lounging around in.
Sanbiki Neko is located in a quiet residential neighborhood in the southern part of the city, convenient for visiting the Fushimi Inari shrine, the Kiyomizu-dera temple and the Tofuku-ji temple.
It’s a step up in quality and price from the two budget hostels listed below. Even if it’s beyond your normal budget, I recommend staying here for at least one night for the experience.
Hostel Otro Mundo
This backpacker hostel is run by Spaniards (hence the name) and has an earthy, hippy vibe. Both tatami and Western-style rooms are available, and they have dorms as well as private rooms. The staff are friendly and happy to store your bags before check-in or after check-out.
JAM Hostel Kyoto Gion
This hostel is centrally located in Gion, above a sake bar that’s run by the same management. Both dorms and private rooms are available, and there’s a common area with laundry facilities.
Our room here was good value, but the service from the staff was horrendous. When we arrived before the 3 pm check-in time, they wouldn’t even let us inside to leave our bags there. So we had to go back to the train station and pay to store them in a locker there.
We had to sign a paper agreeing to a huge list of rules, which was quite off-putting. The woman who checked us in was also incredibly slow and inefficient at finding our booking, and then tried to overcharge us. Once we finally made it into the room it was fine, but I can’t really recommend it due to the unfriendly and incompetent staff.
Many thanks to Vegan Minshuku Sanbiki Neko for hosting me. As always, I only recommend products and services that I genuinely like and think you will too.