• ビーガン旅行者 – 京都 •
Ideal for the inquisitive traveler, Japan’s wealth of impressive historical sites, refined architectural beauty, and simply elegant cuisine present a sometimes quirky, often beautiful, and always surprising destination to explore. At its heart lies Kyoto, the city that best exemplifies the treasures that Japan has to offer.
My trip began in Yokohama, a city whose population of over 3.5 million makes it the second largest in the country after Tokyo. I didn’t have much time to spend in Yokohama, so I managed to quickly check out the Minatomachi and Chinatown districts, as well as take a stroll in a couple of the many parks along the scenic waterfront before I caught a train to Kamakura.
A charming seaside city famous for its shrines and temples, most notably the Great Buddha (Daibutsu) temple, Kamakura is a mere 25 minutes away by train, but is worlds away from the hustle of Yokohama. Exiting the train station, I walked left toward the Komachi-dori Shopping Street where you’ll find an interesting mix of handicrafts, souvenirs, and snack foods. I couldn’t resist buying some roasted soybeans and a couple boxes of my favorite candied yuzu peel. At the end of this street you’ll find yourself approaching the Hachiman-gu shrine, a large and important Shinto shrine that dates back to the 11th century. After exploring and reflecting, I headed back to the train station to catch the Enoden Electrical Railway to Hase, the station closest to a few other interesting sites.
From Hase station, I walked left toward the beach to have lunch at Magokoro, a cozy restaurant specializing in hemp-based foods with some options for vegans. Located right on the seaside promenade, the place is small but the beach view from the large windows makes up for it. I had a Japanese-style curry with brown rice, hemp seeds, cauliflower, lotus root, and leeks with a small side salad. The curry was very flavorful and filling, albeit slightly too salty. Having been hungry from walking around all morning, however, I didn’t mind it much. After eating, I walked over to the beach and watched a few intrepid surfers and a couple of families enjoying their afternoon. This was off-season in this otherwise lively tourist town, so the beach was pleasantly empty.
2-8-11 Kanagawa-ken, Kamakura-shi, Hase, Kamakura
I then walked back toward Hase station and visited Hase-dera temple, remarkable for the hundreds of hydrangea bushes planted along its winding mountainside paths. I visited in January so neither hydrangeas nor cherry blossoms were in season, but the unseasonably warm winter temperatures had forced the ume plum trees to blossom a few weeks early, adding pops of color among the winter vegetation! The temple is delightful and features koi ponds, rock gardens, and sweeping views over the rooftops of Kamakura.
Just a short walk from Hase-dera is the Kotoku-in temple, home of the Great Buddha, a recognizable symbol of Kamakura and Japan as a whole. After a positively serene experience in Kamakura, I made my way back to the train station and headed back to Yokohama in order to catch a train to Kyoto.
I arrived in Kyoto around two hours later after a comfortable ride on the Shinkansen bullet train. Kyoto is the Japan of imagination, and is one of my favorite cities in the world. A former capital of the country, Kyoto is incredibly rich in historical and cultural sites that dazzle the traveler. And fellow vegan travelers rejoice—there are a bunch of vegan food options!
By the time my train pulled into the massive Kyoto central train station, it was already late at night. Therefore, I decided to go directly to my hotel and start sightseeing in the early morning. For the few times I’ve been to Kyoto, I’ve chosen to stay at hotels right near the central train station. Because it is within walking distance to shops, convenience stores, reliable ATMs, and most importantly, to the city bus terminal, I think this location cannot be beat.
Since I got into the city so late, going out to dinner was not an option, so I hopped over to one of the many convenience stores near the train station and found a plethora of fresh onigiri rice balls to make a meal out of. These simple and satisfying rice snacks contain different fillings and are wrapped in nori seaweed. They are very popular and can be found in the refrigerator case of any convenience store. Just be careful what you buy, as some fillings are not vegan. If you don’t read Japanese, you’ll need some help knowing what’s what. The store clerks most likely won’t be able to help you if you ask in English, so do like I did and write down these common fillings and match them to the label. Some delicious vegan options to know are umeboshi (pickled Japanese plum/apricot)–梅 or うめ, takana (mustard greens)–高菜, and kombu (kelp)–こんぶ. I also picked up some pickled vegetables, dried vegetable chips, and bottled teas to make myself a filling dinner in my hotel room.
The next day I headed out with my handy bus guide and schedule (pick them up at the tourist office in the train station) and made my way by bus to Kiyomizu-dera temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The road leading up to the temple is full of shops selling fun souvenirs, snacks, and teas. Walking past the tea shops and not entering is impossible— they have fans that emit the enticing aroma of green tea to lure you in! I bought a few packages of delicious gyokuro tea from Uji, a tea growing region near Kyoto. The temple at the end of the road is large and its location on the hillside affords fantastic views over Kyoto, with the spaceship-like Kyoto tower being an instantly recognizable landmark.
From Kiyomizu-dera, stroll north towards Gion district. As this is the historical geisha district of Kyoto, you are likely to see some locals, and many tourists, dressed in the traditional garb. Something I learned that I found very interesting is that the term geisha is not used by people in Kyoto as it is too harsh-sounding and even insulting, and that, instead, the preferred term is geiko. This area is so picturesque with its traditional architecture, narrow streets, and quaint shops.
Take Shinjo-dori street over the bridge towards the Kawaramachi train station and you’ll be right near Cafe Matsuontoko, a small vegan restaurant located in a cool area with lots of quirky shops nearby. I went there and had the burger set lunch which was a burger with french fries and a side salad. The burger was tasty and had a good texture. The fries were crisp and the salad was ok. Overall I enjoyed it and would go back. The place is a bit small and dimly-lit inside. One thing I didn’t like was that there was hardly any ventilation, so the whole restaurant room smelled strongly of fried food–the kind that stays in your clothes after you exit the place. Not that big of a deal, but still. The waitstaff was rather aloof and disinterested, too.
538-6 Shijyo Agaru Shinkyougoku Nakanocho Nakagyoku, Kyoto
From Cafe Matsuontoko, you are a stone’s throw away from Teramachi-dori and Nishiki Market, two lively shopping arcades, the first featuring clothes, home goods, and craft shops, and the second dedicated to food. I bought some beautiful handmade paper and stationery and (more) teas along Teramachi’s unending promenade of shops. Do check out Nishiki Market while you’re there, too. Running perpendicular to Teramachi-dori, here you’ll see every kind of pickle, rice, seaweed, and other traditional Japanese food on display, and many shops offer samples to taste.
For dinner that night, I went to Choice Cafe and Restaurant, where I thoroughly enjoyed a 6-course all-vegan meal. First was a house-made fruity enzyme tonic and some assorted pickles. Next was a beautiful salad of tomatoes, radishes, persimmons, and homemade mozzarella cheese (from the Artisan Vegan Cheese cookbook). Next was a silky squash soup with soy milk foam. Then a brown rice and green vegetables risotto with more homemade cashew cheeses. The entree was a tempeh and winter root vegetable kebob with soy glaze and a creamy sauce. Finally, dessert was a plate of assorted treats: panna cotta, blueberry cake, poached apples, ice cream, and a fresh and dehydrated fruit compote.
The meal was light and satisfying. It’s not heavily seasoned or spiced cuisine, but it is delicious. The food presentation was also on-point. The restaurant is very clean and has a nice window between the dining room and the kitchen through which you can see the chefs preparing the meals. My only regret is not having enough time to go back and try their lunch menu and cafe!
Choice Cafe and Restaurant
89-1 Sanjo-dori, Ohashi-cho, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto
The next day, I decided go to the further afield sites. So I started early by grabbing breakfast, Japanese-style featuring rice, pickles, greens, seaweed, and fruit, at my hotel before heading out. I took the bus to Nijo Castle, another World Heritage Site and center for the Tokugawa Shogunate in Kyoto in the 17th century. Wow, what craftsmanship! The woodwork outside, metalwork on the doors, and paintings inside are stunning.
I then hopped back on the bus and took it to the Golden Pavilion Temple, Kinkaku-ji. Swathed in gold and shimmering with light, this magnificent temple is a sight to behold. Indeed, its popularity is evidenced by the large number of tourists who are also beholding. Nevermind them and regard the beauty of this temple and its attached gardens. As you stroll through the grounds, take a break at a small tea shop where 500 yen buys you a grassy and frothy cup of matcha tea accompanied by a dainty wagashi sweet. Drink, breathe, contemplate, and walk around some more.
After the experience at the Golden Pavilion, I made my way by bus to the Silver Pavilion or Ginkaku-ji. Just before the temple, though, I stopped for lunch at Tosca, an all-vegan place a short walk down the same road as the temple. This cafe felt like a place I would eat at and hang out in all the time if I lived in Kyoto. It has a pleasant mom-and-pop feel to it and the owners are super friendly. Of the 5 lunch options, I chose the kuruma fu sandwich, a wheat gluten ring that is breaded in panko and served crispy with lettuce, tomato, and a special sauce. Rather than being aggressive, it was seasoned with a delicate touch.
The kuruma fu burger came with a beautiful little side salad of greens, raw beets, and radishes dressed with a tangy dressing and a few pieces of a egg-like tofu and vegetable omelette. Everything was really delicious and well-seasoned. I finished my lunch off with an amazing goma (black sesame seed paste) latte. I highly recommend that you try it. The presentation and the foamed soy milk latte art was also outstanding! It’s all in the details.
As I was getting ready to pay, I saw one of the friendly owners take out some beautiful muffins from the oven and I just had to have some. I bought two, one flavored with mugwort and the other with fig, and I took them with me for later that night. They were superb!
Imadegawa Dori, Sakyo Ward, Kitashirakawa Oiwakecho, 67-7, Kyoto
Satisfied with that delicious lunch, I made my way to the Silver Pavilion, whose grounds can best be described as verdant, still, and serene. Winding paths constructed with natural materials over small hills and traversing rippling streams are both appealing and calming. Don’t miss the sand garden, meticulously raked and featuring a perfect mound to symbolize Mount Fuji. There are beautiful paths just outside the temple grounds as well which are also worthwhile.
After doing some more souvenir shopping, mostly handicrafts, paper, and tea, I headed back to the hotel to drop off my stuff before heading out to dinner. I decided to try the oddly-named Morpho Cafe, another all-vegan place, located not too far from Nijo Castle. The place is decorated tastefully with natural wood slabs functioning as tables. There is a little bell sitting there on your table and the service is non-existent until you ring it. It’s kind of funny. But when you do ring it, the service is excellent. I ordered the “fish” burger and it was crisp, tasty, and had a great texture. It was slathered with tarter sauce, but the sauce tasted good. The fries on the side were fantastic; they were a bit thicker cut, hot, and well seasoned. For dessert I had the banana caramel pizza and that was a mistake. I should have known better, but it just sounded so weird that I had to try it. It was just bland tasting. It is served with a dollop of whipped topping in the center that melted and pooled immediately. I enjoyed my meal though, and I would go back.
309 Saikachicho, Kamigyo, Kyoto
One more place I would implore you to check out is Ippodo Tea. Here you can try different grades of matcha, gyokuro, and sencha teas prepared in the traditional manner. It’s a really lovely place with a large bar counter where your tea is made in front of you. You also have the option to sit at tables and be served. The service is very friendly and the teas are exquisite. I splurged and ordered the top of the shop, 1200 yen cup of matcha. The server promised an umami experience and she was right; it was thick, deep, and actually savory-tasting. They also serve simple Japanese sweets to accompany the teas. Attached is a rustically decorated shop offering all the same teas for sale. I bought some matcha and sencha from there and wasn’t disappointed.
Ippodo Tea Co.
Teramachi-dori Nijo, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto
My memorable, albeit few, days in Kyoto came to an end and I left affirmed that it is one of my favorite travel destinations. I last visited the city ten years ago and I have remembered it so fondly. This recent trip (this time as a vegan) not only solidified my appreciation of the city–with it’s numerous options for the vegan traveler–but it also added new color to my previous memories and planted a strong desire to return. Elegant, cultured, and delicious, Kyoto is a must see gem for any journey to Japan.
Check out this recipe inspired by my trip: Vegan Onigiri, Six Ways!
Have you been to Kyoto? If so, what were some of your favorite sights and experiences?