Tokyo: Sightseeing and Cheap Vegan Food in Japan
Konichiwa! So you’re planning a trip to Japan. But when to go? Well, mid-March marks the start of springtime cherry blossom season, leading on to summer from June to September.
While December to March is the best time to ski, cherry blossom season is the best for a picturesque city break in Tokyo.
Scroll to the bottom for my Bonus Tips on Eating Vegan in Japan.
Shinjuku is certainly an epicentre of Tokyo. From crazy Kabukicho, a red-light district and neighbourhood of the yakuza (Japanese mafia), to the stunning Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden and some great vegan food, there’s much to explore.
This is where I started my 10-day trip, with my friend Amy – check out her Instagram Amy Thunderbolt for awesome cosplay!
We had a walk round the super photogenic Golden Gai area of Shinjuku early one morning. It’s full of awesome little bars with lots of character, and would be great to hang out in at night. Unfortunately, we got told off for taking pictures… So watch out for that. This one, below, is one of the only photos we managed to snap.
After a meander around the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, which was ¥500 entry, we found a place for affordable vegan lunch at KiboKo – an organic food and wine bar open for lunch and dinner.
Top Tip: ‘Vegan food’ is ‘bīganfūdo’ in Japanese
The delightful lunch ‘box’ above was full of tasty flavoured rice, mashed potato, mushrooms, veggies and pickled lettuce. All that came in at ¥800 (about $12 – which is fairly cheap for Tokyo!) plus it’s all vegan. You can pay an extra ¥200 for miso soup with your lunch. Dinner is pricier.
After lunch, have a wander around the Kabukicho area in Shinjuku and go see the Godzilla statue on top of a building. Can you spot him in the picture above?
A short train ride from Shinjuku took us to Shibuya; home of the famous Shibuya Crossing, which I’d seen it recommended time and again on travel sites and in books. The crossing goes five ways all at once and is quite the spectacle in a busy Times Square-style area. I managed to get a few cool pictures, too.
Next, we wanted to check out the Meiji Jungu Shrine – a top sight in Tokyo! While Google Maps says it’s in Shibuya, we found it right next to the following station – Harajuku. And it did not disappoint. The Meiji Jingu was the most beautiful shrine I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been around Asia a bit and seen a few more shrines in Japan, too.
Why? The shrine is nestled in an ethereal woodland of tall, magnanimous trees and through a succession of equally glorious, enormous torii. Simply the walk to the building set an unforgettable fairytale scene.
Dictionary Corner: Torii is the word for those Japanese gates (and that ⛩ emoji) marking the transition from the mundane to the sacred at a Japanese Shinto shrine
Once we’d quenched our awe at the Meiji Jingu it was time to see to our bellies so we took a short walk to Chipoon, a small ramen restaurant within a local shopping centre. The menu is almost entirely vegan and everything is clearly labelled.
While the food is fairly flavourful and there are several options, it’s quite light size-wise. I went for the classic, basic Chipoon Ramen but I’d recommend going for the special if you’re very hungry. Alternatively, get the basic ramen with a tasty side or dessert as well.
After lunch, you may be craving some shopping so head to Harajuku, the fashion district of Tokyo giving Camden Town a run for its money. Walking around, you’ll see all kinds of style proudly displayed; from punk to princess, goth and cosplay (costume).
Harajuku’s busiest fashion spot, Takeshita Street, features eclectic boutiques stock items you’d seldom find elsewhere. For example, there are lingerie shops with gorgeous and unique sets, fun themed clothing stores plus all kinds of footwear and jewellery outlets.
If you’re not keen on busyness and crowds then head to Takeshita Street outside peak times – I suggest early in the morning or later on in the evening during weekdays.
I recommend getting some pictures taken at a Purikura photo booth either here or in Akihabara, below, for an appropriately kawaii keepsake from your trip to Tokyo! Purikura booths are quite inexpensive, and the pictures enhance your features to look like anime. You can then customise them with stickers, words and more, before printing a small sticker of the photos.
Akihabara is Tokyo’s anime, gaming, and electronic district. With more arcades than you can imagine, it’s the best place to play and win plushies of your favourite manga characters and Pokemons. Come prepared for a day of fun with a purse full of ¥100 coins – and the will to persevere through losses to get your hands on a prize.
You’ll also find hyper-realistic figurines of your favourite animes, manga characters and superheroes in the shops around Akihabrara. Check out fun stores like Super Potato for retro games and Don Quijote for souvenirs – both have awesome merchandise.
When you need a refeed, head to Kyushu Jangara Ramen for their yummy vegan ramen (above). They offer several options with a variety of plant-based ingredients to suit your taste. I went for the basic vegan ramen and it was super yummy and filling, for less than $10.
Akihabara is also a ubiquitous spot for watching snazzy anime and manga cars whizz around; and where their drivers congregate at night. The penchant for decorating your car in manga stickers and paintwork is called itasha. In turn, anime motorbikes and pushbikes are called itansha and itachari respectively. It’s a modern blend of the creative cartoon and motoring subcultures of Japan.
When dusk settles, take a slow walk through Akihabara’s neon-lit streets to spot some slick, out-there designs across premium exports. It’s one of the best places to get properly immersed in Japan’s illustrious obsession with anime.
Ueno is a pretty ghetto kind of area, with a lot of homelessness in the park and, currently, construction work going on. However, it’s also a super interesting place with picturesque shrines, a cool market street – Ameyayokocho – and a good buzz about it. The Tokyo National Museum is situated here.
Get to Ueno Park first and take in some lovely surrounding architecture, local families out and about and maybe even catch a food market as you make your way around the temples (there are several).
Afterwards, head to Ameyayokocho, and about 20 metres up on your left you’ll find a great place for some cheap veggie tempura starting from ¥100 per piece.
Bonus Tips: Eating Vegan in Japan
Eating vegan in Japan takes some effort. Here are my top tips for avoiding slip-ups!
Firstly, download the offline version of Japanese in your Google Translate app, so you can always translate ingredients using the camera on your phone!
Avoid miso soup. In Japan, the miso soup stock is called ‘katsuobushi dashi’, and it is made using dried fermented tuna shavings. Watch out for ‘bonito’ as an ingredient too, as this is also a type of fish.
Some types of bread contain dairy. I found out the hard way… happily tucking into my third slice when I decided to check the ingredients… milk. Bleugh.
I’ve been eating Inari sushi for years, so I was gutted to read that sometimes the tofu pockets are marinaded in… dashi. While lots of sites say Inari is vegan, I stopped eating it in Japan seeing as dashi is used in many other local dishes.
Fun Fact: Inari is named after the Japanese Shinto god, Inari, who ‘has a fondness for tofu’
Staple favourites from 7 Eleven or Family Mart include pickled plum onigiri (sushi rice triangles), rice crackers, bananas, nuts, edamame, soy milk cartons, and hash browns – plus some crisps and chocolate varieties. You can also get awesome Vegan Noodles pot noodle at NewDays.
Universally reliable dishes at restaurants include those on the sides menu; namely cold tofu, edamame, and plain rice. Dress them in soy sauce.
Lastly, don’t forget to use your Happy Cow app to find vegan and veg-friendly establishments in your area, anywhere in the world!
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Or check out other features on plant-based dining here.