Japanese Zen Cooking: Some Fine Restaurant Choices for Vegetarians in Tokyo
By Marina Solovyov
In 2007 I moved to Osaka Japan for a year-long exchange program. I was there to further a personal mission to study other cultures diet and lifestyle habits. The goal was to heal my body from an emotional eating disorder by understanding nutrition on a global scale.
Initially, I lived with a traditional host family in Kansai. Their homecooking was a healthy mix of modern and traditional and high in plant foods. I remember my body feeling immediately comfortable and at peace with the Japanese diet.
I had lived in Spain before moving to Japan. In Spain, I had loved the food and savored every morsel, but I could never find the right balance for body. The food was a bit heavy and too delicious.
Traditional Japanese food felt like the piece of the puzzle I was looking for. Eating it made me feel calmer. Living in a big city like Osaka, I often had trouble locating the zen atmosphere that Japan is famous for. However, I felt it every time I sampled the beautifully arranged meals.
It took me a year of trial and error to discover what made Japanese cooking special. The secret lies in Japanese food’s Buddhist roots. Shojin Ryori, which dates back to 530 A.D is based on a diet of vegetables and sea plants.
The practical reason for the vegetable diet is due to Japan’s geography and topography. Japan is made up of 70% mountains and surrounded by the sea on all sides. It is easier to raise vegetables than animals. Secondly, Buddhism preaches abstinence from material things. Simple cooking aids in keeping the mind and spirit pure.
In occidental culture, vegans are best able to identify with the basic concepts of Japanese Zen cooking. However, in reality, only a small percentage of Japanese food is vegan ( free of meat, fish, and dairy); fish stock is used to cook most dishes.
Japanese food is unique because of its minimalistic use of spices and sauces, incorporation of seasonal vegetables into every meal, and a higher proportion of fish and tofu to meat. Furthermore, most Japanese people eat meat only occasionally.
Japanese people also eat with chopsticks versus a fork. Naturally, their eating process is slower and thus their digestion and metabolisms are better than those of most westerner’s.
It is not uncommon for Japanese people to chew their food 40 times before swallowing. Also, breakfast is hardly skipped and lunch
and dinner are eaten around the same hour every night. Japanese people’s general nature is peaceful and this carries over into eating. If the body feels stress, extra waste is stored in the body and mind. Zen cooking improves harmony in the body while decreasing negative energy.
Dispelling the myths
Since graduating from the Institute of Integrative Nutrition in 2010, I have been taken my passion for food and integrated it with holistic health. I am now a food researcher and health coach living in Tokyo.
As a holistic health coach, I no longer rate food merely based on its taste or caloric content. It is more important to know where the ingredients come from, their quality, and how the food was prepared. Going from a naïve wide eyed college student who initially thought all Japanese food was the epitome of good health, I now taste when food is unclean or overly processed. Despite its healthy roots in macrobiotics, most modern day Japanese food is based around convenience, trends, and profit.
Eating from the heart in Tokyo
Tokyo has a wide assortment of izakayas, sushi shops, ramen joints, soba-yas, and other attractive places to dine. However, often the quality and taste of these traditional foods is compromised due to over spicing and using low quality ingredients.
For this reason, I have created a pocket guide for individuals who want to sample modern Japanese cooking the way it was meant to: using minimalist principles, seasonal ingredients, and with dash of zen. I love vegetables and fish, so by default most of the meals showcased fall into the categories of pescetarian, vegan, organic, or healthy.
The following restaurants, cafés, and other food services have been personally checked to make sure you will leave feeling light, in accordance with your personal values, and with the confidence that you sampled both traditional and modern zen cooking,
MIDORI SUSHI, SHIBUYA
Lunch: 11:00 am – 02:45 pm
Dinner: 05:00 pm – 09:45 pm
Weekends: 11:00 am – 09:00 pm
Access: Shibuya Station via Ginza, Yamanote, Toukyo, or Hanzomon Lines
Mark City East 4F, 1-12-3 Dogen-zaka, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
If you enjoy seafood and vegetables, then Tokyo is going to be a surreal experience for your taste buds. Outside of Tsukiji Market, my favorite place to eat sushi is at the Midori Sushi shop. Even on weekdays, before lunch starts, there is usually a long line of people waiting to get a seat. (If you are in a hurry, they sell take out obentos).
The shop interior glows from the light colored hinoki wood and smells aromatically of bamboo and hot springs. The fish they sell comes from Tsukiji, but you will be hard pressed to find the same quality and generous portion sizes elsewhere. Often sushi shops hold their best cuts for their top customers or until dinnertime, however, at Midori you always feel you tasted their premium selection. Also, the price to value is fantastic.
Sushi is always served with complementary green tea and at lunch time, the seasonal miso soup.
THE JAPANESE TRADITIONALIST – LUNCH
Address: Atrai Ebisu 6F, 1-5-5, Ebisuminami, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, 150-0022 Map Access JR Ebisu Station 1-minute walk
Subway Hibiya Line Ebisu Station 1-minute walk
Hours: 11:00 -17:00
Noon time in Japan is synonymous with the term “lunch set”. A basic lunch set is reasonably priced from 600-1500 yen and includes a bowl of rice, a piece of fish, two small sides, and miso soup. While all traditional Japanese lunch sets are priced similarly and have the same fundamental ingredients, the taste varies greatly based on the quality of ingredients.
Generally restaurants busy as early as 11:30 are safe choices to pick. Also, the top floors of department stores tend to use higher quality ingredients and for lunch time the prices are competitive.
Ohashi is a traditional Japanese restaurant that doubles as an izakaya at night. Located on the top of the Ebisu Atre train station, it serves some of the best lunch sets in all of Tokyo. Ohashi only cooks with freshest ingredients and their seasonal fish are grilled on a traditional Japanese charcoal stovetop. Drink as much green tea and miso soup as you wish and the rice and yuzu tsukemono (pickled vegetables) are also unlimited.
‘Lunch Set’ alternatives: Go Viking
In America, we often associate the word buffet ( viking in Japanese) with foods that are cheap, unhealthy, and will leave you feeling stuffed.
Below explore some of my favorite lunchtime viking spots. I promise they will transform your opinion of a buffet, at least in Japan.
Business hours: Mon-Sat 11:00 a.m. – 9:30 p.m.
Sun/Holidays 11:00 a.m. – 9:00 p.m.
Fee: 2,625 yen per person
3-26-11 Shinjuku Shinjuku-ku Tokyo
Located in Shinjuku, the Takano fruit parlor serves some of the most delicious fruit in all of Japan. Farmers around Japan frequently enter fruit into competitions and the top winners produce can be purchased at the Takano Fruit shop.
The princely prices ($100 plus dollars for a cantaloupe) make the fruit a bit inaccessible for most, but the Takano restaurant above the shop serves a lunchtime fruit buffet.
For a limited 90 minutes, you can indulge in world-renowned fruit. The buffet also includes salads, pasta, soups, and even pizza, so don’t worry you wont leave hungry. The quality of the buffet fruit is slightly less than that of the one sold in the store. Regardless, it is a fun and fruity experience at a reasonable price.
Omotesando Hills Mall, 3F
Access: 7 Minute walk from Meijijingu-mae (Yamanote line) or Ginza Line to Omotesando
Another viking option that is bit more salty but still heart healthy is the All You Can Eat Salvatore Cuomo Italian buffet. Best known for serving one of the most authentic Italian brick oven pizza in Japan, Salvatore offers a surprisingly healthy and affordable lunchtime special.
Help yourself to a wide range of traditional Japanese vegetable dishes that are infused with Italian ingredients.
Aside from the veggies, grab some pasta, soup or lasagna. Don’t forget to leave room for their handmade pizza, also included in the lunch price.
Access: Shinjuku Station
Nishi-Shinjuku 1-26-2, Shinjuku Nomura Bldg. 8F.
Open 11:30am-3, 5-11pm daily.
At lunchtime, the modern Tokyo restaurant lays out an all you can eat selection of various salads, veggie side dishes, tofu, and miso soup. For the main meal, you can choose from a wide selection of appetizers and entrees. Your meal includes one of each.
The Hibiki Grill has vegan and vegetarian friendly options like udon or soba, however, they specialize in fish items like sashimi or the grilled catch of the day.
In the west, people are either unaware of macrobiotic eating or associate it with a diet used to cure cancer or grave illnesses. While it is true that a macrobiotic diet and lifestyle is powerful, it is not meant to be boring, flavorless, and impossibly hard to follow.
Most people, including the Japanese, are shocked to learn that Macrobiotics, or Macrobi in Japanese, originated in Japan. The average Japanese meal incorporates macrobiotic concepts.
Macrobiotics emphasizes importance on using local, organic, seasonal ingredients. The theory behind this is that by knowing where your food comes from and in eating with nature, you are increasing balance and harmony in the body.
Macrobiotic meals are vegetable based and complemented by a healthy portion of whole grains, especially brown rice. Fish is used from time to time.
Aside from eating shojin ryori at temples, it is getting more difficult to find purely macrobiotic cafes in Japan without doing research.
Below are a few cafes that meet the criteria, are reasonably priced, and delicious.
The Marche Café is a macrobi café run by students studying at the Kushi Institute, a cooking style based in macrobiotic principles. The schools founders, the late Michio and Aveline Kushi are responsible for coining the term ‘macrobiotics’. Their famous sister school still operates Brookline, Massachusetts.
Every few days the menu at the Marche Café changes to complement the freshest organic crops that were picked by the local farmers.
Organic SUMIBIO CAFÉ, EBISU
2F, 1-22-8, Ebisu, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, 150-0013
Lunch 11:30-15:00 (14:30) Dinner 17:00-23:30 (22:45)
Access: JR Ebisu Station The east exit 5-minute walk
A 10 minute walk from the Kushi Café is the organic restaurant, SUMIBIO. SUMIBIO isn’t purely vegetarian, they serve meat dishes too, however many of the concepts are macrobiotic in nature.
They work with organic farms and they rotate menu items based on the season.
For a purely vegan meal, try the Aveda Pure Café located in Omotesando.
The interior of the café is relaxing and in sync with the café’s concept of a “de-stress
Their impressive menu lists many dairy, meat, and fish free items for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Additionally, you can sample any of their organic teas or vegan friendly desserts.
BROWN RICE CAFÉ, OMOTESANDO
GREEN BLDG 1F,
5-1-17 JINGUMAE, SHIBUYA-KU,
Meals at the Brown Rice café stand out for their simplicity, freshness, and deliciousness. Brown rice café staff carefully prepare ingredients themselves including pickles, miso, and dressing.
All the ingredients they serve are lovingly selected from the farms of those they believe take good care of their crops. The Brown Rice café team meets suppliers face to face before purchasing ingredients.
Furthermore, a key concept of traditional Japanese cooking is to reduce waste. The Brown rice café chefs use everything from the seed, pip, and skin of the vegetables to create delectable beautiful meals. They extend this concept to their kitchen by using environmentally friendly cleaning ingredients and limiting electric consumption.
Organic Obentos to Go
If your not in the mood to eat in, how about taking an obento box out? Obento boxes are the most popular lunchtime items in Japan. Inside is a variety of small delectable items suitable for every palette. On days where you are in a rush or feeling lazy, grab an obento and have a picnic outside.
As the clock strikes 11:00 am in Japan, the first of the obento displays are set up around the city. In the following hour, outdoor food vendors, cafes, and restaurants follow suit.
In alignment with this natural pocket guide, I recommend looking for obentos that come from health conscious shops. This way the quality and taste is not sacrificed.
Popular places to find obentos are inside of train stations, depachikas (underground gourmet grocery stores), and from street vendors. If its nearing lunchtime and you find yourself in the stylish neighborhoods of Harajuku, Omotesando, Daikanyama, Ebisu, or elsewhere in the Shibuya-ku area, you should have no problem grabbing an organic healthy lunch box.
Two of my favorite spots include:
The third floor of the Ebisu train station, check the natural food shop in Atre.
Access: Yamanote or Hibiya line.
Price: 900 yen
Outside of the Daikanyama train station grab a gourmet drip coffee and an organic obento from the Espresso Van.
The small company operates a few other organic lunch truck vans around the Shibuya ward. All ingredients come from organic and local farms.
Price: 600 yen for obento; 300 yen coffee
Coffee from a Tea Plant
Mocha Coffee, Daikanyama
25-1 Sarugakucho, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
Transport Daikanyama Station (Toyoko line)
Telephone 03 6427 8285
Open Tue-Sun 11am-7pm / Closed Mon
If you opted to hold the coffee until after lunch, then I recommend walking a bit further up the street to Mocha Coffee House. A newcomer among the artsy Daikanyama neighborhood, Mocha Coffee house stands out for its rare import of beans from Yemen. The owner, Yemen native Hussein Ahmed, runs the shop with his lovely wife Maiko.
Most of the coffees are a bit pricey, however, come for the experience: an intimate artsy café that feels like a greenhouse sitting a top an outdoor Yemen landscape.
For those less interested in coffee, try the Gusher coffee that originates from a tea tree. To make a perfect cup, 50 grams of the bean are measured to 1 liter of water. After the hot water is brewed and poured onto the beans, it must sit still until the concoction is nearly at room temperature. Only then is it possible to appreciate the subtle sweetness of the tea tree bean. Take a sip, close your eyes, and you’ll feel the sun kissing your eyelids.
Night Time: Zen Approved Izakaya: Kichiri
Access: 5 minute walk from Shibuya Station
Prices: Plan for 3000 per person with one cocktail. Bottles of wine hover in the ¥3,000-¥5,000 range.
Izakayas in Japan are synonymous for nightlife in Japanese culture. The typical izakaya is lively in atmosphere and serves many small appetizers that everyone shares. Izakayas can be related to a pub, tavern, or a tapas bar.
While there is a time and place for loud, tipsy, and exciting, if you are in the mood to have a more sophisticated night out, with top quality food, the Kichiri grill is the place. After a long day walking around fashion capital Shibuya, take off your shoes, walk into a relaxing zen style lobby and at Kichiri. Experience the koshitsu seating among the magical atmosphere blending Japanese harmony and nature. The restaurant uses soft colors and lighting that create a relaxing yet sophisticated experience
As for the food, Kichiri’s concept is Positive Eating. This means eating food that will bring you comfort, vitality, and improve your energy. Dishes created here are not only delicious, they are presented in a way to stimulate your mind and make your eyes dance with excitement.
Kichiri chefs only cook with high quality seasonal ingredients. This means that there are always new items on the menu. Whether you consider yourself to have a Japanese stomach or are a newbie to the cuisine, you will find something to salivate over. Kichiri incorporates western influences into traditional Japanese menu.
Among their most popular items are the special roast beef, tofu salad with golden sesame, and baked crab paste in its shell. You can enjoy KICHIRI’s cuisine in other posh areas around Tokyo, including the fashionable Ginza and Ebisu districts and the international business centers of Akasaka and Kasumigaseki.
Marina Solovyov graduated from the Institute of Integrative Nutrition and is a holistic health coach based in Tokyo, Japan. She works with people all over the to help them increase their energy and improve their diets. She is also researches and writes about traditional Japanese cooking, culture, and posts recipes on her website Marina’s Tokyo Cafe.
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