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Enjoy Kyoto-style Vegetarian Cuisine!
Unique dishes & recommended restaurants

Vegetarian dining in Japan can be a challenge if you don't know where to go - or worse, if you can't speak or read Japanese. But actually, Kyoto is a place that is perfectly suited to vegetarians.

Being the center of Japanese Buddhism for more than a thousand years, Kyoto has hundreds of temples of various sects. A few temples offer opportunities to experience both historical buildings and vegetarian cuisine in lovely garden settings.

To follow one of Buddha's five proscriptions, ''you shall not kill,'' Japanese monks and nuns have prepared their foods without any animal ingredients over the centuries and their cuisine is called shojin ryori. The word shojin generally means Buddhist vegetarian in Japan but originally meant ''zeal in progressing along the path to salvation.''

Because eggs and dairy products were rarely used in Japanese cuisine before the 20th century, shojin meals are completely vegan, made using only vegetables, beans, seaweed and grains. The soup stock, generally made of fish extracts in Japan, is instead made with kombu sea kelp, dried shiitake mushrooms and other vegetable ingredients.

Another kind of Kyoto vegetarian cuisine is called obanzai. Obanzai are traditional home-style dishes that Kyoto families enjoyed at home for generations but which are now also featured in many restaurants. It should be noted that not all obanzai dishes are 100% vegetarian but many are (ask first if you are not sure!). Obanzai dishes are made with tofu, nama-fu (gluten), yuba (soy bean curd), Kyoto vegetables, and a number of other traditional Kyoto ingredients. Though obanzai dishes may appear plain at first sight they are often richly seasoned and full of flavor.

Kyoto-style Vegetarian Food & Dishes

Kyoto's tofu is famous among tofu lovers in Japan for its delicate flavor. People in Kyoto have improved their skill of making tofu through their long-term relationship with Buddhist cuisine, which uses tofu and other soy products as essential ingredients. Moreover, good tofu requires good water and Kyoto has some of the best sweet-water wells in the country. For these reasons, tofu is one of Kyoto's top food products.

Yuba is another food that is often associated with Kyoto. It is basically the creamy skin that forms on the surface of heated soy milk. This skin is either used when fresh or dried into sheets. Fresh yuba is served with soy sauce (like sashimi) or used to roll other ingredients inside. The dry skin is often deep fried or steamed.

Fu or wheat gluten is a rich source of protein and used as a meat substitute in Japanese vegetarian cuisine traditions. It has few calories, little fat content and is easy to digest. Nama-fu is made from wheat gluten and sweet rice. It has a very resilient texture and mellow-sweet, faint wheat flavor. Nama-fu is used fresh, simmered, deep-fried or steamed. It may be shaped and colored in a variety of ways. Nama-fu is an important ingredient in shojin ryori.

Kyoto Vegetables
Kyoto is also known for its unique varieties of vegetables, known as Kyo yasai. Many varieties are recognizable despite their unusual shape. Today, Kyo yasai are sent to many major centers around Japan for use in high class restaurants and the meals of affluent households.

Hijiki is a brown sea vegetable that grows wild along Japan's rocky coastlines. According to Japanese folklore, hijiki is invaluable for health, beauty and in maintaining the thick, black, lustrous hair the Japanese are famous for. Freshly harvested hijiki is first boiled and then dried. To prepare dried hijiki for cooking, it is first soaked in water.

Kiriboshi Daikon
White daikon radish shredded into strips and dried is known as kiriboshi daikon. The drying process brings out the radish's sweetness, and concentrates vegetable's fiber and mineral content. It is soaked in water before being prepared with other ingredients.

Experience Zen Spirit through Shojin Ryori
Tenryuji Shigetsu

Sitting in a clean, simply decorated tatami room next to the main building of Tenryu-ji Temple (a World Heritage Site), you will feel like your body and mind are filled with the same peaceful atmosphere that fills the room. Here, you will naturally focus on the cuisine - not only its flavor but also its spirit. Shigetsu is run by Tenryu-ji Temple and set on the edge of the temple's famous Japanese stroll garden.

Using no meat products, all the dishes at Shigetsu are carefully prepared in accordance with six basic flavors: bitter, sour, sweet, salty, mild and hot. The head chef, Mr. Kotani says, ''Some people may think shojin ryori is plain. However, we make a special effort to create something here that is healthy, beautiful as well as a spiritual experience. I hope foreign visitors will enjoy our cuisine and in some small way discover the spirit of Zen during their meal.''

Everything is served in fine, bright red lacquerware to highlight the simple colors of each dish. A meal at Shigetsu is an unforgettable Kyoto experience.

Yuki Course (3,500 yen): based on the basic style of shojin ryori (1 soup and 5 dishes: sesame tofu, marinade or salad dish, steamed dish, assorted simmered vegetables, rice) plus an additional dish and fruits. Other courses (5,500 yen or 7,500 yen with more dishes) are available.

Access: in Tenryu-ji Temple, across from Keifuku Arashiyama Stn.
Tel: 075-882-9725
Open: 11:00-14:00 (L.O.)
Reservations required
No smoking
Major credit cards accepted

World's First Healthy Fast Food from the Middle East!
Falafel Garden

Falafels are deep-fried croquette-like balls made of grated chickpeas seasoned with herbs and spices. They are usually served in pita bread topped with salad, pickled vegetables and a zesty sauce. Falafels are nutritious, low in calories and perfectly suited to the special needs of strict vegetarians.

There is only one falafel restaurant in Kyoto. Falafel Garden is set in an attractive old two-story building with relaxing outdoor garden seating at the back. The Israeli owner, Amir, opened Falafel Garden to introduce Kyoto people to the healthy and tasty traditional foods of his home country. Amir grows his own vegetables and herbs in his garden for the restaurant. This excellent produce is just one of the reasons Falafel Garden's food is so good!

Falafel Garden also makes other popular pita sandwiches: humus with salad; baba ganush (fried eggplant served with a rich sesame sauce); and avocado (avocado mixed with white cheese).

Mix Plate (1,800 yen): Falafel Garden's most popular foods all on one plate!: 6 falafel balls, humus, baba ganush, herb carrot salad, green salad, and two pitas.

Their home-made original sweets are also popular!: baklava (walnut pie; 690 yen), chocolate brownie (450 yen), soy milk pudding (450 yen), etc.

Access: a few min. walk from Eizan Demachiyanagi Stn.
Tel: 075-712-1856
Open: 11:00-21:30 (L.O. 21:00)

Healthy Nepalese Food

Near to Kyoto's famous Nishiki Food Market, is a place that offers a bit of Nepal to all who enter. When you open the door of YAK & YETI and step inside, you immediately sense that you have entered another world. The music, interior design, friendly staff, and of course the food all create a lovely Nepalese experience. YAK & YETI is popular with Japanese and international tourists and locals.

YAK & YETI's curry takes four hours to cook. Its creamy texture comes from the onions they finely dice by hand. Their curry's deep, aromatic flavor is made from a combination of cinnamon, cloves, chili, cumin, turmeric and many other spices.

YAK & YETI's freshly baked nan is very soft and fluffy; the perfect side dish for curry. And their vegetable phuraula (fried broccoli, carrot, onion) is very popular with vegetarians. They also make great vegetable momo (vegetable dumpling) served with a spicy sauce.

Their Sabji ko Tarukari (990 yen; vegetable curry) and Palak Panir ko Tarukari (1,100 yen; spinach and cottage cheese curry) are also popular dishes with vegetarians.

Access: on the east side of Gokomachi, south of Nishikikoji
Tel: 075-213-7919
Open: 11:30-15:00, 17:00-22:00 (L.O.)
Credit cards not accepted

Alternative Music, People and Healthy Food…

''Find peace and health with organic vegetable dishes'' is the motto at Village. Located near a large art university, this vegetarian restaurant is very popular with students, musicians, artists and local foreign residents. The interior is dimly lit and offers relaxing sofa seating and big wooden tables. And the music is always good here.

The cuisine at Village is focused on organic vegetables. The portions are generous and the prices reasonable. The menu changes according to which vegetables are in season. All their food is prepared with local well water.

Their popular vegetarian lunch set (780 yen) includes two vegetable dishes, rice and soup. Other dishes to consider include: deep-fried gluten meat, vegetable pizza, and a bowl of rice topped with 6-7 kinds of vegetables.

Herbal curry and rice (1,000 yen; with miso soup): served with a mixture of brown and black rice; Chinese herbs like wolfberry, are added for original flavor.

Access: 2F of Daiichi Maison Shirakawa, on the west side of Shirakawa, south of Kitaoji
Tel: 075-712-3372
Open: 11:00-24:00 (L.O. 23:30), open from 18:00 on Sun.; Closed Mon.

The Flavors of Kyoto-style Home-cooking

Obanzai, run by a mother, father and son team, specializes in Kyoto-style home-cooked dishes. Mrs. Ota says, ''We can say we are healthy when our body, mind and spirit are all healthy, and we hope our dishes can contribute to creating this balance.''

Their buffet style lunch and dinner is very popular with tourists, foreign residents and locals (everything is written in English and Japanese!). During lunch, about 15 kinds of dishes (more than 20 kinds for dinner) are set out on a long table. Here you will always find fresh salad, simmered leaf vegetables, deep-fried tofu in broth, fried vegetables, miso soup, vegetable curry, tofu hamburger patties (made with vegetables and hijiki), vegetable croquettes, and gluten cutlets.

Everything at Obanzai is carefully prepared by the Ota family who are passionate about food and life.

Lunch: 840 yen (weekdays), 1,050 yen (weekends); Dinner: 2,100 yen. Organic wine, cocktails, home-made plum wine, tea & coffee and sweets are also available (extra charge).

Access: 1F of Ichii Bldg., on the east side of Koromonotana, north of Oike
Tel: 075-223-6623
Open: 11:00-14:00, 17:00-21:00
Closed Wed. evening
Credit cards not accepted.

Original Organic Vegetable Cuisine
Matsutomiya Kotobuki Ichie

Matsutomiya Kotobuki Ichie is a restaurant name that is incredibly difficult for foreigners to remember. However, the name of the restaurant derives from the owner's deep love for food and his family. Each character in the name was taken from a member of the owner's family.

The restaurant specializes in dishes that have been handed down for generations. They buy their organic vegetables from a farm in northern Kyoto. The dishes of the day are based on what is available from the farm.

A few years ago they had a foreign guest who was a vegan. When they learned that he didn't eat any animal products they decided to change how they cook everything they make so that it was safe for everyone. Their special vegetable course consists of about 11 dishes that use no meat or fish products (even the soup broth!).

Vegetable course (4,500 yen, reservations required); the course includes their home-made tofu and black sesame pudding for dessert. Their lunch time buffet is very popular and includes about 20 kinds of dishes.

Access: on the west side of Yanaginobanba, south of Sanjo
Tel: 075-255-7899
Open: 11:30-15:00 (L.O. 14:20), 17:30-22:00 (L.O. 21:00)
Closed Tue.; no smoking
Credit cards not accepted