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Tokyo, Kyoto, me.

  • s

Dear ___,

I will be setting sail (via airplane) to Japan for the first time next week. Am fully expecting to go nuts in any number of mechanical food vending facilities and department store food halls, but would love some site-specific insider Information. I will be splitting my time between Tokyo and Kyoto (with a little bit of Monkey-Park thrown in for good measure). In Tokyo, I have intentions upon Tsukiji for an early morning tryst, but beyond that my slate is clean. I am looking for the most amazing food related shopping centers in town, the finest tofu purveyors, fresh soy milk huts, and with the blessing of Nordon, god of good, perhaps even a straggling roast chestnut vendor who got lost on the way home from chestnut season.

Now comes the hard part. The part where I look into your eyes and tell you that I am a vegan and ask you not to turn away but to hold my hand. I love food, but will not compromise my chastity for the sake of Dashi or her cruel master, Bonito. I am prepared to make do with creative shopping at markets for my sustenance, but would love a few vegan friendly tips on restaurants or markets. The "Internet" has been bountiful in Kyoto restaurant options, but Tokyo seems to be a vortex. Please help me put some meat on my bones without eating either.

Just as a final point of clarification, The tips for amazing markets need not be confined to vegetarian-centric places. I am equally fascinated by the local food culture and consider exploring it an integral part of my trip. Don't pull any punches, I can take it.

Thank you in advance for your suggestions. I will report back in obscene detail upon return to Hollywood, CA, where dreams are forged daily.

Yours,

SB

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  1. Perhaps you would enjoy dekitatte tofu, fresh tofu made fresh two or three times an evening and served still warm, accompanied by no more than an assortment of different salts from around the country and perhaps a nub of wasabi to grate over it. Yuba (the skin off the top of the tofu) is also served freshly made, as "sashimi", raw with soysauce and wasabi to dip. I found that restaurants such as Tofuro or Tsuki no Shizuku, which have branches all over town and very extensive menus, to be fairly user-friendly. I like Tsuki no shizuku's kuridofu, tofu studded with bits of sweet chestnut.

    For a less contemporary setting, Sasa no Yuki in Uguisudani (near Ueno) is a famous classic tofu house, with almost everything on the menu starring tofu (but many dishes are not vegetarian). Their goma dofu (sesame tofu) is excellent.

    Also, I recently had a very good meal at A-en, a place specializing in organic vegetarian cuisine, in the Isetan in Shinjuku. I was actually strongly reminded of California cuisine a la Chez Panisse, in the simplicity of the presentations, but the careful selection of robust-flavored perfect vegetables. Our set menu featured a salad of huge, buttery spinach leaves in a simple dressing, a platter of poached tiny root vegetables drizzled with sesame oil and soy sauce, and gobo tempura. The tempura was marvellous - airy crispy, the gobo tender and sweet like parsnips.

    What else... I'm a fairly new arrival in town so I still haven't quite got my bearings. I like to visit (and sample the freebies at) tsukemo (pickle) shops, or stands in the department stores. It's getting a bit late for imo (sweet potato), since it's already time for hanami parties, but a yaki-imo (roasted sweet potato) and a handful of caramelized sweet potato fries is always a good thing. Speaking of cherry blossoms, you are coming at just the right time - the trees in my neighborhood are just beginning to bloom.

    And watch out for those monkeys. In Nikko, some of them jump into people's cars (while the cars are moving) in order to steal food.

    1 Reply
    1. re: chibi

      If you are going to spend some time in Kyoto, perhaps you should consider spending a couple of days in Mt Koya, where I had my most memorable vegetarian meal ever: there are several shukubo (monasteries) where you can stay and eat, and most of them are deservedly famous for their splendid vegetarian (although, alas, perhaps not strictly vegan!) cuisine. Apart from the cuisine, the atmosphere of the place is so wonderful, I'm sure you'll love it.

    2. Listen. "shyoojin ryoori" is Japanese for Buddhist temple cuisine, which is vegan and fantastic. A number of temples in Kyoto offer set lunchs (lanchy setto in Japanese) where you will experience tastes and foods you never knew existed like roasted eggplant with a crispy miso topping, and sweet tofu shaped like autumn maple leaves. As a chowhound vegan it is your duty to eat this food. Call the Kyoto or Tokyo tourist offices and say you want to try shyoojin ryoori. Also if you meander around the temple areas in Kyoto you'll see a number of places specializing in tofu. In fact, it's worth you learning the symbol for tofu in Japanese so you can recognize it. It's only a couple of symbols. I second the earlier poster's recommendation for the yuki tofu place near Ueno in Tokyo. They even make tofu wine. Bonito does kind of sneak in to everything, but there *is* such thing as vegetarian dashi, made with kelp and shiitake instead of kelp and bonito. Just ask for "kombu dashi", or "kombu dashi arimas ka" (do you have kombu dashi?). There probably isn't any, but you never know.

      and of course you must walk down the famous food street in Kyoto, Nishidoori or something, it's in Lonely Planet. Great knife store. Super amazing pickle stores. Try as many kinds of pickles as you possbily can, even the ones in brown guck (fermented rice bran).

      6 Replies
      1. re: adam

        Great post! More! more!

        1. re: Jim Leff

          Well Jim,...I looked through my notes, and discovered the temple where I had the Zen lunch: Tenryu-ji in western Kyoto, which is in all the guidebooks. For lunch, you must make reservations:
          (075) 881-1235. When you arrive you get a pamphlet in English explaining Zen monastic cuisine. The goal is to provide foods that facilitate, rather than hinder, the practice of Zen (e.g., the caffine in green tea keeps you awake and so helps the practice of Zen; odorous foods and filling foods hinder it).

          The end of the pamphlet explains that the food is strictly vegetarian. Broths (dashi) derive from kelp, mushrooms, and dried gourd.

          I also saved a pamphlet from the sasa no yuki (snow on bamboo leaves?) near Ueno in Tokyo. Phone # is possibly 03(3873)1145 (I translate from kanji and may be wrong). Anyway, it's in Rought Guide Tokyo and it's famous enough that a taxi drive was able to help me find it. Looking at the menu, it's definately not vegan, although I'm sure there's plenty of vegan things on the menu. I don't know how to say "I'm vegan" but you can say:
          "sakana o tabemasen" (I don't eat fish)
          "tamago o tabemasen" (I don't eat eggs)
          "katsuo-bushi o tabemasen" (I don't eat bonito, which I believe is really the Portuguese word). After this, they'll probably get the picture and feed you lots of yummy vegan tofu. You must say "goma-doofu daisuki des" (I really like sesame tofu), so they will give you some.

          P.S. if anyone is interested in meeting an amazing soba maker in Kyoto who makes his soba fresh daily in front of a glass window for customer viewing and who LOVES to give foreigners lessons in making soba (he even mills his own buckwheat from a hand-cranked granite mill)...let me know. It will take some time for me to dig up his information, but I will. It's SO worth it. Anyone who thought they knew how to use a rolling pin will tremble before his skill. The guy balls his hands into fists and then places the lengthy rolling rod under the knuckles, then forwward/backward with his RIGHT hand, and counterclockwise in a circle with his LEFT hand, thereby ROLLING and TURNING the dough all in one motion, so keeping a consistently perfect circle. Bolognese pasta-rolling housewifes, eat your hearts out.

          1. re: adam

            hmmm. other vegan foods you could look for

            -yasai ten-pura (veggie tempura)
            -konyaku (unique and very strange jelly-like food made from a root). They also sell it at supermarkets so you could just buy some there and eat it.
            -kombu o-nigiri (rice balls fills with soy-simmered kelp. yum)
            -as per ealier poster, go to the Isetan department store in Shinkuku, Tokyo, and locate the tofu stand, which sells all types of delicious tofus. Don't forget to sample all the free pickles
            -edamame (of course), which you're supposed to eat with beer
            -of course veggie sushi

            happy hunting, and report back!

            1. re: adam

              Well, since Kyoto's on the agenda in a few months ... please do some digging for info on that soba master! I will brush up on my Japanese...

              1. re: adam

                Adam - how can i get the name and address of this soba-maker? Planning 4 days in Kyoto with food writer & food critic who would love to meet the master soba-maker... thanks

                1. re: adam

                  Adam: I am very intersted in this. My daughter is studying in Kyotoat Doshisha University and I know she would love to experience this before returning to Cal next month. Please post the information or email me at dimsumchum@gmail.com. Thanks.

            2. Thank you all for the brilliant suggestions. I will go nuts and report back with descriptions that will melt the skin off scalded milk.

              Bon Voyage (for me)

              SB

              1. b
                Bryan Harrell

                I hope I am not too late with this info, but this may be a good place in Tokyo for you. I have not been there, but it sounds like what you are looking for.

                Izusen (Yoga - Shojin-ryori). 3700-4661.
                The Tokyo branch of a famous temple restaurant in Kyoto, they specialize in teppatsu-ryori, a type of shojin-ryori (vegetarian temple cuisine). The tatami rooms look out onto a beautiful Japanese garden. Dinner is Y5500 or Y6500.
                Setagaya-ku, Seta 3-6-8. (at the intersection of Route 246 and Kampachi-dori) Open 11am-8:30pm (LO). Closed Wednesdays.

                To get there...
                From Shibuya in Tokyo (a major station on the JR Yamanote loop line) take the Denen-toshi Line to a station called Yoga (about 13 minutes?) and it is close to there.

                Good luck!