Are you a vegetarian who wants to eat WELL in Tokyo? Then this one-day vegetarian Tokyo foodie itinerary is for you. It takes you through some of the highlights of Tokyo’s vast culinary scene. It includes stellar tempura, fabulous Japanese snacks, superlative pizza, and shaved ice.
Tencha and pickles at Tempura Mochiku. - image © Florentyna Leow
Tokyo Vegetarian Foodie Itinerary Notes
- If you do wish to take photographs, ask first, and be discreet and respectful about it. If there’s a sign that says don’t take photographs, respect it!
- Grazing and snacking at many different places is going to generate a lot of plastic waste. Circumvent the plastic wherever possible. Bring your own cutlery and handkerchief, and ask the shop staff not to give you any. Refuse the plastic bags that each and every snack will be put in. Forgo your straws and forget the lid on your takeaway latte. Even better - ask them to put it in a cup and have it in store. Every little bit helps.
- We’ve put directions to each location in this itinerary AFTER the location to avoid cluttering things up.
- Finally, we’ve put all of the places listed here, and the walking routes in each area, on a special map of this itinerary. Scroll down to the end of this itinerary to view the map.
Pouring coffee at Tricolore in Ginza. - image © Florentyna Leow
Japan is not an easy place for vegetarians. Dashi, the umami-packed skipjack bonito broth, is at the heart and soul of Japanese cuisine, and its presence in almost all savoury foods here has at any given point driven non-meat eaters to despair in past times. Even the most innocuous-looking vegetables have crossed paths with some ocean-dwelling creatures at some point.
So when you're vegetarian in Japan, you learn to occasionally let your boundaries slide a little, to allow for the presence of broth if not the meat or fish itself. This is to say nothing of having vegetarians and non-vegetarians dining together: the burden of compromise is made all the rougher when traveling in an unfamiliar place, when excellent vegetarian options aren't as abundant or accessible as you'd like.
But why should omnivores have all the fun? This itinerary takes you on a day of purely vegetarian eating in one of the world's culinary capitals. Yes, it's all vegetarian. But on another level, everything here is so good it almost doesn't matter whether you lead a plant-based existence or not. Call up your favourite eaters and hit the streets: you're out to devour Tokyo.
Blend coffee at Tricolore in Ginza. - image © Florentyna Leow
One-Day Tokyo Vegetarian Foodie Itinerary
9am: Coffee at Tricolore, Ginza
Compared to their Southeast Asian city counterparts, Tokyo does not wake up early for breakfast. Bakeries open at 9am, cafes at 10 or 11am. Even the hallowed Cafe de l'Ambre in Ginza opens at noon, a hedonistic start to a day. Sure, you'll have the occasional standing soba joint filled with salarymen frantically slurping noodles between train rides in the morning, and there are always the convenience store breakfasts. But by and large, there isn't the same variety and vibrancy in breakfast culture as in a place like Taipei or Penang.
What do you do in Tokyo, then? You head to a kissaten, an old-fashioned coffee house, one of the few kinds of establishments more likely to be open before 9am. Ginza is home to several, frequented mainly by elderly men and women. I have a soft spot for Tricolore. The waitstaff in their smart black and white uniforms form right angles as they bow to customers departing through the revolving doors. You hear the tinkle of classical music underneath the sounds of bespectacled older women giggling into their cakes, while balding men in black and charcoal suits puff away on their cigarettes at the counter.
The decor is old French house kitsch, electric candelabras, faux brick walls and all. Most importantly, the coffee is a dark, heady brew potent enough to spark the seeds of a novel or two while you sip. If there was ever a cafe in Tokyo that could make you feel like a budding Parisian writer, it would be a place like Tricolore.
Be warned that kissaten are primarily smoking establishments. It comes with the territory; luckily, the second floor of Tricolore is entirely non-smoking.
Tricolore Directions: Find your way to Ginza Station. Take Exit A5. When you're above ground, walk straight and take the next right turning. (You'll be walking with MItsukoshi to your left on the other side of the road.) Tricolore is a short walk down this street on your left.
Fruits daifuku and matcha daifuku at Mon Cher. - image © Florentyna Leow
10:30am: Daifuku mochi at Mitsukoshi Ginza
When you're in a department store basement food hall, the phrase 'spoilt for choice' takes on new meaning. Simply wandering around and looking is pure pleasure - gleaming glass cases of food heaped high in glossy, vibrant pyramids, gustatory abundance at every turn.
Yet the depachika can be such a minefield for strict vegetarians when even the most innocuous foods, like potato croquettes or rice balls, turn out to contain scraps of meat or shaved fish flakes. Your best bet when operating on a blank slate is to avoid the savoury foods and stick to the sweets. Luckily, this is hardly onerous when there is so much to choose from. Pillowy chiffon cakes filled with whipped cream, whole grapes straitjacketed in sugared sour paste, 'can you believe it's vegan' chocolate truffles.
A soft, heavy matcha daifuku. - image © Florentyna Leow
What you want is a daifuku. Specifically, you want the matcha daifuku and fruit daifuku from Mon Cher モンシェール. Simply put, they're rice cakes with sweet fillings. ‘Daifuku' literally means 'great luck' or 'great fortune,' and when you eat these babies you'll feel like you've stumbled upon the culinary motherlode.
Exactly how much better can a daifuku get? Exponentially. First, imagine holding this unassuming hunk. It droops in your hand, cool and heavy. Feel its skin, thin and pliant, silky as a lover's thigh, just as tenderly bruised at the lightest touch. The most conventional daifuku are filled with bean paste - often too stodgy for my tastes - but here that skin encases a small fistful of whipped cream, dense as a cloud.
Cross-section of fruit daifuku. - image © Florentyna Leow
Many daifuku can be eaten at room temperature, but these should be eaten straight from the display case. The sooner the better. And though the matcha daifuku will have you renounce Starbucks green tea lattes for life, gun to head, I would choose the fruit daifuku. Imagine tasting a Creamsicle for the first time. The sweet-tart fruit and voluptuous cream brings back childhood's sticky-fingered bliss like nothing else does.
Mitsukoshi Ginza Directions: From Tricolore, turn right. Walk back out to the main road. Mitsukoshi is across the road, so find the nearest crossing to you on the left corner and walk there. Head underground to B2 for the food hall.
Chef Nishizawa hard at work. - image © Florentyna Leow
12:00pm: Tempura Mochiku in Ginza
When the sun is high in the sky it's time for lunch. Head thee over to Tempura Mochiku, a small 8-person counter-seating-only restaurant with one chef behind the counter. I know, this describes about a thousand other establishments in the city. It is the quintessential Tokyo experience. Don't fight it. You should probably make a reservation, too.
Lifting carrot slices out of hot sesame oil. - image © Florentyna Leow
Is Mochiku the best tempura in town? Almost certainly not. What does it mean to be the 'best' when there are so many styles and variations within a given genre of food, when Tokyo is so vastly populated by excellent restaurants? At some point, these metrics lose their meaning in the sea of information out on the internet. There are a number of significantly more famous and hallowed places in Ginza for tempura, like Tenichi or Kondo. You could eat at most places on a best-of list and be satisfied. Personally, I'd choose Chef Nishizawa's tempura over A-list fame any day.
Asparagus and aubergine tempura. - image © Florentyna Leow
Those who prefer a lighter, quicker lunch should go for the yasai tendon - a simple bowl of rice topped with vegetable tempura. If you have the time and space to spare, the tempura teishoku or set lunch is the way to go. Non-vegetarians may want seafood. But well-cooked seasonal vegetables alone will please all but the strictest vegetarians here. (Everything is fried in the same oil; this is the reality of most restaurant dining here.) You might begin with mitsuba, sweet and herbal. Curled rectangles of carrot, the part of the root between the skin and core where the sugars are most concentrated. Ruffled maitake mushrooms. Chunks of aubergine bursting with juice. Everything is coated in a beautifully light, lacy batter. Heavy sauces, which tend to be fish stock-based, obscure bad tempura, so purists often forgo tentsuyu and dip in salt instead. This is my preferred way of eating good tempura.
Scooping bits of batter out of the hot oil. - image © Florentyna Leow
For a set lunch, you'll finish with a kakiage on rice. The beauty of a fritter is that it is a starting point rather than a formula, varying with the seasons and whims of a chef. Today is an autumn day and it might be cubes of lotus root, carrot, perilla leaf, onions. Tomorrow it might be something else. The tendon, or tempura rice bowl, is drizzled with a sauce containing fish stock. Your omnivorous companions will love this. The vegetarian option is far more unusual: tencha, a tempura ochazuke or tea rice. Many restaurants use fish broth in their ochazuke; Chef Nishizawa keeps the spirit of the name and uses a grassy, lightly bitter sencha tea. It feels like it should be greasy but isn't, and that is a very good thing. Sprinkle with salt as desired. Eat fast, before everything becomes too soggy.
Directions: From Mitsukoshi Ginza, walk out to the ground floor and find your way to the main crossing. You'll be facing Wako on one corner. Cross the street to Wako. Walk straight and past Wako. Just before the highway, turn left and cross the road. You will pass Ginza Sony Park on your left, and Tokyu Plaza Ginza across to your right. Mochiku is on the second floor of the Sanraku building after you cross the street.
A massive kakigori for two. - image © Florentyna Leow
3:00pm: Kakigori at Kuriya otona Kurogi in Ueno
Shaved ice desserts are everywhere in Asia, from the Korean bingsu to the Malaysian ais kacang to the Taiwanese Ice Monster. And yet I keep coming back to kakigori. At the best shops, it's all about the little details: the ice (is it delicious on its own, free of impurities?), the layering (is it tightly packed, or loose enough that it hasn't compacted too much) the flavour combinations (the sky's the limit). Kuriya otona Kurogi in Ueno is just one of many great kakigori shops in Tokyo to have your fix.
Make no mistake, this place is extremely popular. The wait here can be up to an hour or two for a seat in one of their booths. Luckily for us, there's a take-out option, which really means sitting at one of the tiny tables next to the window to eat your shaved ice. What are you ordering? The kuromitsu kinako kakigori soft serve 黒蜜きなこかき氷ソフト. That's a mouthful of a name, and an even bigger mouthful of a dessert.
Cross section of the kakigori at Kuriya otona Kurogi. - image © Florentyna Leow
The more kakigori you eat, the more you'll notice how great and varied ice can be. Some places have longer, finer, sharper needles that seem to dissolve instantly on your tongue; here it's a little more granular, coming away in neat spoonfuls that melt a little slower in your mouth, with an almost creamy consistency. Of course, the fact that this mountain of ice is layered through with a thick cream and black sugar syrup does help - a beguiling, voluptuous roasted soy nut cream, nutty and caramel-like, with just a hint of salt and shoyu-esque umami to keep you hooked.
It's a monster of a kakigori. You'll almost certainly want to share with someone. That being said, you will also see customers demolishing their own separate mountains of ice and cream. The eternal mystery in Japan isn't about the geisha world or host clubs, but rather: how do people stay so slim when the nation seems to have a collective, super-sized sweet tooth? It's best not to ask.
Kuriya otona Kurogi directions: Return to Ginza Station from whence you came. Board the Ginza line train towards Asakusa. Alight at Ueno-Hirokoji Station. Take Exit A1. When you're above ground, walk straight until you see the entrance to Kuriya otona Kurogi on your left, with a bright white and red 氷 flag in the window - approximately 180 metres. It'll be in on the ground floor of the Parco building.
A cheesy slice of the Tamaki pizza. - image © Florentyna Leow
6:00pm: Pizza at Pizza Studio Tamaki, Higashi-Azabu
The measure of an excellent pizza is its crust. Which is not to say that the quality of the toppings isn't vital, but it's a tragedy of minor proportions to have excellent toppings marred by a lacklustre crust. I've never been much of a pizza crust eater but at a place like Pizza Studio Tamaki (PST), I'll finish the whole damn slice. The dough is gorgeously elastic and charred, with that characteristic shower of fine sea salt that puts it firmly in the same vein as pizza from Seirinkan in Nakameguro.
Having eaten a number of pies across the menu, I like the vegetarian ones better. Certainly I find the tomato-based pies superior to the ones without. (You may disagree, and that's fine. I'm just not a fan of pizza bianca.) Whether it's the signature Tamaki - how can I ever have pizza without smoked mozzarella again? - or the Olive liberally studded with, duh, olives, everyone's leaving happy after dinner here.
A slice of Olive pizza. - image © Florentyna Leow
PST is located in Higashi-Azabu, a stone's throw away from Tokyo Tower. It can be tricky for them to accommodate walk-ins on busy evenings, so either make a reservation, or head to their larger location in Roppongi, where there are plenty of seats and the pizza is just as good. You could even forgo PST for Seirinkan in Nakameguro. Whichever joint you head to, you'll be having excellent pizza tonight.
Pizza Studio Tamaki Directions: Walk back the way you came towards Ueno-Hirokoji Station. This time, take the Oedo Line bound for Ryogoku and Daimon. Ride it for 12 stations to Akabanebashi Station. Take the Nakanohashi Exit 中之橋口. Turn left and walk straight. Take the next left, walking away from the main road. PST is on the corner of the block of buildings facing a small park.
Want more pizza suggestions? Read our guide to the best pizza in Tokyo.
Cocktails at New York Bar, Shinjuku. - image © Florentyna Leow
8:00pm: Cocktails at New York Bar, Shinjuku
It’s time to finish your day in style. Luckily, cocktails are pretty much guaranteed to be vegetarian-friendly. There are any number of ways you could end a night out in Tokyo - a cocktail tasting menu at Gen Yamamoto, innumerable samples at the Tokyo Whisky Library, or live jazz and booze at Maduro. Then again, you could keep it simple: head to the Park Hyatt and re-enact your very own Lost in Translation moment with cocktails at the sky-high New York Bar.
Classic drinks abound, as well as plenty of non-alcoholic options, but you’ll want some space to try the Japanese cocktails. The Rin, made with white wine, yuzu shrub, soda water, and the gorgeously flowery ‘Roku’ craft gin, is a rather special drink.
New York Bar Directions: Head back to Akabanebashi Station on the Oedo Line. Take the train bound for Roppongi and Tochomae. Alight at Tochomae Station. Take Exit A5. The Park Hyatt is a quick taxi ride away, or a 10 minute walk. Turn right and walk with the park to your right. Cross the road, and cut through the park on your right, continuing to walk in the same direction. You'll reach a traffic light. Cross the road. The Park Hyatt is now just in front of you.
Tokyo Vegetarian Foodie Itinerary
View the different places discussed in this itinerary on this Google map. Open the sidebar (by clicking the icon on top left of the map) to see all of the points
Tokyo Vegetarian Restaurants
For more vegetarian restaurant suggestions please read our guide to the best vegan and vegetarian restaurants in Tokyo.
About the author: Florentyna Leow is a writer, photographer, and tour guide based in Tokyo. When she's not eating or roaming the streets for food, she can be found with a book and pen in hand. Her work has appeared in Lucky Peach, Roads & Kingdoms, and Kyoto Journal. Her photographs can be found at @furochan_eats, @doorwaysofasia, and @lovemeleafme on Instagram.
Many thanks to Sebastian Bury for hand modeling and photography assistance.
Tokyo Vacation Checklist
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