Category Archives: Vegan Restaurants

Is Tokyo’s Vegan Dining Scene Improving?

Even in London, with thousands of vegan residents and visitors, great vegan restaurants come and go. Still, it is a sad statement of Japanese interest in veganism that Tokyo begins 2012 with three fewer vegan-only restaurants than last year.

  • First, there was the closure in March of the vegan and organic J’s Kitchen in Hiroo, owing to a shortage of safe and secure food products following the Tohoko disaster.
  • In December, Tokyo lost Manna Foods (a raw vegan restaurant) in Daikanyama and Cafe Little Hands (lunch only pop-up restaurant) in Jiyugaoka. I had never been to Manna, but had sampled their raw lasagna at VeggieFesta. Like many others, I found their food delicious, but pricey for the small portions.
  • Attending the farewell event at Cafe Little Hands, I regretted I had never eaten there before because the food was wholesome–not oily or excessively flavored–and included a variety of fresh fruits, vegetables, grains and nuts. It was like eating a home-cooked meal, and reasonably priced, too.

On the positive side, there is a growing number of plant-based dining alternatives from restaurant chains to pick up the slack:

  • After months anticipating the arrival of Fukuoka’s Mana Burgers in Tokyo (it was renamed “Island Veggie” with backing from the Aloha Table chain).
    • Visiting Island Veggie in Hiroo for a weekend lunch, I ordered the set, and was given a choice of deli items with either bread (the “whole wheat” bread was not baked in-house, and whole wheat content minimal), brown rice, or rice cracker.
    • The namesake “Mana Burger” my friend had was small and light on lettuce and tomato. Although the patty is vegan, they offer dairy cheese on the burger and no dairy-free cheese option. Bun was not particularly healthy either, perhaps why Mana Burger’s originator calls it “natural junk.”
    • Island Veggie’s novelty, and upscale location attracts a good crowd for now, and–despite small portions and high prices–its corporate support should keep it afloat.

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How to Eat Healthy and Save Money in Paradise

While in Honolulu for last year’s marathon, I discovered Loving Hut, Simple Joy, the vegan-friendly Green Papaya, and the not so vegan-friendly Roy’s. Staying in an apartment with full kitchen, it was not restaurants, but farmers markets–such as the one at Kapiolani Community College–that topped the list for fresh, local produce and economical home cooking.

This year, I decided to stay in Waikiki and experience Honolulu without wheels, catching an airport shuttle bus ($15) to the hotel, and getting around by foot and public transport. Over the course of a week, I easily saved $400 for car rental and parking (which alone costs over $30/day at some hotels!).

Unsure of the availability of nutritious vegan foods, I had baked myself a couple loaves of whole-wheat sourdough bread, okara quinoa carob cookies, and prepared batches of protein bars and sesame halvah bars, too. I packed so much that I overloaded the baggage scales before leaving Japan.

I have to commend All Nippon Airways for its comfortable flight (how did we ever live without personal movie screens?) and vegan meal service. The two meals–ratatouille with 100% whole wheat roll, and a spinach wrap sandwich, both accompanied by salad and cut fruit–seemed better quality than the standard “beef or chicken” fare. Be sure to order ANA’s “strict vegetarian meal” when you make your reservation!

During my one week stay in Waikiki, I found plenty of choices within walking distance and/or by “The Bus” service ($2.50 per ride–Take No. 4 toward Nuuanu and get off at University and S. King intersection) that were vegan and budget-friendly, too.
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Kyoto Yakiniku-ya Gives Birth to Vegan Cafe

The ultimate result of Tai-ichi Matsuda’s battle with his conscience is great news for Japanese diners, and animal lovers everywhere.

It all began when the owner a popular south Kyoto yakiniku-ya (Korean-style barbequed meat restaurant)* went searching online for a family pet, and landed on some animal rights web sites.

For the first time, Tai-ichi learned about the way breeders and pet shops abused animals, how meat production is cruel to animals and pollutes the environment, and that eating animal products was harmful for one’s health, too.

Like most people, he had always believed we needed meat to survive. But the more he learned, the more he questioned his values and came to understand a vegan lifestyle was the right path for him. Within a week, Tai-ichi proceeded to give up meat and fish, quickly followed by eggs and dairy products.

He had kept it a secret for a month, before his wife became suspect. “Why don’t you eat meat any more?” she asked. He feared telling her, especially since the yakiniku-ya had been their livelihood for 10 years. Thankfully, Atsuko (along with his 3 young children) agreed to share his vegan crusade, yet doubted the former meat-lover would stick with his decision for long.

But while Tai-ichi never questioned his own ability to stay vegan, deciding the fate of his yakiniku restaurant consumed him with worry and depression for months.

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Roy’s No Treat for Vegans

When I moved here 20 years ago, Japan was a culinary wasteland for reasonably priced high-quality western fare. About the best thing going was Sizzler, or the short-lived Kenny Roger’s Roasters. So, when the first Roy’s Restaurant opened up in Tokyo’s suburbs–just 10 minutes walk from my home–it was a huge treat.

For the first time ever, Tokyoites could enjoy American-style weekend brunches, which were around ¥2500 ($25), or ¥3500 ($35) with unlimited beer, wine or sparkling wine. The service was impeccable–like when you left the table to use the bathroom and the waitstaff re-folded your napkin before you returned, the generous refills on french bread with whipped butter, and refills on drinks (you could switch between guava, grapefruit, or orange juices), including espressos and capuccinos (long before Starbucks made them ubiquitous). It was a rare bargain for luxury dining.

After brunching at Roy’s regularly for a few months, I realized I was putting on weight, and began to limit my visits to special occasions–of which I devised as many as possible. When I visited Hawaii several years ago, I also went out of the way to try Roy’s restaurants on Oahu and Maui, too. Who can forget their trademark oozing chocolate lava cake? Since then, while Roy’s has expanded across the mainland U.S. (even to my home state of Maryland), its restaurants have grown and contracted in Tokyo, where only 1 remains.

Although I have not dined at Roy’s in many years, it was not because I had become vegan, but because their menu rarely changed. Continue reading

Conscious Lunch

Being vegan in Tokyo can often make one feel isolated in the world’s most populous city, but last weekend my partner and I counted ourselves a very lucky minority to meet acclaimed vegan chef and author of the “The Conscious Cook” cookbook, Tal Ronnen.

While Japan is known for originating the predominantly vegetarian macrobiotic diet, and “macrobi” restaurants are ubiquitous here, veganism is extremely rare in Japan. As a result, our vegan cooking school and vegan recipe website came up near the top of the web search Chef Tal did before his recent visit to Tokyo.

We were aware Tal had cooked for Oprah Winfrey’s 21-day vegan cleanse and catered Ellen DeGeneres and Portia De Rossi’s wedding, but not of his fondness for Japan, inherited from his Australian father who had lived in Japan 3 years. Tal said Japanese food was his favorite, and asked our recommendation for Shojin Ryoori (traditional Buddhist temple food). Continue reading