The Vegetarian Food Culture of Kyoto

by | Jul 19, 2020

There are certain stereotypes that linger about different cities in Japan. Osaka is known to be chaotic with friendly, outgoing locals. Tokyo is said to run like a well-oiled machine, but with people who are mere cogs in the machinery. And Kyoto is the birthplace of Japanese culture, with residents who seem to revel in that reputation.

I admit I have been to Kyoto very few times despite my travels around Japan, so I know very little about the true culture of the city. To be sure, it is deeply rich with ancient Japanese culture, but could this lovely city have other intriguing facets to its personality?

Kyoto’s Vegetarian Culture

In this case, it was the food culture of Kyoto that I would explore on this brief business trip. Meeting with my colleagues at Voyapon for day-long meetings, we worked hard and subsequently ate well to sustain our energy. One of my colleagues prefers not to eat meat, so the restaurants that were picked for us were those that a vegetarian (or near vegetarian) could feel comfortable eating in. Our first meal together was at Cafe Marble Bukkoji.

Kyoto Style

Housed in an elegant old machiya, Cafe Marble serves well-portioned meals that are a good fit for vegetarians or those who prefer to eat less meat.

The bacon and cheese quiche was served with two delicious side salads and a bowl of refreshing cold soup. It was the perfect size for lunch, and light enough that I didn’t have to drag myself back to work afterward.

Old and New

The combination of the traditional Japanese machiya setting with a modern Western cuisine gives Cafe Marble its decidedly Kyoto-esque ambience. My eyes were beginning to be opened to multifaceted personality of the ancient capital.

After work, we headed into lively Kawaramachi for dinner. Though to be honest, without foreign tourists, the neighborhood seems very subdued. Shooting photos in the empty streets, it almost felt like I was in Kyoto the movie set rather than Kyoto the city.

Our destination was Baitarusain, a modern looking izakaya with a young chef who is exploring the heights and depths of vegetarian cuisine. Baitarusain’s opening course is a set of vegetarian appetizers followed by a soup, and finally a box of vegetables prepared using a variety of methods shared with your tablemates. After the set, you are free to order any other dishes you’d like to try a la carte.

Baitarusain

Hidden among the narrow alleys of Kawaramachi, this modern izakaya is known for its unique takes of vegetarian cuisine. As it is an izakaya, there is a good selection of spirits, both traditional Japanese sake and shochu as well as fine wines and beer.

The set meal begins with a set of three unique appetizers made with vegetables. The cup on the left contains celery made into a refreshing sherbert atop some pickles. In the center is a ball of sweet Japanese kabocha (pumpkin) and on the right, sweet pickled red onion.

A bowl of soup made with beans and gently flavored with sundried tomatoes and fresh basil.

A box of vegetables: some fresh, some with light dressing, some grilled, to be shared with members of your party. Once you finish this portion of your meal, you can order other dishes a la carte that you want to try. They have a selection of pasta, fish, and of course a variety of vegetarian and vegan dishes.

We had one more meal together before we parted ways, this time at a little Italian owned restaurant called Pettirosso. The owner-chef of Pettirosso caters to both vegetarian and vegans, and can also make something for those who prefer a little meat as well. My colleagues and I tried out their selection of summer salads, lightly fried tempura, and incredible hand-pulled pasta.

Pettirosso

This little restaurant is owned by an Italian gentleman who can whip up some amazingly delicious vegan and vegetarian fare, as well as some dishes with a little meat. Pettirosso makes great use of fresh ingredients including their own handmade pasta.

We began our meal with a selection of cold vegetable dishes including a salad, tomatoes and bell pepper in olive oil, a sweet kabocha and walnut salad and grilled red onions.

The main course was cold, handmade angel hair pasta with grilled zucchini, tomatoes, and flavored with lemon and olive oil. A large dab of ricotta cheese made this simple dish seem indulgent.

With three wonderful vegetarian meals in Kyoto, I must admit my opinion of this city was completely changed. Though Kyoto certainly does a great job preserving the ancient traditions of Japan, it has also allowed other cultures to thrive and to some extent, mesh with the traditions of the past. I also must admit I am not even a vegetarian, but even as someone who enjoys meat, I could appreciate the flavors and preparation of the dishes of each of these unique restaurants.

Japan is not known for being an easy country for vegans and vegetarians but when you find a vegetarian restaurant here, chances are it’s going to be a good one. Voyapon has some tips on how to survive a trip to Japan as a vegetarian and I do suggest you prepare yourself before you get here to ensure you have a great time here.

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