Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Vegan in Japan: Four Days in Kyoto

After our overnight stay in Nagoya our train journey continued but this time it was only a short hop to Kyoto. With food on our minds our first stop was the all vegan Cafe Matsuontoko which is located right in the centre of Kyoto just off of the Shin Kyogoku shopping arcade.

I had to order the Teriyaki Burger and Fries after spotting it on the menu because how great does that sound?!

The burger was soy based and delicious and the chips were perfectly crisp, no sogginess in sight. Nick also had a burger which he enjoyed but he was too hungry to let me photograph it!

For dessert Nick picked the dessert of the day which was a chocolate torte which came paired with ice cream, berry compote, whipped cream and chocolate sauce.

I cannot deal with vanilla ice cream so I'm glad I didn't pick this but the cake was great and I loved the little taste of whipped cream I tried. I can never resist doughnuts and Cafe Matsuontoko had a selection of five to choose from. I had no idea what any of them were though so through the power of guesswork and pointing I ended up with matcha and vanilla. I also ordered a scoop of matcha ice cream because I wanted to keep on getting my matcha fix wherever I could!

The doughnuts were baked, light and fluffy. As baked doughnuts are my favourite I enjoyed them both but of course the matcha was the best. I ate the vanilla doughnut with the matcha ice cream which was pretty spectacular, if you visit I'd strongly recommend that combo.

We spent the rest of the day exploring the Heian Shrine and it's beautiful Japanese garden. If these next pictures look familiar it's probably because these are two of the places Charlotte visits in Lost in Translation.

As Cafe Matsuontoko was one of the few places open in the evening, until 12 which seemed unusual for veggie spots in Japan, we headed there for dinner too. We ordered a couple of things to share, one Pizza Margherita...

...and one Fried Wheat Gluten Cutlet.

We both really enjoyed the pizza, it was flatbread style but if you put melted cheese onto any kind of carb we'll probably be into it. If this had been Italy we might have felt differently about it's pizza status but we were excited to have it as an option in this scenario. The cutlets were the real standout though and we very carefully divided the plate in half. The mashed potatoes were super creamy and the tartar sauce complimented everything perfectly. For dessert we split the pancakes which came with two perfectly formed scoops of ice cream, one chocolate and one vanilla, as well as berry compote, whipped cream, delicious albeit slightly odd fried cracker things, and chocolate sauce.

Obviously these pancakes were the bomb, just look at them! They were puffy and pillow like and I was very happy that my one of my fave' ice cream flavours was represented here. If we'd had more space we definitely would have ordered a plate each!

The next day we got up early and travelled north from out apart-hotel to Arashiyama to check out Sagano Bamboo Forest.

I'd seen a million pictures of this spot in travel magazines and online over the years but they don't do it justice, the atmosphere is amazing and because we were early we beat the tourist hoards who arrived just as we were moving on to the Tenryū-ji Temple. Iwatayama monkey park is also located near here and whilst I would love, love, love to see a monkey in the wild we decided to give this place a miss. Whilst the monkeys are technically wild you do have to pay to go and check them out and visitors are then sold food to feed the monkeys which creates a human dependent monkey population. After some conversations via e-mail with monkey experts Wild Futures we decided not to support this popular spot for the reasons Brooke, a Wild Futures campaigner, explains:

Pretty much any place that encourages/allows wild monkeys to be fed by the public winds up experiencing pretty serious problems with the monkeys - they come to associate people with food and become sort of like "thugs" - people start to want to do something about the monkey "problem" - then some of them are "culled" (killed) or persecuted, or rounded up and shipped somewhere else. Also, it is unlikely that the food people are feeding them is good for them and you will probably see a lot of really obese, unhealthy monkeys as a result.

I think it's always important to do your own research and seek out experts opinions when considering interacting with animals at home or abroad, it is often challenging but it's definitely worth the extra effort to ensure you aren't inadvertently involved in any kind of animal exploitation.

As well as wanting to explore the beautiful Tenryū-ji Temple grounds and gardens we had something else on our minds, food! As a pretty heavily tattooed vegan I knew that I'd have to skip some of the traditional tourist experiences whilst we were travelling in Japan. Onsen were out (no tattoos allowed) and despite excessive googling there are no vegan friendly izakayas (well, not unless you can do some seriously badass communicating in Japanese) so I was very excited about experiencing a traditional Zen Buddhist Shōjin Ryōri meal. Shōjin Ryōri includes soy, grains and vegetables but shuns garlic, onion and other strong flavours. It's always entirely vegan. We decided to try out Shigetsu, located in the Tenryu-ji temples grounds, as I'd read about wonderful experiences other vegan bloggers had had there.

After purchasing our ¥500 ticket to gain entry to the gardens we walked a while until hunger struck. The huge coy filled pond is seriously beautiful and we loved exploring the landscaped gardens. Shigetsu wasn't hard to find and after covering my shoulders and as many tattoos as I could we wandered inside. It was a very quiet space and we felt almost guilty for ringing the bell at the desk and disturbing the peace! They were only serving the 9 course ¥3000 meal that day so that's what we both went with. I totally would have been tempted by the ¥7000 11 course meal but really this was quite enough food so I'm quite glad that option wasn't in front of me.

I'm not going to pretend that I knew what everything in front of me was but I do have some idea. Steamed white rice is obvious and then above that there was a plate of steamed vegetables and a super interesting dark coloured gelatinous cube which I was unable to identify but really enjoyed (if anyone had any ideas here I would love some insight into what it was!), next to that was a small bowl of broccoli with super pungent horseradish sauce and next to that was gomadofu, otherwise known as sesame tofu which is similar in texture to silken tofu but with a deeper flavour. Below that was a little plate of pickles and then a soy milk soup. There were more delicious veggies in the centre and to the right was the most unusual dish of all which consisted of rice wrapped in a leaf served in a sort of gelatinous cold soup. Lastly we enjoyed some fruit. Of course there was also tea which I forgot to photograph but actually really enjoyed despite my previous feelings on tea.

This was a beautiful experience and I feel super lucky to have been able to visit, it was definitely an unforgettable part of our trip.

One more modern Japanese experience I was unsure about taking part in was a visit to a cat cafe. Of course the idea appealed, I love kitties, but where do they come from? I disagree with breeding any animals and am firmly in the adopt don't shop camp when it comes to finding an animal friend. So, is there an ethical way to take part in the cat cafe experience? After a lot of googling we discovered Cat Cafe Nekokaigi a Kyoto based cat cafe who rescue abandoned cats. In a country with a small but growing animal activist community we knew this was something we wanted to support.

Unsure of what to expect we rang the bell and were greeted at the door by one of the volunteers who asked us to remove our shoes and thoroughly wash our hands. We were then ushered through a secondary door to the kitty filled room where we were shown the drinks menu. To spend an hour with the cats you pay a flat fee of ¥900 and have to buy one drink. We both went for juice and our glasses came with a cat proof lid for two reasons, you probably don't want little paws in your drink and the people running the cafe don't want the kitties drinking your human beverages. We loved the book at each table that laid out the rules for interacting with the kitties, no feeding the cats, no disturbing a sleeping cat, no picking up the cats etc etc. There were also profiles for each of the cats so that you could read about their personalities and histories. The cafe also does't allow children under 13 which we thought seemed sensible as it's often challenging to keep young children under control and screaming, shouting or running around could scare the kitties.

I connected most deeply with a little cat called Moka, she has a problem with over grooming and wears a little set of pyjamas to help her keep it to a minimum. She was just the cutest friendliest little cat, I let her sit on my legs until they went numb and I couldn't feel my feet.

I am aware that cat cafes are a somewhat contentious issue among vegans but as someone who has been actively boycotting and protesting against using animals for entertainment including in zoos, aquariums and circuses for over 12 years this seemed very different to me than those exploitative practices. I definitely do not think that this is the case with all cat cafes, as the people running Cat Cafe Nekokaigi say most cat cafes in Japan are filled with pedigree or rare cats which supports breeding.

After our relaxing cat filled afternoon we went bowling as the weather wasn't nice enough to be outside and clearly we love to be confused whilst trying to enter our names into machines that we don't understand. We needed a lot of help from the group of young Japanese kids in the next lane! Also, they didn't have Nick's shoe size which, on reflection, may have given me an unfair advantage and perhaps helps explain why I beat him three times in a row breaking my ten year loosing streak!

Dinner was a quick one at Cafe Matsuontoko because bed was calling, we didn't even get dessert!

I ordered the fried soy meat burger this time around and thought it was delicious, I think if you can only order one thing there you should totally pick a soy meat burger!

The next day it was time for more exploring, this time The Golden Temple and the Inari Shrine. This was another one of the standout days of the trip. The temple was so beautiful and once you tuned out the other tourists it felt like such a peaceful place. The shrine was quieter than the temple because we walked all the way up and explored areas off of the main path, it was really beautiful and we found and befriended a little cat.

We worked up some serious hunger here but thankfully Vegans Cafe and Restaurant was our next stop. I knew I wanted a pizza as soon as I saw it on the menu because if you don't know already I really, really love pizza! I ordered the Margherita...

...and Nick ordered the special which was BBQ Soy Meat.

As you can see the margherita was so much more than that, there were potatoes and spinach on there alongside the tomato base and creamy homemade soy cheese. Nick's barbeque soy meat pizza also came with mushrooms, spinach and what looked and tasted like a whole lot of saffron...maybe saffron's cheaper out there because that looked like around £10's worth of strands to me! Are there other spices out there that look like saffron? Anyway, saffron aside, if you like your pizza's hot this one's for you. We struggled slightly and Nick doesn't sit anywhere near as far into the spice wuss category as I do! The Margarita was one of the best pizzas either of us have ever eaten, potato on a pizza is so great...I mean, it should be, it's carbs on carbs! This was truly excellent, their pizza bases are off the chart!

We contemplated skipping dessert because those pizzas were damn filling but then we saw someone at the next table getting this parfait delivered and we couldn't resist, it was exactly as epic as it looks.

Chocolate soft serve ice cream, chocolate and banana muffins, banana, apple, raspberry sauce and chocolate sauce. This has to be one of the best desserts I've ever eaten, it goes in my Top 10 Desserts list for sure. In fact, I think I'd put Vegans Cafe in my Top 10 Restaurants list. Everything we ate was fantastic, they get a tonne of extra points for making their own vegan cheeses and they were one of very few vegan places we visited that was promoting an animal rights message. Of course I couldn't understand most of the pamphlets but you can get the general gist from the photographs!

We actually returned to Vegans Cafe the next day after exploring Gion, Kyoto's famous entertainment and geisha district. Shimbasi is just off of Shijō-dōri and whilst I am unsure if Lonely Planet's description of it as "arguably the most beautiful street in all of Asia" is in fact correct it was certainly a gorgeous place for an afternoon wander.

Obviously we ordered the Margherita again, when something's that great you can't let it slip by uneaten!

Sticking with the pizza theme we also ordered the Soy White. I've wanted to try a white pizza for a while and I figured if anyone can do it justice it'll be these guys.

Unsurprisingly it was delicious, super garlicky and both the white sauce and the homemade cheese were super creamy. It also came with potatoes and sweetcorn which, given that they are probably my oldest and newest favourite pizza toppings, was just perfect.

Dessert wise we got another of their delicious parfaits as well as a slice of the lightest most perfect chocolate matcha cake.

As I'm no vanilla ice cream fan I traded my side of soft serve for half of a muffin and some of the chocolate ice cream from Nick's parfait which was a trade I clearly won, y'know, if everything is some kinda eating competition (which it is).

Given that burgers and pizzas are two of my favourite foods we had a pretty epic time in Kyoto and I would definitely like to go back and spend more time there. Four days is nowhere near enough time to see all of the wonderful sights in and around Kyoto and that potato covered margherita pizza is calling my name.


  1. I had absolutely no idea that there were places that wouldn't allow people entry on the basis of tattoos.

    Love all of this: the food, your experience, your love of the food experience, but especially the fact that you are so conscious not to exploit animals as you travel. Thanks for all of the information; I almost feel like I've been there!

  2. i like the idea of a cat cafe that takes in cats that need a home. we helped fund the one coming to oakland. it is from a rescue standpoint to.

    the matcha doughnut - hello growling tummy! the pizza looked great as well as the other food!

  3. I am loving your re-cap of your trip! It is making me really want to go back to Japan, there seems to be so many great vegan options that have popped up since I was there just a few years ago! Was your gelatinous cube konyaku?

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  5. So epic! Hope to make it there someday!

  6. I was able to visit the onsen because my tattoos are minimal and hidden. I tried to get into the whole experience but being naked in public is just not my thing. I also visited Kyoto but it seems I missed so much, my next visit will be more food based versus living based.

  7. So interesting to read about your trip. What a shame about the monkey place but can totally understand why you would not want to support them. Well done on researching it prior to the trip. really impressed by all the great food you encountered. I am off to Google white pizzas - I've never heard of them before. I am a big fan of potatoes on pizza too. There used to be a place in Manchester that did a cheese free one with sliced potato, garlic, red onion and a hoi sin sauce base. It was great!

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  10. Your whole trip sounds amazing!!! It's definitely made me want to go back to Japan again, I didn't spend enough time there and I definitely didn't get to try all the interesting places you guys went! (I was staying with a friend which was a great experience but I didn't try many restaurants as a result) The 9 course meal looks really interesting and unusual, I love all the little dishes, looks like a great experience!

  11. I think Kyoto is the part of Japan I most want to visit. It looks stunning and I can see there are some great vegan food options, so that's a big plus!

  12. This cat cafe thing is killing me! I can't believe it's real, and I've never wanted to go anywhere so badly in my life. Though I don't trust myself to not disturb a sleeping cat.


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