Eating strictly vegetarian — no meat, no seafood — can be a little tricky in Japan because many dishes use dashi, a fish broth made with bonito flakes. Thanks to Kyoto’s strong Buddhist culture and local specialties like tofu and kyo-yasai (traditional Kyoto vegetables), though, vegetarians likely won’t have too much trouble finding meat- and fish-free dishes. These are Kyoto’s tastiest vegetarian restaurants.
Sitting just outside the main gates of Zen temple complex Myōshin-ji, Ajiro has been serving shojin ryori (Buddhist cuisine) since 1962 and uses no meat, fish or dairy in its dishes. The food at Ajiro, which changes by the season, is presented beautifully. A delicate square of pistachio tofu is served topped with tiny purple shiso flowers and a thumbnail-sized round of wasabi. Pumpkin tofu is plated alongside namafu (wheat gluten) wrapped in bamboo and a piece of inarizushi (a fried tofu pouch filled with sushi rice). Ajiro has limited seating, so be sure to make reservations.
Tucked inside Sogen Garden within temple Tenryu-ji, Shigetsu is open only from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and makes for an ideal break from wandering the temple’s grounds. Lunch is prix fixe, with various set prices, Though some dishes change with the calendar, expect things like chilled sesame tofu, tender miso-glazed eggplant and yuba (tofu skin) in broth. Like all Buddhist temple restaurants, Shigetsu is technically vegan. If you’re a group of two or more, enhance the experience by booking a table in the tatami room that overlooks the Zen garden.
A hidden gem inside buzzing Nishiki Market, tiny Hale is housed inside a machiya (traditional wooden Kyoto house). It can be a little tricky to find; it’s inside the market, on the north side of the street, between Tominokoji-dori and Fuyacho-dori. Look for a sweets shop and you’ll see the glass door to Hale. Inside is a cozy space with seating for a dozen overlooking a small garden. The three prix-fixe sets are big on tofu; expect creamy soft tofu and yuba alongside steamed vegetables, fragrant miso soup, and pickled vegetables. Hale is cash only and, citing a number of breakables, does not serve kids under age 10.
This light-filled café is just across the street from the Sagarashiyama JR station, in Arashiyama district near the Sagano bamboo forest and Tenryū-ji temple. On the menu are set lunches starring tofu, brown rice, and seasonal vegetables; hearty bowls of free-of-fish broth; and a few simple Western dishes like spaghetti with mock sausage. For dessert, try a slice of moist pound cake with a cup of tea before setting off for your walk around the bamboo forest.
Choice Café and Restaurant
When you need a break from tofu, hightail it to this casual eatery right by Sanjo station. Choice serves mostly Western vegan dishes, with lunch and dinner sets also available. Standout items include brown rice and vegetable risotto, tempeh and root vegetable kebab, and a vegetarian pâté. For dessert, the vegan cheese plate is quite popular, but those who are hesitant will be perfectly happy with the rice milk ice cream. Choice is a popular spot with local office workers, who swing by for take-out, especially for the toothsome cookies.