This one-day vegetarian Kyoto foodie itinerary takes you through some of the highlights of Kyoto’s vast culinary scene. It includes incredible egg sandwiches, some of the best soy milk ramen in the city, fabulous Japanese sweets, and yuba kaiseki.
Hassun platter at Seike Yuba Nishijin – one of 9 courses. – image © Florentyna Leow
We’ve divided this itinerary into the following sections:
- Kyoto Vegetarian Foodie Itinerary Notes
- Eating Kyoto: A Preamble
The Full Kyoto Vegetarian Foodie Itinerary:
- 8:30am Coffee and egg sandwiches at Smart Coffee
- 10:30am Pastries at Le Petit Mec Oike
- 1:00pmSoy milk ramen at Towzen
- 3:00pm Warabimochi at Saryou Housen
- 6:00pm Yuba kaiseki at Seike Yuba Nishijin
- 8:00pm Drinks in downtown Kyoto
- Kyoto Vegetarian Foodie Itinerary Map
Inside Seike Yuba Nishijin. – image © Florentyna Leow
Kyoto 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.
- You want to visit places on this itinerary, wherever possible, on a weekday. Most of these places are not in particularly crowded districts, but weekends will see more people around Kyoto.
- 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.
Inside Smart Coffee – image © Florentyna Leow
Eating Kyoto: A Preamble
Being an equal opportunity eater, I have long believed that vegetarian and vegan food should be able to speak for itself without the crutch of dietary caveats – for instance, “good for vegetarian food.” I care not a whit for what a dish includes or excludes so long as it is excellent.
Out of all the major cities in Kansai, it has always seemed that Kyoto was far more accommodating of those on plant-based diets. There are certainly more and better vegetarian options than, say, neighbouring Osaka, whose claim to fame rests primarily on meat and seafood-heavy konamono (flour-based foods.) Woe betide those visitors to Osaka who dine vegan and gluten-free! Kyoto also seems to attract a greater coterie of hippies – I say this only with great fondness – and there are more temples and cafes catering to those with a predilection for plant-based eating options.
This itinerary takes you on a day of purely vegetarian eating in one of Japan’s culinary capitals. I should note that convenience and gastronomy, if we are to be frank, do not always go together. But all things considered, Kyoto is a fairly compact city, with none of Tokyo’s overwhelming sprawl, so it is at most a 20-30 minute journey between each eating destination. At each place, you are never far from a shrine or temple to visit, and you will be richly rewarded by good eating. Call a friend and head out west – a day of devouring Kyoto awaits.
The Full Kyoto Vegetarian Foodie Itinerary
House blend coffee and egg sandwiches at Smart Coffee, Teramachi. – image © Florentyna Leow
8:30am Coffee and egg sandwiches at Smart Coffee
The spectre of large-name brands is slowly encroaching upon the covered shopping arcade along Teramachi, but many of the stalwarts remain. One such place is well-loved retro kissaten Smart Coffee, which has served coffee and cafe staples to the hungry masses since 1932. Over soft strains of classical music drifts the distant sounds of the kitchen, pans clanking, coffee streaming into cups, the gentle clatter of cutlery and plates. There is usually a queue here, but it moves reasonably fast, especially if you have a book. Some things are worth waiting for and this is one of them.
As you’d expect, the coffee is good – I might even venture very good, especially if what you need first thing in the morning is dark, liquid roast in your veins to jolt you awake. Plus, there are plenty of tempting breakfast options on the menu here. Pancakes, pudding, and French toast all come highly recommended. The only thing I am here for alongside my coffee is a platter of egg sandwiches.
Egg sandwich platter. – image © Florentyna Leow
These sandwiches appear in my dreams at times. Not a filling of creamy egg salad or fried egg for Japanese kissaten sandwiches such as these. The raison d’etre of egg sandwiches here, as with Hong Kong cha chaan teng versions, is the combination of soft, crustless white bread with an inch of tender, silky omelette between – all the better to recreate some imagined nostalgic childhood filled with memories of sandwiches like this. This is one of the few times I would forgo crusty bread.
The barest smear of mustard on the bread awakens the palate, and at Smart Coffee, they leave the sandwiches deliberately under-salted. Flaky sea salt is not what you need here: the table salt they provide is the best accompaniment. I like pouring a little heap of salt on the plate, dipping the sandwich in with each bite.
(Directions: Take Exit 5 of Kyoto-shiyakushomae Station on the Tozai Subway Line. Turn left into Teramachi Shopping Arcade when you are above ground. Smart Coffee is about a 2-minute walk further down the arcade on your right.)
A selection of baked goods at Le Petit Mec Oike. – image © Florentyna Leow
10:30am Pastries at Le Petit Mec Oike
Kyoto rivals Paris in its love for boulangeries. Indeed, the prefecture has the second highest bakery-per-capita in the country, outranked only by – rather inexplicably – Ehime prefecture on Shikoku island. With what seems like a city-wide commitment to crusty baguettes and buttery pastries, there’s no shortage of bread options – if you know where to go.
There are few better places for a mid-morning snack than Le Petit Mec Oike, a Japanese-French boulangerie in central Kyoto, tucked down a street just off the main thoroughfare. The shop is compact but its selection is not, running the gamut from chocolate tarts to flaky croissants and everything else in between, melding the best of French bread technique with a few unusual flavour sensibilities.
Cafe et pain au chocolat blanc. – image © Florentyna Leow
Where vegetarians are concerned, the sweet stuff is a safe bet. Few items in the shop are better than their best-selling coffee and white chocolate bread. It is an unassuming-looking brick suggesting fruitcake with none of the mustiness, gorgeously crusty and toasty with a touch of rye flour, its body rippled through with cranberries and white chocolate, coffee undergirding the bittersweet whole. Caffeine and sugar high in one bite? You bet.
Rum raisin milk French. – image © Florentyna Leow
Even better in my book is the “rum raisin milk French.” This is a brilliant and distinctly adult riff on the “milk French,” a petite baguette sandwich of condensed milk cream. Condensed milk and bread seems to be an East Asian bakery staple. But rather than a soft, fluffy bread, Le Petit Mec’s baguette has a hearty, savoury, chewy crust and a good pull, essential to avoid a confection otherwise too milky and cloying. This version, studded through with juicy rum-soaked raisins, is dangerously easy even for the non-sweet lover to wolf down. I hesitate to call it perfection but it sure comes close.
(Directions: Make your way back to Kyoto-shiyakushomae Station. Take the Tozai Subway Line one stop westwards, alighting at Karasumaoike Station. Find Exit 2 and go above ground. Walk west for 3 blocks, and turn right into 衣棚通りKoromodana-dori Street. Le Petit Mec is just a few metres up on your left. Alternatively, it is a 15-minute walk away. Directions are included in the Google Map for this itinerary.)
Musashi, at Towzen Ramen. – image © Florentyna Leow
1:00pm Soy milk ramen at Towzen
For all of Kyoto’s preoccupations with elegance and refinement, the city’s favoured ramen styles are, rather counter-intuitively, on the heavy, fatty side. When I do eat ramen – which is rare, since it takes a great deal to interest me in a bowl – I gravitate towards lighter styles, and consequently have never really taken to Kyoto’s ramen joints.
These days, a number of restaurants in Kyoto serve soy milk ramen, a lighter and often vegetarian-friendly bowl jiving nicely with the city’s pride in its soy and tofu offerings. But I rarely seek out newcomers to this style, for firmly ensconced in my list of top ramen joints in Kyoto is Towzen. After tasting it for the first time in 2013 as a student, when the restaurant was previously known as Mamezen, I’ve found myself returning again and again over the years.
The entrance to Towzen Ramen. – image © Florentyna Leow
Towzen is inside a charming little house in the suburbs up north. The relative distance from any particular attraction makes it a little bit of a trek just to go, but it is hardly onerous considering Kyoto’s relatively compact size. If you forgo the bus ride, strolling a mere 20 minutes or so north of Shimogamo Shrine brings you here, a red lantern at the entrance promising good things at the end of the leafy, stone-paved approach. It is rarely busy at lunch on a weekday. Inside, most of the wall and shelf space is covered in paraphernalia – fans, a map, posters, manga, Polaroids, currency from around the globe. Towzen Ramen is a veritable sanctuary in an otherwise unprepossessing neighbourhood.
Close-up of the ‘Musashi’ noodles. – image © Florentyna Leow
In my younger days I used to order the tantanmen, which packs a strong, spicy punch. These days, I prefer the signature ‘Musashi.’ It is at once rich and light, consisting of soymilk broth, noodles, mushrooms and yuba – though this simple ingredient list belies the complex layering of flavours here. Owner Taro-san has made incremental changes to the Musashi over the years, and all for the better.
Imagine a shoyu-spiked soy milk broth so velvety and glossy it borders on single cream, with all the ocean depth of kelp but not a single hint of fish. There is a hint of yuzu fragrance, and a generous dusting of sansho pepper adds a stimulating effervescence to the whole. Slurp these thin silky noodles alongside the meaty simmered mushrooms and creamy yuba pieces. Add tiny dabs of plum paste to each mouthful for that requisite bright acidity. Swoon. Scrape the bowl clean, and plan your second visit.
(Directions: Walk back the way you came to Karasumaoike Station. Take the Karasuma Line northwards for 4 stops, alighting at Kita-Oji Station. Once you’re out of the ticket barriers, follow the signs to the Kita-Oji bus terminal for the red boarding points. Take Bus 204乙 bound for Takano and Ginkakuji Temple. Ride it for five stops, alighting at 高木町 Takagi-cho. From here, walk slightly west and turn left. Take the next right. Towzen Ramen is further down the road, marked by a red lantern. Alternatively, when you reach Kita-Oji Station, take a short taxi ride to Towzen Ramen.)
Warabimochi at Saryou Housen. – image © Florentyna Leow
3:00pm Warabimochi at Saryou Housen
One can only improve on a good lunch by following it with tea and sweets. Fortunately, teahouse Saryou Housen is less than 5 minutes away on foot from Towzen.
While Saryou Housen does have a branch inside Kyoto Station, it lacks atmosphere, and I think it is worth the trouble of making the sojourn northwards for this place. It is the kind of institution that inspires murmurs and hushed voices, all the better to enjoy the sound of breeze. The tatami mat-lined dining room looks out into a Japanese-style garden, with its verdant and undulating slopes of moss, tiny carmine star-shaped clusters of maple flowers hanging from the acer leaves, bushes covered in tiny bell-like Japanese Andromeda. Watch the latticework of shadow cast by gnarly pine branches on the moss below as it shudders in the wind and sun. It is best on a weekday afternoon when everyone else is at work and you are not.
Inside Saryou Housen. – image © Florentyna Leow
You can order any number of Japanese desserts here, from finely sculpted seasonal sweets of beans, rice, and sugar to iced matcha drinks – the latter a concession to modern Japanese tastes. But if you come just for one sweet, make it the warabimochi.
Warabimochi is a kind of wagashi made from bracken fern starch. Good warabimochi is not easy to find, though a well-made version is one of the high points of the Japanese sweets spectrum. It is a little under-appreciated by Western visitors to Japan for its “challenging” texture. Admittedly, it will not win any prizes for appearances. Saryou Housen’s version in particular is decidedly homely – one might even say ugly or amphibious – and it might even bring to mind slugs for those among us with more delicate constitutions. But if you have even the slightest inclination towards this dessert, know that theirs is superior. Once you’ve tried this, the supermarket stuff will simply taste like crappy jelly.
Warabimochi with syrup. – image © Florentyna Leow
What does it taste like? Imagine a texture lying somewhere between a fresh string of guimauve (French marshmallows) and freshly-pounded rice cake, lightly sticky but also stretchy, smooth, and pliant. Detractors might think it gluey. But eating this is textural appreciation of the highest order. Each piece, looking for all the world like a dull, mottled pebble, is cool and slippery outside, tasting like a cold, sweet swirl of wind. That in itself is compelling enough. You can pour on the accompanying brown sugar syrup, with its roasted caramel notes, though it is hardly necessary. You’ll need to allow an additional 15 minutes or so when ordering, for they make it from scratch each time. Consume immediately. It does not improve on sitting, losing elasticity as the minutes tick by.
The entrance to Saryou Housen. – image © Florentyna Leow
Saryou Housen Directions: Walk out of Towzen. Turn left. Keep following the road until you reach a crossroads. Turn left – turning right will bring you back to the main road – and you should see a brick wall ahead. Take the next right. You’ll see a dark blue noren curtain just ahead on your right, which marks the entrance to Saryo Hosen.
Soy milk and yuba to begin with. – image © Florentyna Leow
6:00pm Yuba kaiseki at Seike Yuba Nishijin
Kyoto prides itself on its soy products, especially tofu. Mileage varies by the restaurant, but overall, terroir proves itself true in Japan: whether it’s yudofu (tofu hotpot), freshly made yuba (soymilk skin), or any variation on soy milk products, I have never had it better in this country than in Kyoto.
While Shoraian in Arashiyama is a tourist favourite for tofu-based kaiseki, and it is admittedly decent, I was never particularly taken with it, finding that it owed more of its impact to beautiful surroundings than the food. Nor will they cater to vegetarians – most of the food contains seafood stock – which is understandable given their limited staff capacity, but a bit of a shame given that they’re a tofu restaurant.
Making yuba in front of you. – image © Florentyna Leow
For a yuba and tofu kaiseki that truly passes muster, look no further than Seike Yuba in the Nishijin district. This has been my go-to for the last few years. In a single meal you experience a wide spectrum of textures and tastes than one might think possible from the humble soybean. Lunch or dinner here stretches to around two hours. It’s the kind of place where I’d gently suggest putting away the phone and give this meal the full attention it deserves.
A creamy soy milk soup with deep-fried new onions on top. – image © Florentyna Leow
Though the structure of the multi-course meal is similar throughout the year, seasonal changes dictate a number of the dishes. For instance, on an April visit, the seasonal soy milk soup was scattered with deep-fried new onions, fragrant and savoury with none of the usual pungency. The soup itself borders on fresh tofu, with all the consistency of chowder and none of the heaviness. By summer, this warm soup will have morphed into a vichyssoise-like concoction with ripened tomatoes and olive oil.
Yuba ‘steak’ and vegetables. – image © Florentyna Leow
Still, certain elements remain consistent. To name a few: you will always begin with a shot glass of chilled soy milk, practically singing sweet bright beany flavour. Then a chaser of kumiage yuba, a creamy snowball-like mound of soy, with a little shoyu moistening its bottom. Yuba ‘steak,’ sheets of it sautéed in butter until puffed and golden, calling to mind salty soy Rice Krispies of a sort.
Fresh yuba. – image © Florentyna Leow
Before you appears a small claypot of soy milk, heated until you can lift silky, thick tongues of yuba out with chopsticks, and eat the lot with tangy ponzu sauce. A few drops of nigari (coagulant), and towards the end of your meal it has transformed into warm, fresh, almost custardy tofu, best eaten with a dab of salt to bring out its sweetness.
Tofu pudding. – image © Florentyna Leow
To finish, their signature tofu pudding – rather like blancmange, but far more interesting in its marriage of soy and dairy, making a Goldilocks ‘just right’ ending to a veritable tofu feast. Before you eat, take a few seconds to shake the plate and watch it wiggle and wobble. It is pure, unadulterated entertainment.
The entrance to Seike Yuba. – image © Florentyna Leow
Note: Like many restaurants in Kyoto, its entrance is marked only by an unassuming noren curtain. It is usually tranquil whether it’s lunch or dinner. A reservation here for contingency’s sake, however, would not hurt. This is easily done on their website in English. An additional bonus, if you are unaccustomed to sitting on the floor, is that this entire restaurant consists of table seating.
Also, if you are vegetarian but okay with animal products like butter and cream, make sure you specify this in your booking. The tofu pudding will be replaced with fruit otherwise! To convey this, paste the following text into the booking form: ベジタリアンですが、生クリームとバターはOK。肉・海鮮はNGです. (I am vegetarian but able to eat dairy products. I do not eat meat or seafood.)
One of the courtyard gardens inside Seike Yuba. – image © Florentyna Leow
Seike Yuba Nishijin Directions: Exit Saryou Housen and find your way back to the main road by turning right, and then right out again. Turn left and walk along the main road until you reach the Kita-oji and Shimogamo Hondori intersection. Take the southward-bound Bus No. 1 or 4 for Kyoto Station. Ride it 5 stops and alight at Demachiyanagi Station. Change here for Bus No. 102, bound for Kita-Oji Bus Terminal, and ride this 4 stops westwards. Alight at Imadegawa-Omiya. Walk straight, and take the next left. Seike Yuba Nishijin will be on your right about 50 metres down. Alternatively, the restaurant is but a 10-minute taxi ride away from Saryou Housen.
8:00pm Drinks in downtown Kyoto
It’s time to finish your day in style. Fortunately, if you do drink, it is pretty much guaranteed to be vegetarian-friendly. For convenience’s sake, it is best to head back downtown to end a night out in Kyoto.
There are any number of ways you could spend the evening: live jazz and booze at Hello Dolly in Pontocho, fabulous rice wines at the tiny Sake Bar Yoramu, curiously tasty vodka-based drinks in Finlandia, casual drinks at JAM Hostel + sake bar near Gion, innumerable tastings of sake and whisky – over 1000 varieties of the former, and 600+ of the latter – at Bar K6 on Nijo-dori Street, or fabulous cocktails at Bar Rocking Chair on Bukkoji-dori Street. Alternatively, you could keep it simple and drop in to any bar that catches your eye.
(Directions: Head back out to the main road. Cross the road and find the nearest bus stop on your right. Board Bus No. 51 bound for Ritsumeikan-daigakumae. From here, it is about a 20-25 minute ride downtown, alighting anywhere between Kyotoshiyakusho-mae and Sanjo-Keihanmae, which are all near major downtown areas like Teramachi and Gion. Alternatively, take a 15-minute taxi ride back to central Kyoto.)
Kyoto Vegetarian Foodie Itinerary Map
The Kyoto Vegetarian Foodie Itinerary map shows the location of each of the places mentioned – you can view a full screen version too.
More Kyoto Vegetarian Options
About the author: Florentyna Leow is a writer and photographer 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 newsletter can be found here and her photographs can be found at @furochan_eats, @doorwaysofasia, and @lovemeleafme on Instagram.
Kyoto Vacation Checklist
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