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Veg Out: Tokyo, Part One

March 13, 2012

About halfway through our visit to Tokyo, Jules and I came to terms with the fact that we would get lost at least twice on the way to any restaurant. Oh, how we walked. With deliciousness at every turn, we needed the exercise anyway.

O.K. I needed the exercise anyway. Jules probably burned off a little bit of deliciousness running the Tokyo Marathon.

I did a lot of food-related research before our trip, and I wanted to share the results of all our exploring with you. Here are three preliminary suggestions:

(1) If you have a smart phone, learn how to take a screen shot of your web browser window. Before you leave home (or your hotel, if your room has WiFi), bring up a Google map of the route to your dining destination. Take a screen shot. Now you have a custom map that you can use without an Internet connection.  If you look closely on the Google map, you should be able to see which subway station exit is closest to your impending meal. On the iPhone, you take a screen shot by pushing down the top power slider and the bottom round button at the same time. Am I the only person who did not know this?

(2) Perhaps you are thinking, “I am going to Tokyo! Home of awesome, out-there fashion! Surely I will need my four-inch stiletto booties! Surely I will be riding the subway most of the time!” Later you will understand how hilariously wrong this is. Put down the stilettos and pack another pair of sneakers. They can be cute sneakers. I also got a lot of wear out of my flat black boots. Dressy enough for a nice dinner, but also comfortable.

(3) On ordering: Unless otherwise noted, the restaurants below have English menus available and/or have English-speaking staff. Many Japanese restaurants have photos on their menus. If you are already in a vegan or vegetarian restaurant (like T’s Tan Tan, below), all you really need to be able to do is smile, point, and say “thank you.” Watch VegOut Tokyo’s Simple Japanese for Vegetarians to learn some helpful basic phrases.

Fancy Dinner

Vegetable Sushi Potager
Closest station: Roppongi
Location: In the Roppongi Hills shopping behemoth

Worth the walk: Sushi without the fish! A tomato filet that’s a dead ringer for tuna sashimi, a sweet potato mont blanc with salted caramel ice cream, and a server who acts as … are you sitting down? … your own personal vegetable sommelier. Ours was French. Jules and I each got the Hisui omakase menu, which included eight pieces of vegetable sushi. For four of them, we selected our veggies from a basket of gorgeous produce.
Overheard: “Ah, tomato! Excellent choice, Madame. We have three different kinds of tomato …”

Casual Lunch or Dinner

Brown Rice Cafe
Closest station: Omotesando
Location: Off Omotesando Street, near the Omotesando Hills shopping behemoth. Detailed directions are here.

Worth the walk: Vibrant, mysterious veggies; a lovely patio; and tiny, heart-shaped vegan shortbread cookies from the Brown Rice Deli next door.
Overheard: “I have no idea what this is, but it’s delicious.”

Pure Cafe
Closest station: Omotesando. Same station as Brown Rice Cafe, but they are a bit of a walk from each other, as the station spans several blocks underground.
Location: Detailed directions are here. The restaurant shares a building with an Aveda salon.
Worth the walk: A set “deli plate” dinner that includes small portions of their daily veggie specials (pictured below), caramel banana pudding, and a sake kasu muffin for breakfast tomorrow (See breakfast tips, below). They also sell vegan cookbooks full of mouthwatering photos. Alas, all of the recipes are in Japanese.
Overheard: “I seriously need to practice reading Japanese.”

T’s Tan Tan
Location: Inside Tokyo Station.
But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to find: Tokyo Station is a massive tangle of shops, restaurants, and train platforms. T’s Tan Tan is in the Keiyo Street retail corridor. You’re getting close when you see a Uniqlo and a bunch of shops selling sweets and pastries.

Worth the walk: Piping-hot ramen noodles in a spicy broth made with sesame and red pepper. If this stuff tastes half as good as meat-based ramen, I understand why the Japanese love it. The menu is in Japanese only, but there are photos, and everything is vegan.
Overheard:Sluuuurp.”

Tempura Tsunahachi, Main Shop (there are several locations in Tokyo)
Closest station: Shinjuku or Shinjuku-Sanchome
Location: 3-31-8 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku

Worth the walk: The mind-altering smell of batter frying, fresh bamboo tempura, and a trio of flavored salts for garnish. We went here with our friend Kozue, who researched vegetarian options and helped us order in Japanese. They do have an English menu, but the vegetarian set lunch option was only listed on the Japanese menu. It included a fish-based soup, but the tempura and rice were more than filling. I suspect that if you went in and used your basic Japanese veggie phrases, you would be fine.
Overheard: “I feel … lightheaded.”

Eat More Greens
Closest station: Azabu-Juban
Location: Very close to the station, especially if you come out of Exit 4. There is a good map on their web site.

Worth the walk: Vegetarian Japanese-style curry with both cooked and raw vegetables, spooned atop a pile of nutty black rice; cozy atmosphere; a bakery case full of vegan donuts and deep-dish pie slices.
Overheard: “There’s no way that apple pie is vegan.”

Gorgefest at the Isetan department store depachika (basement food hall)
Closest station: Shinjuku-Sanchome. We walked there from our hotel, which was near the West entrance to Shinjuku Station.
Location: 3-14-1 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku

Worth the walk: Sorry Tokyo Disney, this is the Happiest Place On Earth. They have lots of vegetarian things because THEY HAVE EVERYTHING. Including Pierre Hermé macarons. Including melons that cost about $131 each. Have you been to the basement of Harrods in London? Take that and double it. Regarding ordering: This is the ultimate “smile, point, and say thank-you” destination. That said, the very kind information desk concierge who helped me find the Sadaharu Aoki boutique spoke English.
Overheard: “Sensory overload! Sensory overload! Sensory overload!”

Breakfast

Finding breakfast in Tokyo was difficult. Here is a Chowhound conversation on the topic. According to our friend Arai-san, Japanese people do not really eat breakfast out, and most restaurants are not open for breakfast. Some of the big hotels have buffets with both Japanese and Western-style breakfast foods. The buffet at our hotel cost about $30 U.S. per person per day. It was nothing special, and it featured many meats. One morning I had pancakes at Royal Host, a chain restaurant that was kind of like Denny’s, but way cleaner. The meal was inexpensive, but again, nothing special. Also, they do not have many other vegetarian options.

Pure Cafe opens at 8:30 a.m. They have a set breakfast that includes toast with peanut butter or hummus, soup, a side salad, and a drink. (Soup for breakfast is a great idea. Warm, comforting, and a nice way to get some veggies.)

That said, I think it’s better to do a little pre-planning, and take advantage of Tokyo’s incredible baked goods. The city is full of bakeries where you can pick up a little something for breakfast the night before. Then make coffee in your hotel room, and save your yen for an early lunch. If you have dinner at Pure Cafe, get an apple or sake kasu muffin. At Brown Rice Deli, get a barely sweet chocolate muffin topped with almond slivers. If you happen to be near a depachika while you’re out sight-seeing, the sky’s the limit. The Keio Plaza Hotel in Shinjuku has a shop called Poppins that sells fluffy basil-cheese rolls. Can you say “grilled cheese in pastry form”? Refraining from eating them until the next morning was the most difficult part.

I’ll be back soon with more resources and suggestions.

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