Saturday, 16 August 2014

Mana Burgers



I first went to Mana Burgers in 2010, when I had a day in Fukuoka on a whirlwind tour of Japan on the Japan Rail Pass. I went to Mana burgers, did a load of laundry, slept, got up and whipped around the old castle ruins, all in less than a day, and then had to jump back on the Shinkansen to get back to Tokyo before my pass ran out.

Mana Burgers, Fukuoka, 2010 (now closed)

I was delighted to recently learn that they've re-opened in Yokohama. I also learned that Island Veggie is also inspired by the same owners.

"Natural junk" in a nutshell!

My burger was delicious, and it's always nice to find a fresh soy smoothie!

Mana Burgers meal (Yokohama, 2014)

They also serve steamed buns from the Loving Hut.

Steamed Bun from the Loving Hut

While they're officially the only vegetarian restaurant in Yokohama (disappointing for a city the size of New Zealand) they're a long way from Yokohama Station or tourist areas, and it's faster to reach them from Tokyo (25 minutes from Shibuya Station on the Den-en Toshi Line) than from Yokohama. But when you're feeling like a healthy (??) junk-food meal they're well worth a visit from either city.

The interior is large and pleasant, with indoor and outdoor seating.



It's not easy to find Mana Burgers, and as of August 2014 they aren't on Google Maps (and only the owner can add them, and I can't find an email address to suggest it). But his location should be correct, and their own map is here.


View Mana Burgers in a larger map

Monday, 4 August 2014

Vespera's Falafel

An advertisement for vegan food is always a good sign!
The original Vespera's Falafel closed down at its previous location after the owner was unfortunately hit by a car, but he's now recovered and re-opened his store in Koenji. I found it on Happycow, and decided to make the half-hour trip from where I was staying in search of Tokyo's newest falafel eatery, and it was my best find in months (thanks Happycow!). Unfortunately it'll be a while before I make it back since I'm leaving Japan soon, but Vespera's Falafel should top any travellers list, and if you live in or around Tokyo, I recommend it as a great place to go for delicious, affordable meals and a pleasant and interesting place to hang out. I was amazed to find myself the only customer on a Saturday night, though I guess that's to be expected for a newly-opened restaurant in a quiet suburban location.

Not just falafel: This Pad Thai was the best I've had outside Thailand.

While Vespera's namesake falafel was fresh, crispy and delicious as falafel should be, it turns out that this restaurant isn't just about falafel. While the menu is predominantly Middle-Eastern, it offers an expanding range of other international cuisines. I enjoyed a falafel wrap, fried potatoes (chips) with a delicious chilli seasonings and the best Pad Thai I've had outside of Thailand. They serve a range of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, including organic ginger beer. They have an English menu and the friendly and helpful waitress spoke fluent English.

Not the most healthy, I still occasionally enjoy fried potatoes (as they are known in
Japan) and these were the best I've had anywhere, owing to their fresh, spicy seasoning. 

The vegetarian owner, Eiji, is passionate about serving healthy vegetarian food at affordable prices, and that he certainly is: At 650 Yen for a falafel wrap or 500 Yen for a Pad Thai - both prepared cooked perfection - prices are incredibly low for Tokyo, especially for such quality vegan food. Two dishes, fried potatoes and a drink came to 2000 Yen.

Vespera's Falafel has a very pleasant dining interior.

Vespera's Falafel has a very pleasant, spacious dining area, which includes western-style tables and traditional Japanese low tables on a raised platform (for which shoes should be removed). There's also a table selling a few local and imported vegan groceries, most of which I haven't seen for sale anywhere else in Japan. I bought some vegetable crackers to snack on when I can't make it to vegan eateries.


The vegetable crackers are delicious, and make a great on-the-go snack. They remind
me of similar crackers available in convenience stores all over Taiwan.

The inspiration for Vespera's Falafel comes from Eiji's visits to Inforshops in Europe, while touring with his band. Infoshops are centres for the distribution of information and social and political ideas, including alternatives to capitalism and the current consumer-oriented society, and often animal rights. While anyone with any background in grassroots activism, punk culture or anarchism will undoubtedly appreciate some of the posters and books tucked away on a corner bookshelf, Eiji is quick to point out that his restaurant is first and foremost a vegan restaurant, and for anyone not interested in this subculture it will appear to be no more than a light, pleasant touch of alternative decor. The balance is struck perfectly, with alternative information available for anyone interested in it, but a stylish vegan restaurant with delicious, healthy, affordable food for everyone else.

Koenji Station area would be very pleasant if it wasn't used primarily as a smokers lounge.

Vespera's Falafel is a 10 minute walk from Koenji Station, which is itself 10 minutes from Shinjuku Station on the Chuo Rapid train. Koenji (Wikipedia) is considered to be the centre for underground or alternative youth culture and music in Japan, and in particular it is said to be the birthplace of punk culture in Japan. It also boasts parks, temples and interesting shopping arcades, including a large number of second hand music and clothes stores. Also within walking distance are Meunota (also good, and I intend to post on it soon) and Poleyale (vegetarian) which I haven't tried (links to Happycow). I recommend visiting Vespera's and another cafe for lunch and dinner, and in between times exploring this interesting suburb of Tokyo.

Hours (from Happycow): Wednesday - Sunday 11AM - 11PM.
Address: 杉並区高円寺南2-15-18 汐沢ビル2F
Phone: 03 - 59298998 (owner/chef and waitress both speak English)



View Koenji Vegan Restaurants in a larger map

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Koyasan


Ichi-no Hashi (lit first bridge) to the Okuno-in cemetery.

Koyasan is a Buddhist mountain retreat about 100 km south of Osaka. A pilgrimage site for over a thousand years, Koyasan is the best place to experience a taste of life at a Japanese Buddhist temple, including sampling the all-vegan Shojin Ryori (Japanese Buddhist Cuisine).

Koyasan is home to Kongonui-ji, the administrative centre of the Shingon Esoteric Buddhist sect, which was founded by Kukei (known posthumously as Kobo Daishi) in 819. The temple appears similar in size and style to major temples in Kyoto, but has a particularly impressive stone garden, probably the most beautiful I've ever seen. The 500 Yen entrance fee includes a cup of tea and a rice cracker, which, while rather insipid, were vegan (March 2014).

As well as a very influential Buddhist Master and founder of the Shingon sect, Kukei was also a scholar, poet, calligrapher and civil servant, and he is perhaps most famous for inventing Kana, Japan's two phoenetic alphabets (which, together with Kanji, or Chinese characters, make up the Japanese writing system). A popular legend is that Kukei is still meditating in his tomb, waiting for the liberation of all souls.


stone garden at Kongonui-ji

Kukei learned much of his Buddhist teachings on a pilgrimage to Chang-an (present-day Xian), then the capital of the Tang Dynasty, from 804 to 806. During this period (as difficult as it may be to believe today) Japan revered China, and as a result both Kanji and Buddhism were 'imported' to Japan. Many Kanji (Chinese characters) have two pronunciations, with one being the original Japanese one and the other being a variant on the Chinese pronunciation. The Chinese ones are more commonly used for long words, but there are no strict rules. For example the 'san' of 'Fujisan' is a variant of the Chinese 'Shan' (mountain), whereas the traditional Japanese word for mountain is 'Yama'. Buddhism and Shintoism (the native animistic religion of Japan) didn't fit so well together at first, however they now enjoy a harmonious relationship with Shintoism dealing with matters of life (eg weddings, new year blessings) and Buddhism matters of death, such as funerals. Most Japanese consider themselves both Buddhist and Shintoist.

Of particular interest to vegans, however, is that Chinese Buddhism (including that practised in Korea, Taiwan and other countries) strictly prohibits the eating of animals, and from my limited knowledge of Buddhism (especially Japanese Buddhism) Kobo Daishi appears to have kept this important Buddhist tenet of Ahimsa (non-violence) much better than other Japanese sects, presumably as a result of his study and connections with Chinese Buddhist Masters. The Koyasan temples which invite guests for shukubo (pilgrimage lodging) serve strictly vegan food (almost, see below), and, like in Taiwan,  the food also does not contain onion or garlic.


the more traditional view of a room at Eko-in

I stayed at Eko-in because I was recommended it by a colleague, and would recommend it to anyone else, however there are plenty of other temples offering lodgings. Eko-in has particularly young monks who speak good English.


Shojin-ryori (Buddhist temple cuisine) dinner at Eko-in.

The dinner was a typical, delicious shojin ryori meal, with a perfect balance of colours, tastes and textures, with breakfast being a simpler but still very satisfying meal. I opted for the simplest meal set, which (with accommodation) cost 10 000 Yen, an excellent deal given that this meal itself elsewhere would easily be at least half that. There are more elaborate options available, and with vegan food being so hard to find - and shojin ryori so expensive - it was tempting to splurge, but I personally find something a little unsettling about coming to a Buddhist pilgrimage site to gouge myself with food, however difficult it is to find elsewhere. The simplest meal was more than sufficient for my large appetite, but I'm sure the larger meals are extraordinary.

breakfast at Eko-in

 There are cheaper lodgings available at other temples and guesthouses, and many temples offer shojin ryori to guests not staying with them.


Okuno-in cemetery

The key attraction is Okuno-in, a cemetery containing over 200 000 burial sites, dating back over a thousand years. The cemetery is surrounded by Japanese Cedars, which give it a peaceful but sometimes eerie feel. The trees are an average of 200 - 600 years old, but some are over a thousand years old. They are chopped down (I wonder how) when they become at risk of falling over during typhoons.

Some of the graves are over a thousand years old...

and some aren't.

 There are some strange monuments, including one for victims of world War II who died in Malaysia (of all nationalities), and apparently one (which I couldn't find) from a termite control company for the souls of its white ant victims.


Not so traditional offerings to the dead: beer, sake and an energy drink.
The cemetery is divided into sections separated by three bridges, and at the end is the tomb of Kobo Daishi himself. It's important to remember that this is a sacred site, and visitors are asked not to take photographs beyond the third bridge (including Kobo Daishi's tomb and its associated temple).

These mausoleums for Daimyo (territorial lord) Matsudaira Hideyasu and his mother are about 400 years old, and are made entirely of stone.

I took the highly-informative evening tour (provided by a young monk from Eko-in who studied English in the UK, who was clearly passionate about Buddhism) and highly recommend it. It's aimed at foreign tourists with no background in Buddhism, so anyone who has studied Buddhism before probably won't learn a lot more, but the information about the cemetery and the history of Koyasan still makes it well worth the 1500 Yen. It's also available to people not staying at Eko-in.

The torii (gate) shown here is always used at the entrance of a Shinto shrine, but not at Buddhist temples. Their presence in this Buddhist graveyard reflects how most Japanese have, for centuries, considered themselves both Buddhist and Shintoist.

These wooden monuments, in stream close to the third bridge, are to "water babies", which are either miscarried or aborted.

I couldn't help but feeling, especially at first, that Koyasan is now so commercialised that it's lost a little of the charm it must have had for most of its thousand plus-year history. Clearly shukubo (temple lodging) is big business, and the one might perhaps feel that the Shingo Sect is cashing in, and this article discusses how the temples have lost millions in investments with the declining value of the yen. During the morning chanting session there were about 40 guests, of which I counted four not Caucasian, two of whom were North Asian and another two East Asian, possibly Korean; I don't think there were any Japanese in the audience. However, it is a bona fide temple, and the rituals are authentic (so must be respected as such) and it's just a sign of the times that so many tourists (mostly foreigners) want to come to Koyasan, so it's expanding and developing to keep up with the times, Japan style.


Despite a huge foreign audience taking photos (flashes not allowed) these morning rituals seemed very authentic.

Like climbing Mt Fuji, this long-time pilgrimage is now a tourist event, and disappointing as that is, it also brings its own conveniences: I woke up in Yokohama, had lunch at my favourite restaurant in Osaka (Genmai Harmony) and was at Koyasan before dusk. Just don't expect to have to climb a mountain or beg for alms along the way: every self-respecting 21st century pilgrim needs luxurious public transport, wireless internet and flat screen TVs in their lodging. That said, the pilgrimage route up the mountain is still a beautiful hike, which I hope to do at some point in future. Take plenty of food and drink, as there's little available along the way, and be prepared for the weather to drop and the temperature to change suddenly.


A flat-screen TV is essential to any Buddhist mountain-retreat (same room as shown above).

One disappointment, and a warning, is that the cake in the rooms (with the tea) contains egg. One can never be too careful in Japan, but this was disappointing for a Buddhist temple!

Disappointing: this complimentary cake at Eko-in contains egg.


For lunch I went to Bon An Sha International Cafe, a charming little establishment run by a French woman and her Japanese husband. The lunch set could easily be made vegan, including a tofu cheesecake, and it was very reasonably priced. According to Happycow there is also San Bon, but when I visited they had sold out by early afternoon.

Lunch from Bon An Sha Cafe, Koyasan

I went for a walk into the mountains behind the main town. There was nothing spectacular about the views, but the scenery was still very beautiful, and I always enjoy breathing the mountain air.

the view from the mountains behind Koyasan township


And it's always nice to stumble on small shrines and temples. Like in Kyoto, I often enjoy visiting these serene, deserted sites more than the big-ticket temples.


walkway up to a mystery shrine I found while exploring the Koyasan mountains

Getting to Koyasan (the easy way) is an experience in itself. The easiest way is to take the a Nankai train from Namba(Nankai) station to Hashimoto, and take the spectacular cable car up the mountain. It's well worth buying a Koyasan Discount Ticket, which includes round-trip train tickets, bus travel at Koyasan and discounts to some attractions.

The train ride to Koyasan passes through some beautiful mountain scenery.

Koyasan cable car

Note that the more expensive 'Limited Express' ticket only entitles one to a limited express on the way TO Koyasan; to ride a limited express on the way back is another 500 Yen (nothing to worry about, but I thought it was a bit strange). The whole journey by limited express takes about 1.5 hours by limited express trains, and  two hours by normal (express) trains. It's a very enjoyable ride.

If you go to Osaka by shinkansen, I highly recommend a visit to Genmai Harmony, which is on the way from Shin-Osaka.

lunch at Genmai Harmony, near Shin-Osaka Station.

Overall I would highly recommend a trip to Koyasan to anyone spending a few days in Kansai. I would make at least two days (preferably three or more) in Kyoto a higher priority, but I would put Koyasan ahead of Osaka. I aim to write up Kyoto in the near future, but for the meantime I recommend spending hours and hours just walking and finding your own beautiful, sacred spots, and eating at Morpho Cafe and Vegans Cafe and Restaurant (upmarket) and for simpler but still amazingly delicious meals at Veggie Cafe and Sujata.


Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Cafe Rappa

Cafe Rappa, Nakano, Tokyo

 Cafe Rappa is a charming little vegan cafe in Nakano, about 20 minutes by train from Shinjuku Station. It features a pleasant, relaxing interior and delicious vegan food, at very reasonable prices.

I arrived quite late, and the helpful English-speaking owner suggested I get the curry plate, which was a delicious meal and a great deal at only 900 Yen. The menu is only in Japanese, but the owner was happy to explain it to me in English.


This two-curry set was delicious, and a great deal at only 900 Yen.

Cafe Rappa serves a variety of hot, cold and alcoholic drinks. I had a coffee alternative (I think it was Inca) made with hot soymilk, cappuccino style. It was delicious.  The owner is clearly passionate about healthy food.

coffee alternative, cappucino style

If you're in or around Nakano or Shinjuku I highly recommend Cafe Rappa for dinner, or an evening hangout. It's also a good option for a meal if you're in Tokyo late (other options include Vege Herb Saga, Nagi Shokudo and Pure Cafe). 

Opening Hours:
Tue - Sat: 11:30AM - 10:00PM.
Closed Sun - Mon

It's about a five minute walk from Araiyakushimae Station on the Seibu Shinjuku line. You'll probably need to take (at least) two trains, but it's worth the effort.



View Cafe Rappa in a larger map

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Loving Hut Tokyo

Updated: April 2014

Japan's only Loving Hut has been around for several years, but recently moved from Shinjuku to Jimbocho. While down a small alley and not in a prominent location one would easily stumble upon, it's only a few minutes walk from Jimbocho Station and is well worth the short trip from central Tokyo to visit it. The new location has a larger interior than the old one, but is an equally pleasant place to dine and relax, out of the hustle and bustle of Tokyo.

The new Jimbocho Location is more spacious, with about half a dozen tables.

The new location serves an expanded version of its older menu, and some new favourites, such as Ma Po Tofu and enormous fried dumplings (known as gyoza in Japanese).



These fried dumplings are the largest I've ever seen. I should have photographed them with something else in the picture for comparison.

They also produce their own ginger ale, which can be served hot or with cold mineral water. Non-alcoholic beer is also served.

non-alcoholic beer and ginger beer made with cold mineral water

Perhaps the most significant addition to the Loving Hut is the new all-you-can-eat Dim Sum buffet. While there's nothing misleading in the name, as the menu includes many Hong Kong style favourites, anyone who's familiar with Taiwan will recognise the buffet as a typical (but very good) Taiwanese buffet, with many of the traditional Taiwanese favourites.

There are a variety of different plates and dipping bowls available, for a more Japanese dim sum experience. But excited by the huge variety I dropped back into my Taiwan ways, loading up one large plate. The Taiwanese tea is a nice addition to the meal.

All are cooked to perfection, and the busy staff never seem to stop bringing out fresh plates of delicious dishes.

Round two didn't look so good (because of how I arranged it on my plate), but I needed to try some of the dishes I didn't the first time.

The buffet is now served for dinner on Friday (2000 Yen) and lunch on Saturday (1200 Yen). Many of the dishes can be enjoyed as part of the dim sum set for weekday lunches, which is also an excellent meal at only 1000 Yen.

Cooking Workshop
The Loving Hut has also opened a cooking workshop during weekday evenings (except Friday) and Friday lunchtime. I hope to try it in the near future, and will update when I do.

Mock Meats
The shop also sells frozen mock meats (imported from Taiwan) for 630 Yen, so it's worth stocking up if you like them. Most mock meats made in Japan contain dairy products and/or egg, so this is the place for trustworthy fake meats if you like them. They also sell vegan-related and spiritual books and related items. 

These fake meats are the best deal I know of in Taiwan, and being produced by the Loving Hut company, one can be sure they are vegan.

The Loving Hut also sells boxed lunches from 11:30 - 14:00. At 600 Yen, these are an excellent option for a cheap, healthy, delicious vegan meal on the go. I remember several years ago taking two lunchboxes with me when I climbed Mt Fuji, and eating them cold on the mountain the next day. They weren't ideal in the circumstances, but provided me with much-needed energy before the climb ahead.

The Loving Hut often hold a staff selling vegan food at festivals, such as Earth Day and of course the Tokyo Veg Festa (vegetarian festival) in October, Japan's largest vegetarian event. Their booth always seem to have a long cue, and run out of main dishes early. During these times the main store closes, check their website for any announcements of closures or changes to opening hours.

a Loving Hut stall at the (otherwise disappointing) Eco Life Fair, 2013.

The Loving Hut is a great place to go for a simple, affordable and delicious vegan meal in Tokyo, and the new Dim Sum lunch and Saturday buffet are in my opinion the best-value vegan meals in Tokyo. (Vespera's Falafel and Phono Kafe in Kamata are also excellent value.) 

Opening Hours (updated August 2014)

Monday - Thursday
11:30 - 17:00  Lunch & Tea Time (Dim sum lunch set available until 14:00)

Friday
11:30 - 17:00  Lunch & Tea Time (Dim sum lunch set available until 14:00)
17:30 - 21:00 Dinner Buffet (L.O. 20:30)

Saturday
11:30 - 15:30 Lunch buffet (L.O. 15:00)

The Loving Hut is closed on Sunday.

Cooking workshops are now available by arrangement. The Loving Hut also does catering for parties and other group functions - details all at their website.

Directions
Go to Jimbocho Station and take Exit A5.
Walk around the corner so you are heading north.
Walk north about 250m until you see a small yellow Loving Hut sign.



Take that alley, and the Loving Hut is on the second floor of a small building on the right, about 50m down the alley.








 

As of April 2014 this dish no longer appears to be on the menu.

The 'Loving Burger' has been a staple of the Tokyo Loving Hut for years, and is typical of Loving Hut food worldwide: simple, healthy, appealing to non-vegans and very well priced at around 1000 Yen. Maybe discontinued as of April 2014.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Vegetarian Indian Restaurants in Tokyo


Summary (links stay in this page)
For the best Indian meal in Tokyo, including mouth-watering South Indian dishes such as dosas and idli, head to Vege Herb Saga. Expect to have to share a table with strangers (and the most interesting conversations with strangers you'll find anywhere in Tokyo) and a long wait for your food, but it'll be well worth it when it arrives. For a new alternative South Indian option, with a nicer venue and group dining but not as good food, head to the new (as of 2014) Veg Kitchen. For a small, pleasant restaurant serving fairly authentic Indian food with a slight Japanese twist, head to Gopinathas. For prasadam (blessed Hare Krishna food) head to Govindas Edogawa, but expect difficulty finding what's vegan. They have the only evening vegetarian buffet in the weekend in Tokyo. And for insipid, overpriced "Indian" food in a setting as pleasant as an underground basement can be, head to Nataraj, who also have a very cheap lunchtime buffet on weekdays.

Confession time: as much as I like living in Japan (which I really do) I'm not the biggest fan of Japanese food. Japanese food is deservedly famous for its beautiful presentation; it's said that this practice stems from tougher times in the past, when little food was available, so presenting it so elegantly was the best people could do, and over time this came to be believed to make the food taste better - something I've come to understand, strange as that may sound. I do appreciate a fine (or a simple) Japanese meal, especially a traditional Japanese macrobiotic meal or Shojin Ryori (temple food, though I can't say I like it enough to pay hundreds of dollars for it) but for me no beautiful arrangement of rice and vegetables, however fresh and perfectly cooked and impeccably presented, can beat the fire and spice of an authentic Indian meal. Back in Taiwan I used to really crave Indian food, but the restaurants there are notoriously bad for not serving veg food, so I used to really enjoy Indian food in Tokyo. This post is to introduce my favourite vegetarian Indian restaurants in Tokyo.

Non-vegetarian Indian Restaurants (when desperate)?
Most Indian restaurants in Japan serve North Indian food, and most will have a chef who speaks some English and can do a vegan dish, though Indians warn me about the sauces they use, and many vegetarian Indians don't eat at non-vegetarian restaurants at all, so be warned. I generally ask to speak to a chef and try to get a feeling of how honest he (it's always he) is being, and then usually proceed with an order if I trust he's making enough effort to ensure that my meal will be. My worst experience was at a restaurant in Nagasaki (which, not surprisingly, seems to have gone) where the English-speaking waitress clearly understood my order, but still the roti were smeared with ghee, the salad with a mayonnaise dressing and the curry with curd in it. They just couldn't be bothered, so I paid for the samosas (frozen on the inside and burned to a crisp on the outside) and the one roti I'd eaten, and left.I didn't have much luck anywhere else in Nagasaki either.

I used to quite often go to Indian restaurants while travelling Japan, and often a meal out started with searching for "Indian Cuisine" (in Japanese) on my phone. But as noted above, I've heard so many bad things about Indian restaurants not caring about what's vegetarian, and had enough bad experiences myself, that I rarely do. Beware also that some restaurants, in order to make their food appeal more to Japanese, add egg to the pakora mixture (making it more like tempura) and milk to their samosa pastry, making it more like western pastry. I found this out from a helpful waitress after having already been told these were vegan on a previous visit. If you do try one be sure to remind the staff you don't eat ghee, paneer (or milk/cheese/cream/yoghurt) or mayonnaise (often used on salad dressings). The best test is the naan (bread), since the dough is always made with milk and usually with egg (except at places used to catering to vegans, such as the Nataraj chain) and it must be prepared the night before. So if the staff tell me I can't eat it straight up, I trust them with the whole meal. If they promise to make it vegan I walk out. Many waiters won't think of it, but will quickly acknowledge it is made with egg and milk when asked. It's important the remember that many restaurant staff (and even chefs) will have no concept of veganism, and many will be from India where "Pure veg" is well understood but veganism virtually unheard of. So if they're willing to listen and help, I generally trust them, and expect a little confusion. I test more for whether or not they are willing to make the effort to really understand what I do and don't eat (as opposed to telling me what I want to hear and getting my order processed) and if they are then I check it carefully when it arrives and expect a few mistakes every now and again. Unpleasant as this can be, I think it's part of helping spread veganism around the world.

Vege Herb Saga
Vege Herb Saga is my favourite Indian restaurant in Tokyo, and I think I share that with most resident vegetarian Indians in the city. A two-minute walk from JR Okachimachi Station (close to Ueno it can be easily reached on the JR Yamanote or Keihin Tohoku Lines or by several subway lines). The address shown on Happycow is correct (I think) but the Happycow App gives a wrong address. If in doubt, I recommend printing the address from their website.

Masala Vada

Vege Herb Saga is a little piece of India, right here in Tokyo, down to the beaming chef in a white jacket, the clutter and, most importantly, steaming hot delicious South Indian foods, such as Dosas and Idli. A sign on the wall (in Japanese) explains that during busy times (which seems to be most of the time) customers are asked to sit together until all seats are taken, and that meals may take a while as each dish is cooked separately. As such, it might not be everyone's idea of an ideal spot for a first date or business lunch, but it's also an interesting opportunity to meet a range of interesting people who have also sought out Tokyo's only South Indian vegetarian restaurant. So forget the nightclubs in Roppongi: of all conversations I've had with strangers in Tokyo, by far the most interesting ones have been at Vege Herb Saga. The sign also warns that food can take some time to prepare - and that it does: allow up to an hour, or two if you order a time-consuming dish on a busy Saturday night (your other dishes will come out during this time). But you'll soon see why: however busy the chefs are, your meal will be cooked to perfection from fresh ingredients. So don't let any of this put you off: Vege Herb Saga is the place to come for the best Indian food in Tokyo.

There's just nothing like a good Masala Dosa!

I recently met the owner, who explained that there are several hundred Jains (strict vegetarians who live their lives in such a way to minimise all harm to living creatures) living in the surrounding community - including himself - mostly in the diamond trade. He started the restaurant three years ago because, while business was going fine, he needed somewhere to eat! So his restaurant is intended as a place for vegetarians to find safe food, rather than for profit. This may seem like the perfect marketing story for any business, it does explain why he's done so little marketing that for a whole year I Googled "South Indian Vegetarian Tokyo" and didn't find it, and it was only added to Happycow a few months ago. His reputation has clearly spread by word of mouth, especially among the vegetarian Indian community, and on my first visit I had dinner with two friendly jewellery salesmen visiting Tokyo for an expo, one a Hindu and one a Jain, who had eaten there every night of their visit. It was obvious that this is where visiting vegetarian Indians come to eat, but about half of the tables in the (full) restaurant were occupied by local Japanese groups.

However, despite the location and lack of marketing, it's not just sought out by vegetarian Indians with nowhere else to eat: on my second visit I sat with a group of students - one a connoisseur of Indian food - who had come because in some major competition it had won fifth place of all Indian restaurants in Tokyo - not bad for a vegetarian jaunt in a cramped and cluttered basement! The reason, the owner explained to me, is that he uses only top-quality ingredients, and has fresh spices delivered from India regularly. This, and the food being cooked to order, makes this one of the best Indian restaurants I've ever been to, and a must-visit while in Tokyo.

Vegan items on the menu are labelled with a sticker. A drink, snack and dosa meal costs around 2000 Yen.

Mysore Masala Dosa

It is surrounded by stations, but I usually use the JR Okachimachi station. It's worth having an explore around the area while there. It would make a good stop before (or after) visiting Ueno Park.





Gopinathas

Gopinatha's is essentially the old Govinda's Restaurant (not to be confused for Govinda's Edogawa-ku, below, a separate establishment) which has been reopened by its former (and current) chef. I never made it to it during its time as Govinda's, but on my recent visit was very impressed, and will post photos soon.

Pakoras and Curry at Gopinathas. The tomato sauce on the Pakoras is amazing.

Gopinatha's food is perhaps slightly more 'Japanisiced' Indian than that at Vege Herb Saga or the Veg Kitchen, but it's certainly still very fresh and bursting with flavour, and the owner/chef is very happy to make a set vegan, and they are excellent value. Gopinathas is well worth a visit, especially if you are in the area or you would like an Indian meal but don't have an hour or two to wait or want your own table. 


Veg Kitchen




Yet another vegetarian Indian restaurant has joined the Tokyo scene, this one another South Indian establishment run by a former chef from Veggie Herb Saga. When I heard he was leaving to run his own restaurant I hoped it would be an upmarket dining establishment, in a different locality, giving the option of a simple ‘Indian Kitchen’ at Veggie Herb Saga or fine dining elsewhere, as these would have complemented each other nicely. Unfortunately it’s a few minutes walk away, serving similar food at similar prices, thus competing for the same Jain or other Indian vegetarian clientele.


The masala papads were delicious.


Prices at the Veg Kitchen are similar to Veggie Herb Saga, and staff are very friendly and welcoming at both. Both are open similar hours, but the Veg Kitchen may sometimes be open on Sundays.


You can't go wrong with South Indian snacks.


 Compared with Veggie Herb Saga, the Veg Kitchen has a nicer venue, being a first- and second-floor restaurant (instead of a cramped basement) and the style and decor is fairly typical for simple Indian restaurants the world over, with TV playing dance / music and a simple, humble Indian vibe.

2nd-floor dining
 The main drawcard for the Veg Cafe is the larger dining area, meaning you are more likely to get your own table. This is likely a good thing if you’ve come with friends or family to enjoy a meal together, however it’s also worth noting that many of my most interest conversations with strangers in Tokyo have been at Veggie Herb Saga.

The Veg Kitchen has a wider menu, including some “Indian Chinese” dishes, one of which I liked and one I didn't. The owner is very happy to accommodate vegans, however it’s necessary to ask, and when he ran through the menu he missed some items which were clearly not vegan. He also said that nan were vegan, which is possible but seems unlikely, as the menu traditionally calls for milk (and without it it’s not really nan). Vegan items are labelled on the menu at Veggie Herb Saga and I’ve never had any problems.

This Indian-Chinese dish was much too oily and salty for my taste.

 The Veg Cafe serve alcohol, which may appeal to some, however they also allow smoking during dinner, which can be quite unpleasant (if you don't smoke). They also provide Hookah's which adds to the smoke in the air.




Where the Veg Kitchen falls seriously short of Veggie Herb Saga, however, is on the quality of its food. Veggie Herb Saga began as (and I think still is) the kitchen of the owner for his family, friends and visiting colleagues, (who, being Jains, would have had a tougher time even than vegans finding food in Tokyo). And he knows what he likes. He orders fresh spices from India regularly, and roasts them in-house (I’ve seen it) and the taste it brings to all their food is divine - probably the best Indian meals I’ve had anywhere, including India.


Chana Masala

 During my first visit to the Veg Kitchen the Chinese dish was much too salty and greasy for my liking, the masala dosa and lacha paratha were both a little too well done, and I think they use typical curry powders and mixes. In subsequent visits I've found dishes somewhat hit and miss, with some comparable to Veggie Herb Saga and some far off. This is of course nothing unusual, and their food is at least as good as most other Indian restaurants in Japan, but in all fairness Veggie Herb Saga is a cut above for freshness and quality of food.


A masala dosa is always delicious, even if a tiny bit too well done, as I thought this was.

During my first visit on a Saturday evening, soon after it opened, it enjoyed a steady stream of customers, mostly Japanese and a few Indian, despite not yet having a website or facebook page. Since then it's quickly becomming more and more popular.



So, in conclusion, if you want to enjoy a South Indian meal at your own table, head to the Veg Kitchen. But just don't expect the quality of Veggie Herb Saga, which is the 'real deal' for Jain dining in Tokyo. It’s great to have two vegetarian South Indian restaurants in Tokyo, and I hope business goes well for both.

The only reference I can find online is this Timeout article.
Address: 3-44-8, Taito, Taito-ku
Lunch: 11am-3pm
Dinner: 5pm - 11pm
May close on Sunday - call ahead.
Phone 03 58178165

 Govindas (Edogawa-ku)

Govinda's Edogawa-ku is a vegetarian Indian restaurant associated with Tokyo's ISKCON temple, to which it is attached. ISKCON is the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, commonly known as "Hare Krishnas" (from their chant) in the west.  ISKCON followers believe that the cow is sacred (as do Hindus) and the consumption of dairy products is an integral part of ISKCON life. ISKCON temples often have their own farms, at which the cows are treated very well so far as their welfare is concerned, and they are even cremated when they die - always at the end of their natural life. Unfortunately, humane as it may be (albeit  a breach of their fundamental rights in my opinion) it is needless to say very inefficient, and most of these farms can no longer provide enough dairy products to sustain the society's temples and restaurants, let alone all their members. So most ISKCON restaurants serve conventionally farmed (which I guess in Japan probably means factory farmed) milk products.

In any case, in my discussions with ISKCON followers, including in New Zealand and in India, I've often met strong opposition to veganism, and while their restaurants tend to cater to vegans (I guess due to their food's popularity among vegans) I've never found them to be very supportive of vegans or veganism.

While Govinda's is certainly open to anyone, on my last visit I couldn't help but feel I was intruding on the temple, as most customers were dining after visiting the temple next door (while also "contributing to its welfare" as the website states). This could have been because of a major event at the temple, and I haven't always experienced it.

Govindas have a weekend buffet and an a la carte menu at all times (including weekends). In my opinion the dinner buffet is hardly worth the 1800 Yen and the trip to Funabori. On my most recent visit two of the four main dishes were vegan, but I needed to ask the helpful waiter, as vegan items are never labelled. Moments later, the same waiter appeared with the standard basket of nan and dosas, and after I (again) explained about the milk, he confirmed it had milk (seemingly unaware still that I wouldn't want to eat it, despite asking about dairy in the curries) and later re-appeared with rotis, which, as he helpfully explained didn't contain any milk. They were, however, smeared with butter or ghee. He gave up after that.

I think it's fair to say that the staff are all devoted ISKCON members, and have almost certainly grown up considering the cow sacred and its dairy products vital foods for physical and spiritual health, and they are simply not interested in entertaining any other diet or lifestyle, even for a few minutes so that they can serve their customers food they will eat. It's a pity, because it's the only evening (vegetarian) buffet meal in Tokyo during the weekend, and if it had a good variety of trustworthy vegan food it could be an excellent meal out. But as it is I'm in no hurry to go back.

dinner buffet meal at Govindas Edogawa: sambar, curry, rice, dosa and salad (1800 Yen)

 Like Jains and Mahayanna Buddhists, ISKCON followers don't use onion or garlic. I don't know if it's this or something else, but I generally find their food satisfying enough, but a little bland and watery. They serve basmati rice, but only white rice. The salad didn't have a dressing.

I once went in the afternoon, and had a reasonable Masala Dosa, but it didn't compare to the fresh and flavoursome masala dosas I've had at Veggie Herb Saga.

All said if you want a satisfying all-you-can-eat buffet for dinner in the weekend, it's probably worth considering going out to Funabori Station (Govinda's is a few minutes walk from it) and certainly preferable to spending up to double that on a few small servings of (burnt?) curries at Nataraj, Japan's oldest Indian vegetarian restaurant. 

Nataraj

Nataraj have been around for decades, and are somewhat of an institution among vegetarians in Japan. However I think they're cashing in on their reputation, and are now well-overpriced (except the lunch buffet - see below) and I only recommend them for if one is in dire need of a cheap, filling meal (at lunchtime) or one really wants to entertain a formal party with "Indian" food and can't make it to Gopinathas.

Nataraj restaurants are like the antithesis of Vege Herb Saga, and in that sense they complement each other nicely. To any connoisseur of Indian food, Nataraj will have a chain-restaurant feel, and the food will taste bland and insipid, as if the chef forgot the spice and then watered down the curry to save money; even paying the extra 100 Yen for chilli powder in your curry (yes, really, and it's more if you want Garam Masala) their curries simply don't taste like Indian food to me. On the upside, the milder twist on Indian curries may appeal to those not so familiar with 'real' Indian food, including perhaps some Japanese more accustomed to the subtler flavours of Japanese cuisine. You are sure to get your own table, with and only with the company you brought for the meal, and your order will be delivered very quickly (even if it's burnt as a result - see below).

The  weekday-only 1000 Yen lunch buffet (below) is nothing to blog about, but undoubtedly the cheapest filling meal in Tokyo, and their vegan Naan are quite good, and a rare find. Their Osaka Branch has a more pleasant interior, and it makes a great lunch while passing through the city, especially being so close to the station.

Nataraj's lunch buffet is a good cheap meal at about 1000 Yen.

Dinners at Nataraj, however, are grossly overpriced in my opinion. Serving sizes are very small, and a barely satisfying meal for two (including a drink each, poppadoms, a shared entree, two curries and two naans) comes to about 7,000 Yen. On my last visit (and it certainly will be my last visit) the Aloo Gobi came out very burnt, with strong aftertaste and the whole cumin seeds in it charcoal black. After politely asking if the waitress/manager could try it to check it was how it was supposed to be, the chef came out and told us that it was intentionally burnt, and that it was perfectly fine and healthy and gave it more flavour. (He also admitted, truthfully, that it's easy to burn aloo gobi because it's a dry curry.) I posted more on my Happycow review, but it's probably enough to say that Nataraj are a reasonable option for a cheap lunch buffet, but are simply not worth considering for dinner, even if you pay the extra to have your food spicy and can convince them that you prefer your curries not burnt. A better meal can be had at every other Indian vegetarian restaurant in Tokyo, often for half the price.

My visits were to the Aoyama Branch, and I understand the Ginza branch to be even more expensive, and I don't know whether or not they burn their curries to add flavour. There are also branches in Tateshima and Ogikubo. As noted above the Osaka branch is a particularly good option for a quick lunch as you pass through Osaka Station.
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