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What Is Shojin Ryori Japanese Buddhist Cuisine?

And why all vegetarians traveling to Japan should take note.

What Is Shojin Ryori Japanese Buddhist Cuisine?

If you’re a vegetarian traveling to Japan (or know someone who is), shojin ryori should be on your radar. Commonly practiced by Buddhist monks as a way to express devotional discipline and non-violence towards all sentient beings, shojin ryori is a subset of Japanese cuisine that strictly forbids the consumption of meat and fish. And while going meat-free in Japan is fairly easy, avoiding fish in all its forms (bonito flakes and dashi broth included) isn’t—which makes shojin ryori that much more notable.

Here’s what you need to know.

History of shojin ryori

The cuisine’s arrival in Japan coincided with that of Buddhism in the year 552 CE. Because Zen Buddhism, at its core, teaches that all living beings possess the potential to attain enlightenment, Buddhist monks began abstaining from animal products as a way to avoid violence in any form in favor of the virtue of ahimsa, or compassion, and thus progress along the path of enlightenment. In fact, “shojin” originally connoted a type of zeal in pursuing this enlightened state of mind devoid of attachments.

Breaking down the prefixes and suffixes of the two words puts the cuisine’s broader philosophy in context:

  • Sho: to focus
  • Jin: to advance forward along the way
  • Ryori: cooking / cuisine

Over time, shojin ryori’s health benefits and meticulous, artistic presentation contributed to Japan’s elegant haute cuisine concept, kaiseki.

Differences between shojin ryori and other vegetarian dishes in Japan

Although there are several similarities between shojin ryori cuisine and broader vegetarian cuisine in Japan, the notable differences lie in the strict guidelines around shojin ryori, along with its broader philosophical ethos.

For one, because simplicity and harmony reign supreme in shojin ryori cuisine, everything is balanced: five colors, flavors, elements and preparation methods—all of which exist in five variations:

Colors: black, green, red, white, yellow

Flavors: bitter, salty, savory, sour, sweet

Elements: earth (moderation, leveling), fire/summer (energy), metal/autumn (harvesting), wood/spring (growth, vitality), water/winter (stillness, retreat)

Preparation Methods: boiled, roasted, steamed, stewed, raw

Additionally, unlike other vegetarian food in Japan, shojin ryori dishes don’t contain garlic, onion or other more pungent ingredients typically used to add flavor. Instead, flavor is drawn out naturally throughout the low-waste vegetarian cooking process.

And finally, when it comes to shojin ryori, what you’re eating is equally as important as how you’re eating it: sensibly, and with gratitude.

Obakusan Manpuku Temple

Common shojin ryori ingredients

  1. Abura-age: fried soybean curd
  2. Goma-dofu: sesame tofu
  3. Koya-dofu: dried tofu
  4. Yuba: tofu skin
  5. Fu: wheat gluten (used in soups, stir-frys and fu-manju confections made with sweet red bean paste)
  6. Konnyaku: jelly substance made from taro-like potato starch (often served in oden, a type of Japanese stew)
  7. Natto: fermented soybeans
  8. Konbu (aka Kombu): edible kelp
  9. Wakame: edible seaweed
  10. Nori: edible seaweed
  11. Hijiki: sea vegetable growing wild on Japan’s coast
  12. Miso: Paste of fermented soybeans with salt and koji

Common shojin ryori dishes

Soup is standard in a shojin ryori meal and is typically accompanied by various vegetable-forward side dishes, plus rice and pickles. Menus vary depending on region, but these are a handful of dishes you can expect to find at a shojin ryori restaurant:

  1. Creamy carrot or pumpkin/kabocha soup made with soy milk, often served cold
  2. Kenchin Jiru: root vegetable soup with a clear vegan dashi broth and tofu
  3. Vegetable tempura: seasonal vegetables deep-fried in a non-egg batter
  4. Tsukemono: pickled vegetables
  5. Namasu: raw salad made with julienned vegetables (i.e. daikon radish and carrot)
  6. Shiro-ae: salad with mashed tofu and sesame-flavored vegetables
  7. Nasu Dengaku: deep-fried eggplants with caramelized miso glaze
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Shojin Ryori Restaurants In Tokyo

Bon

At this quintessential shojin ryori restaurant in Tokyo’s Taito ward, meals begin and end with tea—a gesture to foster community amongst diners. The focus is on fucha ryori, a Chinese-style subset of shojin ryori that features ample use of arrowroot starch (aka kuza) and plant-based oils. In addition to multi-course meals, you can also find boxed bento meals here.

Sosaibo

This shojin ryori restaurant in Tokyo’s residential Meguro ward has been run by chef-owner Katsurou Noguchi and his wife, Mieko, for over 35 years. The dining room sits just eight, and there’s often 60s pop music playing in the background—rumor has it Sosaibo is Thom Yorke (of Radiohead)’s favorite, and we can’t help but wonder if this is why. Although vegetarian shojin cuisine is their speciality, you will be served fish or meat upon request—making it the perfect spot for vegetarians traveling with meat-eaters.

Komaki Shokudo

This modern restaurant is in Tokyo’s Chiyoda ward, an area renowned for its anime culture. It's nestled inside Tokyo's Akihabara food market and is decidedly more casual; diners order at the counter before taking a seat at the small wooden tables. Although shojin ryori cuisine by definition isn’t always vegan, at Komaki Shokudo it is. All meals come with rice and miso soup in addition to four side dishes such as pumpkin, curry or green beans. Keep an eye out for cooking classes and lectures about the essentials of Japanese Buddhist cuisine, which are offered regularly.

*Pro tip: The restaurant is especially difficult to find because the shop where it’s located is labeled by the restaurant’s tagline: Kamakura Fushikian.

Shojin Ryori Restaurants In Kyoto

Obakusan Manpuku Temple

Inside the temple in Uji, Kyoto, you’ll find Hakuun-an, a restaurant featuring Chinese-style fucha-ryori cuisine—in addition to zazen (guided meditation courses), shakyo (sutra copying) and other Buddhist zen activities to complement your dining experience. There’s a bento boxed option or the choice of two courses (tiered based on price) that come with two soups and six side dishes.

Shigetsu

This restaurant sits inside the Tenryuji Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site surrounded by peaceful zen gardens on the western outskirts of Kyoto. It only operates a lunchtime service, with a choice of three vegan set meals: 3000, 5000 or 7000 yen. Most guests opt to sit on the tatami floor, but low chairs and tables are available upon request.

For more information about all things vegetarian in Japan, don't miss our complete guide.

And if your wondering how to get reservations at restaurants in Japan, here's everything you need to know.

Shigetsu Kyoto | @mellyum