Nara, Japan has quite a good selection of vegan food, due in part to its Buddhist traditions.
Nara was the capital of Japan from 710 to 794, not long after Buddhism was introduced to the country. As such, it became an important power base for the Buddhist faith, whose followers were taught to avoid harming sentient beings.
In fact, meat was banned throughout Japan for centuries. Buddhist temple cuisine, known as shojin ryori, has long been popular here, and it’s completely vegan.
According to the listings on HappyCow, within the city center there are five fully vegan restaurants and five vegetarian restaurants.
These are all within easy walking distance of each other and Nara’s main attractions, which means you don’t have to waste time and energy in your search for vegan food. Save that for the sightseeing, as there’s quite a lot to see in Nara.
Since I didn’t have time to sample all the vegan food in Nara, I did some research before my trip and chose what seemed to be three of the best restaurants for vegans visiting Nara. All three had fully vegan menus, and all were cozy, casual places with a pleasant atmosphere.
Disclaimer: Obviously, the restaurant industry around the world is in a state of flux due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the information on each restaurant below, I’ve indicated whether or not it is currently open and, if not, when the owners plan to reopen.
The situation is constantly changing, though, so it’s best to check with the restaurant before you turn up.
Vegan Cafe Ramuna
This is a very cute place on a quiet backstreet not far from Todaiji Temple and the other attractions in Nara Park, famous for its roaming deer. Because of its convenient location, I recommend visiting here for lunch while out sightseeing in Nara.
The menu is really cute, too. Each copy is handwritten on construction paper, with photos of the dishes pasted in. It’s run by just one woman who does everything from cooking to serving, so you may have to wait a little while for your food.
When we visited, she was a bit late opening and showed up just as we were about to leave. She was very apologetic, though, and the food was worth waiting for. It’s also quite reasonably priced.
Most of the dishes are Japanese, with a few Western options like burgers and pizza. I had the spicy soy milk ramen, and Nick chose the vegetable and bean curry. Both were quite good, even if the ramen couldn’t quite compete with TowZen in Kyoto, which makes the best ramen I’ve ever tasted.
Current status: Most recent post was that they were selling lunch boxes for take away and delivery and would reopen on 6 May 2020. Check for the latest updates.
In addition to the café, the same space also houses a small shop that sells hard-to-find imported vegan ingredients like hummus and peanut butter. They also sell some vegan instant noodles and microwavable curry packets, which would have come in really handy when we walked the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trail.
Current status: Reopened on 9 May 2020
This vegan restaurant gets lots of rave reviews on HappyCow, but for me, it didn’t quite live up to the hype. Perhaps my expectations were too high.
I ordered the “vegan delight” platter, which includes small servings of a variety of different dishes. It was well-presented and also pretty tasty, but it just wasn’t very filling. The problem was that only two of the small dishes were something I could really sink my teeth into.
As for the rest, it was salads and pickled vegetables. Granted, Nara is famous for its locally grown organic vegetables, known as yamato yasai. But I left the restaurant still feeling hungry and had to snack on something else before going to bed.
This was not uncommon for me in Japan, as I found the portion sizes there to be particularly small. And I’m not saying this as someone used to supersized American portions. I haven’t lived in the States for more than 20 years. Even compared with European restaurants, the portion sizes in Japan are definitely on the small side.
But maybe I just didn’t order well. Their burgers and karaage (deep-fried chick’n) are quite popular, and I’ve read that the burgers are pretty big, so I’ll probably try that next time if I go back to Onwa.
This placeis also recommended by travelers with celiac disease for its gluten free options and the staff’s willingness to accommodate. They also offer a variety of cakes and other desserts, including matcha ice cream.
Current status: The restaurant is closed until 2 June 2020, but it seems they are planning to offer their desserts through a delivery service in the meantime. Check their Facebook and Instagram for the latest updates.
This is a great place to come either for a meal or just a drink. The only seating is at stools at the bar, which led to us having an interesting conversation with the owner and another customer.
As for the menu, in the evening the setup is kind of like a tapas bar in Spain. The daily menu is written on a chalkboard and consists of a variety of small dishes costing about 350 each, plus a daily soup and daily curry.
Nick and I each ordered a soup and then four tapas to share, which was just the right amount of food. We also had brownies for dessert, which were amazing! In fact, everything was delicious.
At lunchtime, Kuppila offers a set lunch for 950 yen, which is a great deal. I loved this place and would definitely like to go back for a return visit. The location is great too, just a 10-minute walk from the JR Nara station, and even less from the Kintetsu Nara Station
Current status: Reopened for lunch on 8 May 2020. Kuppila was still closed in the evenings at the time of writing, but this is only temporary.
As I mentioned above, there are currently five vegan restaurants and five vegetarian restaurants in the city center of Nara. In addition to the three vegan restaurants above that I’ve personally visited, here are a couple more that definitely look like they’d be worth trying.
This restaurant specializing in healthy, vegan food is just a stone’s throw from Kintetsu Nara Station. It’s a small place run by just one woman, and she offers a few different set meals to choose from.
Previously, she used fish stock in some dishes, but she has stopped doing this, so everything on the menu is vegan now.
Current status: Their website is under construction but says they were planning to open a new location, called Natural Café Kururu, in March 2020. I wasn’t able to find out if their original location is currently open; try checking the website for updates.
This vegetarian restaurant offers free refills of miso soup and brown rice with every meal. Guests seem to love the English-speaking owner, who also teaches vegan cooking classes.
Multi-course kaiseki meals are served in the evenings, but only with an advance reservation required. Kinatei is conveniently located near the JR Nara station.
Current status: Their most recent FB update was that they were selling lunch boxes for take away and delivery and would reopen on 6 May 2020. Check their Facebook page for the latest info.
Have you been to any other great vegan Nara restaurants that I missed? Let me know about them in the comments below!