What is Shojin Ryori?
© 663Highland / Wikimedia Commons
The best-known example of traditional vegetarian and vegan dining in Japan is Buddhist devotional cuisine, known in Japanese as Shōjin Ryōri (精進料理). 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
Shojin Ryori is not only eaten by devout Buddhists. It is regarded as a cultural experience by locals and visitors alike. It’s hard not to admire the artistry of the food’s presentation, enjoy its subtle tastes and textures, and appreciate the health benefits that accompany eating food made from quality produce.
© Parnassus / Wikimedia Commons
Shojin Ryori is vegetarian (and often vegan) in accordance with the cardinal Buddhist virtue of ahimsa (compassion), which is interpreted to extend beyond human relations to all living beings. It typically uses local, organic, and seasonal ingredients. Although some temples may allow taking advantage of modern logistics and add items sourced from elsewhere.
In most Buddhist traditions, the number five holds great significance. For Shojin Ryori, this means that you will likely be presented with five or more dishes orchestrated perfectly with various tastes and textures to appeal to our five faculties. Although the practices and interpretations may differ according to sect, Shojin Ryori generally seeks to balance the following aspects of each meal.
The Five Colors: White, green, yellow, dark (black), and red.
The Five Flavors: Sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savory.
The Five Preparation Methods: Raw, stewed, boiled, roasted, and steamed.
The Five Elements: Different fruits, legumes, and vegetables are said to contain different energies, according to the Five Elements Theory (godai in Japanese, wuxing in Chinese).
Signature Shojin Ryori Dishes
Whilst the dishes may change based on the season and location, there are some common dishes in every shojin ryori meal. They will all likely include soup, rice, sides and pickles. A common dish to start is goma-dofu, tofu with sesame paste and wasabi (horseradish) on top. Creamy carrot or pumpkin/kabocha soup made with soy milk, often served cold. Kenchin Jiru: root vegetable soup with a clear vegan dashi broth and tofu. Vegetable tempura: seasonal vegetables deep-fried in a non-egg batter. Tsukemono: pickled vegetables. Namasu: raw salad made with julienned vegetables (i.e. daikon radish and carrot). Shiro-ae: salad with mashed tofu and sesame-flavored vegetables. Another favourite is Nasu Dengaku: deep-fried eggplants with caramelized miso glaze. Many who don’t normally like eggplant will change their mind after trying this flavour-laden dish.
Common shojin ryori ingredients: Abura-age (fried soybean curd), Koya-dofu (dried tofu), Yuba (tofu skin), Fu (wheat gluten), Konnyaku (jelly substance made from taro-like potato starch), Natto (fermented soybeans), Konbu (aka Kombu, edible kelp), Wakame (edible seaweed), Nori (edible seaweed), Hijiki (sea vegetable growing wild on Japan’s coast) Miso (Paste of fermented soybeans with salt and koji).
Where to Eat Shojin Ryori in Japan: Shigetsu, Kyoto
© Tenryuji Temple
With its history and tradition associated with Zen Buddhism, Kyoto is possibly the best place to enjoy Shojin Ryori. Shigetsu is one of the most popular with tourists and locals alike. 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.
Obakusan Manpuku Temple, Kyoto
© Obakusan Manpuku Temple / Facebook
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.
Ukishima Garden, Kyoto
© Ukishimia Garden
Ukishima Garden (浮島ガーデン) has two locations. Here, we’ll look at their Kyoto branch. Opened in April 2016, they offer a contemporary twist to the Shojin Ryori style in a traditional house located close to the Nishiki market. Using organic, local vegetables, millet, and prepared condiments like vinegar, miso, and soy sauce, their menu offers Shojin Ryori, Western, Oriental, and fusion dishes. Vegan ramen lunches are available on weekends.
People have said good things about their four-course set meal, which includes an appetizer, three tapas, soup, a main course, and dessert. Their menu is creative with interesting main dish options including ramen in a creamy curry, vegan sushi, mock battered fish on rice, and mock eel with sticky soy sauce. Their soup and ramen broth are kelp based. They even offer gyoza (Chinese fried dumplings). The open kitchen lets you watch the staff prepare your meal.
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.
Komaki Shokudo, Tokyo
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.