Because of its Buddhist orientation, Kyoto is really very vegetarian friendly. Monks from China brought in the culture of vegetarianism to Japan and this came to be known as shojin ryori.
Shojin ryori eschews all meat, fish and even some plants such as garlic, leeks and other root crops. It has become a delicious and healthy part of Kyoto's culinary traditions.
There are Buddhist temples in Kyoto that offer shojin ryori meals to visitors but these can be quite expensive and reservations difficult to come by, particularly for non Japanese speaking foreigners.
For a vegetarian like myself, a shojin ryori meal, whether from a temple or a restaurant was something that I definitely wanted to sample on this trip to Kyoto.
I got my chance when we visited Arashiyama, a lovely little district in the western part of Kyoto. Very picturesque and decidedly a major tourist draw, Arashiyama is also famous for its yudofu or boiled tofu. Tofu is a major part of shojin ryori and is also a food that I very much enjoy.
Arashiyama's main street is crowded with cyclists and local tourists enjoying the sunny spring day.
Right on the main street, and very near the Tenryu ji shrine is Kyo-Ine, a restaurant dedicated to tofu ryori or tofu cuisine. It is lunch time and the tables are all full but I am determined to have my shojin ryori meal or whatever version is available so we decide to wait.
While waiting, I prep my taste buds by peering into the glass cabinet showcasing the menu offerings.
I can't read japanese and can only hope that there is an english menu inside.
To pass the time, I take a look at Kyo-Ine's spotlessly clean, gleaming open kitchen, right in front of the restaurant. This is where they continue to make traditional fresh tofu, fresh yuba (tofu skins) and their particular specialty, tofu made from sesame paste.
Small plastic spoons contain bite sized samples for passers by to try their freshly made products.
We're finally called to our table and take our place in this cheerful and well lit room on the ground floor.
What better way to mark this special meal than with a large bottle of Asahi beer. Beer is vegetarian -- after all, it's made from plants.
I order the set menu which comes in a large lacquer tray filled with lots of tiny dishes. Everything is so well presented and artfully displayed.
There is a bowl of soup with dried wheat gluten, a wooden pail filled with creamy yuba, kyo yasai or Kyoto vegetables and soy milk stock. There are a variety of traditional Kyoto tsukemono or pickles and there is grilled sesame-flavored wheat gluten . Dessert is mochi or rice cake but made with Japanese bracken starch, an Arashiyama delicacy.
A bowl of rice completes the meal.
So filling and so wholesome and purely vegetarian.
Food for the senses -- if not for the soul.