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Shojin ryori, otherwise known as Buddhist cuisine, is a plant-based, vegetarian meal eaten in Japan by monks. This traditional cuisine features rice, miso soup, and a variety of vegetable and tofu side dishes. Learn more about shojin ryori in this article and how and where to enjoy it.
Photo by Pixta
Shojin ryori, or Buddhist cuisine, is a plant-based, often vegetarian and vegan-friendly type of traditional food that can be found at certain temples and traditional Japanese restaurants across Japan. It was originally part of a monk's training routine and was brought into Japan from India and China. During the Heian Period (798 - 1185), shojin ryori became more common in Japan, contrasting with the salty, dense flavors that were popular before.
The core philosophy of Buddhist cuisine is soshoku: the belief and practice of Buddhist monks of eating what is necessary to survive. Consuming plain food was also a means of reaching closer to the goals of Buddhism and learning the value of life. Shojin ryori fits this bill, as it is prepared simply, and for nutrition rather than taste.
In the past, Buddhist monks had to abstain from consuming meat, seafood, alcohol, and also root vegetables with pungent smells and flavors, such as leek and garlic, known as gokun (五葷). As time passed, the rules that prohibited monks from eating meat, and these vegetables have been relaxed, but the idea and customs of Buddhist cuisine continue to be passed down.
Continue reading to learn more about shojin ryori, what is contained in a typical meal, and where you can enjoy this experience in Japan.
Photo by Pixta
Shojin ryori in Japan comes prepared simply, but in a variety of flavors. Rice, soup, and a number of side dishes made up of vegetables and tofu or soy, are part of a typical Buddhist cuisine course. Shojin ryori is typically vegetarian and vegan-friendly. This is done by using konbu kelp dashi, or soup stock, to create all the dishes.
However, some facilities will prepare it now using katsuo (bonito) fish broth. Those looking for an entirely plant-based meal are encouraged to check directly in advance with the restaurant or temple they are planning on visiting.
As mentioned above, tofu is often found in Buddhist cuisine. Some examples are koya dofu, tofu with a porous texture, that is simmered in a savory broth, and sesame tofu, which uses sesame seeds as a base ingredient instead of soybeans. Tofu is frequently cooked or grilled among other ingredients, but sesame tofu is chilled and eaten with a sauce on its own.
Vegetable tempura is also common in shojin ryori. Tempura is a simple dish using fried vegetables with a light, crispy coat. In Buddhist cuisine, egg is not used in the batter, making it more of a challenge to fry it to the right crisp.
Another dish is ganmodoki. Ganmodoki is a soy product, made up of a ball or square of crushed tofu, carrots, and hijiki seaweed that is then fried. It originated as a dish created by monks to look similar to meat.
photos by PIXTA
If you have food allergies or are abstaining from alcohol in cooking, please be cautious when eating shojin ryori. Make sure to confirm it is strictly Buddhist and ask about certain seasonings used in Japanese food, such as mirin (rice wine for cooking) and other fermented products also contain alcohol. Those with gluten allergies should also be diligent when asking.
Buddhist cuisine is served most often at Buddhist temples. Many temples throughout Japan offer traditional fare in small portions on signature red dishes and may appear to have shojin ryori, but you need to ask to make sure. Below are some suggestions on experiencing authentic shojin ryori.
For those in Tokyo, head to Yakuoin Temple on Mt. Takao, a popular day hiking destination in the Tokyo area. It was formally a place where monks used to stay to train. It is located around two hours from Shinjuku Station, making it the one of the closest temple experiences with shojin ryori one can enjoy. Plan to have your meal after hiking up the mountain (there is also a ropeway and a cable car you can take up). Be sure to see this page and call in advance to reserve (use Japanese when you call or get a friend who can speak the language to talk).
For another close option, try Sojiji Temple in Yokohama, which also serves authentic shojin ryori. This Zen Buddhist temple also offers zazen meditation courses, making it the ideal location for a morning or afternoon of peace. To learn more about Sojiji and what you can do there, see the official website.
For a restaurant, try Komaki Shokudo in Akihabara, Tokyo, to experience shojin ryori casually. Along with a meal selection, it also has a nice variety of Japanese desserts. It is excellent for those who are interested in trying and tasting Buddhist cuisine.
In Kyoto, try Shigetsu, a restaurant carrying Buddhist cuisine on the grounds of Tenryuji Temple in Arashiyama, Kyoto. Be sure to make a reservation in advance at least three days in advance, which can be done online via this form on the official website.
Another popular option near Kyoto and Osaka are the restaurants and temples at Mt. Koya in Wakayama Prefecture. World-famous for its deep history as a pilgrimage spot in Japan, most people come here to stay overnight at a temple and to hike around the mountain. There are many places where you can try Buddhist cuisine here, but be sure to try the shojin ryori at Fukuchiin Temple, and make a reservation for the night if you'd like. Click this link to see more information.
Main image by Pixta