Takayama – Vegan Local Specialties

Takayama is a small city located in the middle of the Japanese Alps, in the northern portion of Gifu Prefecture.  The region’s geography and climate has fostered a unique food culture. Although you’ll see quite a lot of beef on the menus (one of Takayama’s specialities is Hida Beef, or Hida-gyuu), theres no need to come bearing a sack of instant meals.  With an emphasis on mountain vegetables and a liberal use of miso (fermented soy bean paste), there’s plenty of local food that vegans can enjoy, if you know what to look for!

I.  Hoba Miso (朴葉味噌) & Miso

When I visited Takayama I was hell-bent on trying one particular local dish – Hoba Miso ( 朴葉味噌).  Hoba Miso consists of spring onions, mushrooms, other vegetables, and often slices of Hida Beef cooked in miso over a magnolia leaf.  Obviously you’ll want to look for one without the be

I didn’t go about my search in a particularly organized fashion – I pretty much just walked up and down the streets hoping to find a place that had it on the menu.  Luckily they were plentiful, and I ended up heading into one restaurant with it on the menu.  I wish I remembered the name of it – it was so cozy and the staff were so kind.  They were happy to make Hoba Miso without the meat, and I asked to make sure they didn’t add any fish sauce, just in case. It was so good!  Just mushroom, green onions, veggies and miso grilled on a magnolia leaf, with a bowl of fresh rice & a glass of sake.  Simple, perfect.

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Hoba Miso

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There is, of course, always a small risk that the miso used might contain some flavorings/additives that aren’t vegan, so if you’re nervous and would prefer something where you can read the ingredients, you can also buy do-it-yourself kits and souvenir shops throughout Takayama!  I’ve long since resigned myself to the ever-present and ambiguous “アミノ酸等” that seems to be nestled at the end of every ingredients list, but if you keep looking you may be able to find some with more clear ingredients.

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Hoba Miso Kits

Miso is very important in Hida-Takayama cooking, and not just for making Hoba Miso.  The harsh winters and scarcity of seafood made miso a critical component of the region’s cooking, and thus Takayama has become known for it’s miso. You can find miso manufacturer’s in the Old Town, and various types and flavors of miso in it’s souvenir shops.  Since miso is such a versatile ingredient, it makes  great souvenir!

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II. Mitarashi Dango (みたらしだんご)

Takayama is also well known for it’s Mitarashi Dango, and you can find stalls selling the treats throughout town (especially in the old town district).  If you’ve been in Japan for a while you’re no doubt familiar with Mitarashi Dango.  However, the kind I ate in Takayama were markedly different from the sticky, smooth, and often overwhelming sweet treats I was used to guiltily buying from convenience stores.  The sauce on the Takayama version seemed to be much less liberally slathered in sauce,  and the sauce itself seems to have a higher ratio of soy sauce to sugar.  In addition, they were grilled much more thoroughly, giving them a more interesting texture than their smooth combini-counterparts.  The result was more savory than sweet, but still quite delicious.

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Stall selling Mitarashi Dango (¥70) and Gohei Mochi (¥200)

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Mitarashi Dango

III. Vegetables:  Sansai Ryouri & Tsukemono 

The Hida-Takayama region is also famous for it’s veggies – fresh, cooked, or pickled, vegetables have a huge influence on the local cuisine. In fact, there’s an entire school of cooking (called Sansai Ryouri) based on the use of wild mountain vegetables, ferns, and herbs.  As with many vegetable dishes in Japan, though, the prevalent presence of vegetables is rarely indicative of a vegetarian dish – often fish sauce or other seafood is used at some point in the cooking process.  However, if you don’t mind trying your luck, it seems that Suzuya is well-known for it’s vegetables dishes.

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If you aren’t feeling confident in your ability to negotiate ingredients with chef’s, though, that doesn’t mean you have to absent yourself from enjoying Takayama’s vegetable delights.  You can still have a wonderful and  interactive experience exploring the offerings at Takayama’s morning markets.   There are two morning markets: one along the Miyagawa River, and another in front of Takayama Jinja. They’re fairly small, but each has plenty of vendors selling fresh vegetables, fruits and pickles from the Hida Takayama region.  They often offer a huge variety of free samples, making it all the more easy to decide what to buy!  However, a word of warning:  Read the backs of the packages before buying.  Some tsukemono (pickles) do contain small amounts of animal products/flavorings, so it’s always better to check!

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Tsukemono Vendor at the Takayama Jinja Market

IV.  Hida Soba & Yomogi Udon

The Hida region’s climate is ideal for growing buckwheat, so it should come as no surprise that soba is one of Takayama’s specialities.  Honestly, I’ve never been a huge soba person, so I’ll admit that I passed up trying this while I was there.

However, I’m a huge udon fan, and will never pass up a chance to try a new and exciting type of udon.  So when I learned that Takayama’s shops sold udon filled with mashed yomogi (mugwort, a wild mountain herb), I had to try it.  I ended up bringing it home and made a delicious soup with it, and although I didn’t think the mugwort had a very strong flavor, it was quite pleasant.  If you like yomogi, you can also try various other yomogi-flavored foods while in Takayama:  yomogi mochi, yomogi-flavored peanuts, and even yomogi shochu!  I wish I’d had a chance to try more!

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V. Sake (Nihonshu, 日本酒)

And last but not least, SAKE!  Takayama is also famous for it’s sake, and you can find numerous old sake breweries throughout the Old Town district, marked by large cedar balls at their entrances.  You can sample sake at the breweries or at restaurants throughout Takayama.  While there’s no guarantee that sake is refined using animal products, I find that this is very rarely the case (at least according to Barnivore’s sake listings).  Unfortunately there isn’t a lot of information regarding smaller breweries, but if you Japanese ability is strong enough, visiting the breweries themselves would offer a great opportunity to ask!

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Storefront Display in Old Town

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Glass of Nihonshu (sake)

 

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Okahsan (Takayama, Gifu) – ★★★

Quick Check:

  • Quality: ★★★ – Good
  • Location: Uramachi, Takayama, Japan
  • Type: All Vegan Restaurant / Grocery; Macrobiotic, Japanese, Kyushu-style Cooking
  • Hours: Sat-Wed, 10:00-18:00. Thursday is Cooking Class. Closed Fridays.
    • Lunch is served 11:00-13:00, and for only 10 people.  Better to make reservations.
    • Dinner is reservation only, and must include a minimum of 2 guests.
  • Price: $$-$$$ – Moderate to A Litte Expensive
  • Language Barrier:  Some English signage/info on menu.  Chef doesn’t speak English.
  • Website: HappyCow PageRestaurant Page
  • Lunch Menu: Click Here

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About & Location:

Okahsan (or Okaasan) is a Macrobiotic Cafe and grocery located near the old town district of Takayama, Gifu-ken.  They utilize fresh organic vegetables, grains imported from the Kyushu islands, and natural condiments/sauces.  All breads and desserts are made by a German macrobiotic pastry chef who lives in Nagano.  The restaurant places an emphasis on healthy, balanced cooking.  Once a week, they even have cooking classes!

Address, Access & Contact:

  • English: 46 Uramachi Takayama, Gifu 5060013 Japan
  • Japanese: 岐阜県高山市有楽町46
  • Access: From JR Takayama station, walk East for about 6 minutes along Ekimae Chuo Dori (駅前中央通り) towards the Old Town Row Houses (古い町並み). It will be on your right.  Look for an orange sign-board and brown banner that say おかあさん.
  • Nearby Landmark: Yamazakura Jinja, Takayama Old Town
  • Phone Number: 0577-35-1057 (Japanese only)
  • Email: shizen@okahsan.com (English Ok!)

Google Map:

 

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Restaurant Review:

I only stayed in Takayama for 2 days, with the intention of spending 1 of the days exploring Kamikochi, so I really only had 1 night to try Okahsan. Unfortunately, I got in too late to try the lunch set, and realized that my only chance to eat here would be if I could get in for dinner.  Their website specifies that they only accept dinner reservations of 2 or more guests, and as I was a single traveler, I realized that I might not be able to get in.  But I got lucky!  Just as I walked up, two other foreign travelers were also making dinner reservations.  Since they met their minimum number of dinner guests, they were happy to add me too.  So, if you’re a single traveler and you want to eat dinner here, don’t give up!  You’ll be able to get a reservation so long as others have made reservations as well.

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If you want to make dinner reservations, come in before they close (at 6:00pm) and make a reservation.  They’ll expect you to make a 50% downpayment, which was ¥1620 including tax.  The total cost for dinner is ¥3000, or ¥3240 with tax.  It includes a deluxe set meal that changes each day, but includes a variety of soups, grains, veggies, a drink and a dessert.

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All of the food was delicious, but the highlight of the meal by far was the deep fried tofu. It was rich and delicious, with a cool lightly melon-flavored sauce on top.  The contrast was just incredible – I’ve never tasted anything quite like it before.

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Fried Tofu with Melon Sauce

The dessert was apple sauce. Originally I was somewhat disappointed – I’m really cake-and-ice-cream kinda girl, and I don’t consider applesauce a dessert worthy of the name. However, this was a cut-above any applesauce I’ve ever tried before – more like a sweet apple pudding, smooth and rich.  Still not what I would have ordered myself, but sometimes set-meals are a great way to get out of your comfort zone!

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Dessert (applesauce)

The set was beautiful, the food plentiful and quite tasty.  Was it wort ¥3240?  Honestly, not really.  For that price you can treat yourself to some pretty fancy Shojin Ryori in Kyoto.  I was a little sore at paying so much for dinner when I could have just gotten Lunch Set C (the deluxe set) for ¥2000, which appears to be almost identical. However, I’m not going to knock off points for that – I merely recommend that if you have the availability, come in for lunch instead.  The lunch menu simply offers more variety and a better value.  They offer Vegan Ramen (¥800) in various different flavors, including miso, soy sauce, salt, and sesame miso.  They also offer various seasonal specials, such as the Curry Rice and Ramen Salad offered below.

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There’s also several lunch sets at different price-points.  Lunch Set A, the Basic Plate (¥1,000),  includes brown rice, miso soup,  煮物(stewed vegetables), 和え物(chopped veggies with dressing) or 揚げ物(deep-fried food), and 漬け物(pickled vegetables).

Lunch Set B – Okaasan Set (¥1500) has everything from Set A, plus a seasonal salad, 炒め物(stir-fried food), and a drink.

Lunch Set C, the Deluxe Macro Meal (¥2000) is even bigger that Set B. It has everything from Set B, but includes both 和え物(chopped veggies with dressing) AND 揚げ物(deep-fried food), and dessert.  Essentially it would look like what I got for dinner, but a lot less expensive!  Seems like a great deal to me!

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Los Angeles in Kanazawa – ★★★★

Quick Check:

  • Quality: ★★★★ – Excellent
  • Location: Near Kanazawa Castle Park, Kanazawa, Ishikawa-ken, Japan
  • Type: All Vegan; Japanese, American, burgers, noodles, bakery
  • Hours: Mon-Sun, 10:00 – 17:00
  • Price: $$ – Moderate
  • Language Barrier:  Menu includes English translations, staff speak some English
  • Website: HappyCow PageRestaurant Page
  • Menu: Click Here

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About & Location:

Los Angeles in Kanazawa is a Los Angeles-inspired all-vegan cafe located in the heart of Kanazawa, just outside Kanazawa Castle’s Otemon Gate.    In spite of it’s moniker, it’s menu offers a pleasant variety of both Japanese- and American-style food.   The owner’s twin brother owns another vegan restaurant in Los Angeles, called Shojin.

Address, Access & Contact:

  • English: 2-25 Otemachi, Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture, Japan 920-0912
  • Japanese: 920-0912 石川県金沢市大手町2-25
  • Access:
    • Bus: From JR Kanzawa Station, go to East Exit Platform 3.  Take the bus to the Owaricho Bus Stop (尾張町).  Take a right turn at Owarchi Intersection (尾張町交差点). Walk straight on towards Kanazawa Castle (金沢城), for about 5 minutes.  It will be on your right just before you reach the Kanazawa Castle Park.
    • Walking: If you’re coming from Kanazawa Castle’s Otemon Gate, walk along the moat/canal until you reach the Otehori Intersection (大手堀交差点).  Cross the street, and it’s on your left. It’s a 5-10 minute walk.
  • Phone Number: 07-6225-7573
  • Email: info.lakanazawa@gmail.com

Google Map:

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Restaurant Review:

When I visited Kanazawa, I intended to visit all of its vegan restaurants (Including Los Angeles in Kanazawa, Noppokun, and Takano).  I was staying at Guest House Shiro (go stay there!  It’s old and beautiful!), and was surprised when I looked at my map to find that Los Angeles in Kanazawa was only a few blocks away.  And… well, after trying their food on my first day, I just never made it around to those other restaurants.  Whoops.  I ended up eating there every day during my 3 day stay in Kanazawa, and I have no regrets.

Ok, I’m going to admit I’m very bad blogger.  I took this trip last summer, took a bunch of notes on everything I ate and… I have no idea where they are.  Sooooo instead of fudging the details, I’m going to have to let the photos speak for me!  Everything I ate there was delicious and totally worth the price.

The first day, I continued to pursue my lifelong goal of eating every-veggie-burger-ever and ordered the Ginger Steak Hamburger Plate (¥1,380).  The set includes a soy hamburger, a salad, and 1 drink from their drink set list.  In spite of the small appearance of the patty, this was an absolutely delicious take on a veggie burger.  At ¥1,380 it was a bit pricy, but given the free drink and large size of the salad, overall I’d say the price was fairly reasonable.

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Ginger Steak Hamburger Set (¥1,380)

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For my drink, I ordered the Soymilk and Cinnamon Amakoji. Amakoji is the base used to make Amazake, a sweet nonalcoholic drink that tastes similar to sweet sake.  It’s made from fermented brown rice fermented.  This wasn’t included on the Drink Set list, but they included it in the cost of the set anyways! So sweet!  They also have a good selection of teas and coffee from the US (including San Francisco-based Intelligentsia Coffee), so if you’re missing home, that’s a great option too!

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Soy & Cinnamon Genmai Amakoji (¥450)

The next time I went in, I got the Summer Veggie Hot Noodle Plate (¥1,380).  This also included a side-salad and drink.  I didn’t find it super-spicy, but if you’re sensitive to spice I wouldn’t recommend it.  It had a mild miso base, rice noodles, and was topped with strips of daikon radish and red pepper.

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Summer Veggie Hot Noodles Plate (¥1,380)

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Look at those veggies!  (Also I’m sorry this picture kinda sucks)

On my way out of town I stopped in for one last yummy meal, and got the Summer Vegi Cold Noodle Plate (¥1,380): a heap of thin rice noodles delicately covered with thinly sliced vegetables and vegan “ham”.  It came with a side of soup, veggies, and a heap of karashi (spicy Japanese mustard).  I think this was my favorite meal from there – the perfect antidote to the oppressive summer heat.

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Summer Vegi Cold Noodle Plate (¥1,380)

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Close up of the Summer Vegi Noodle Plate

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If you’ve read my blog you know I’m a total sugar-addict I definitely choose restaurants based on how plentiful their dessert menu is.  Los Angeles in Kanazawa has a pretty good dessert menu, but unfortunately when I visited a lot of their cakes weren’t available.  So, I opted for the muffins, which were amazing!  The flavors changed every day: Chai banana, banana, green tea, chocolate chip, chocolate berry, and more!  Every day I bought two more (it was kind of embarrassing since obviously the staff could tell how many I was eating haha).  Each one was moist, delicious, and perfectly flavored.  I realize ¥300 for a muffin might seem like a lot to a traveling American, but it’s actually not that bad for Japan.

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Muffins (¥300)

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Chai Banana Muffin

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Berry Chocolate Muffin

On my last day, as I was leaving, the store owner gave me a box of cookies for free! I originally wasn’t going to buy them because they were so small and it didn’t seem like a good value, but I’m glad I got them.  They were SO delicious – a perfect sweet, rich, crumbly texture like a Russian Tea Cake.  If you have a little extra money to spare, I’d definitely recommend trying them.

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Vegan Cookies (¥400)

Los Angeles in Kanazawa tries to capture the feel of a Los Angeles Cafe. I haven’t been there in a long time, so I can’t say how accurately it does so, but it definitely has a very vibrant atmosphere.    The walls are covered in art, and bookshelves are interspersed between tables.  The storefront even has a basket filled with local vegetables for sale.  There was a real sense that this wasn’t intended to just be a place to eat food, but a place to gather and enjoy life.  It was a great place to just sip tea and relax after rushing around sight-seeing all day.  The staff are super-friendly and helpful, and happy to chat with you about Kanazawa. Overall, I loved this place!  I hope I get to visit again soon!

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Other Restaurants in Kanazawa: