It turns out plant-based can be healthy and tasty!

Nowadays, it’s a lot easier to find vegetarian food in Japan, especially in Tokyo, where you can even find pre-made vegetarian meals at supermarkets and convenience stores. But in the ’90s or even 10 years ago, it was much harder to find restaurants with anything plant-based on the menu, unless you went to a Shojin restaurant.

Shojin cuisine is made up of vegetarian meals based on a Buddhist monk’s diet. It’s not something you’ll find everywhere, but it was–and still is–a great option for plant-based dining. Our own Japanese-language reporter and foodie Mr. Sato decided to visit a Shojin restaurant recently in Nakano Broadway, a shopping center just a few minutes from the city center.

It’s called Kohrinbou, and the kitchen uses absolutely no meat or fish. When Mr. Sato, who is a major fan of meat but recently learned he should be eating less of it, got to talking with the proprietress, he became very convinced of the benefits of a plant-based diet.

Kohrinbou is located on the second floor of Nakano Broadway, a popular shopping mall for hobby items and collectibles as well as groceries and other necessities (and which is also famous for an ice cream store that sells huge soft-serve cones). It’s on the north side of Broadway Avenue, and from the look of the restaurants, appears to have been in business a long time. Mr. Sato had always wanted to try the restaurant, but every time he’s been to Nakano Broadway it was outside of the restaurant’s business hours, so he was glad to finally get the chance to try it out.

Outside of the restaurant was a sign that read:

“To our first-time customers:
This restaurant does not use any meat or fish in its dishes whatsoever.
We do have some dishes that use eggs, but if you can’t eat eggs, please let us know when you order and we will substitute them with other items.”

As if she’d had problems before, the first thing the proprietress told him when he entered the restaurant was that they didn’t use meat or fish in their dishes. Mr. Sato was actually grateful for her vigilance. Since being diagnosed with gall stones, Mr. Sato has been told to eat a lot less fish and meat than before, so he has to be vigilant himself.

Unfortunately, Mr. Sato loves meat and fish, and he’s been cheating and eating too much of it lately. The fact that he could eat with abandon here without worrying much about his health, like old times, was actually super nice.

Plus, it wasn’t like other restaurants or cafes offering plant-based alternatives. It appeared to have been serving vegetarian food for a long time. When Mr. Sato asked the proprietress how long the restaurant had been open, she said, “50 years.”

50 years! That’s as long as Mr. Sato has been alive! It was hard to imagine that a restaurant could be open so long serving a single vegetarian menu.

Though the menu had interesting-looking dishes like “Ninja-age”, a fried meat substitute made with carrots and potatoes, and “Chinpira-age”, a fried meat substitute made with burdock root and other vegetables, he decided to go with the Daily Special Set Meal (“Higawari Teishoku”) for 1,100 yen (US$7.54), which the proprietress recommended.

And here it was:

That day, it was made up of five items: rice, soup, eggplants with miso dressing, stir-fried vegetables with miso sauce, and bite-size vegetarian katsu.

For a meatless meal, there was plenty to eat, and the presentation was much showier than he’d expected from Shojin cuisine. Plus, since there were fried items, Mr. Sato felt like there would be enough flavor and richness to satisfy his adapted palate, and each dish had a simplicity to it that really drew out the mild flavor of the vegetables, making them tasty and satisfying. The most important thing, however, was how gentle the meal was on his body, since he can’t eat much rich food anymore.

What was most surprising out of all the dishes was the bite-sized vegetarian katsu. It tasted like a chicken nugget! Even though it was made with soy meat, its texture was very similar to chicken. It was mysterious, and yet delicious.

Mr. Sato thought that if he could eat vegetarian food like this every day, there’s no way he’d get tired of it. According to the proprietress, other people must feel the same, since the restaurant actually has a lot of customers who dine there daily. One customer has even been coming for more than 30 years! Kohrinbou has clearly established itself as a prime eatery in the neighborhood.

The woman running the restaurant is 76 years old, though she didn’t look it at all. Her posture was straight and tall, her movement was fluid and stable, and her skin looked lustrous. She said it’s all thanks to eating Shojin cuisine. “It’s because I eat it myself and have been maintaining my health that I can recommend it to my customers,” she said. Mr. Sato couldn’t help but think that was very persuasive.

While they were talking, the proprietress also offered to demonstrate her grip strength to Mr. Sato. She was way stronger than she looked! It almost hurt. And that was an extra testament to the power of a vegetarian diet, proof to Mr. Sato that you can still be healthy and strong without eating any meat and fish.

Mr. Sato received so much power from the proprietress, as well as the delicious vegetarian meal, that he felt like he might just be swayed to become a vegetarian…as long as he could eat here every day. If you feel like you need a burst of energy, he highly recommends you stop by Kohrinbou and get a little power-up yourself!

And if you’re looking for other plant-based meals in the Tokyo area, check out Komeda Is, which is a restaurant with an entirely plant-based menu.

Restaurant information
Kohrinbou / 香林坊
Tokyo-to Nakano-ku Nakano 5-52-15 Nakano Broadway 2F
東京都中野区中野5-52-15 中野ブロードウェイ2F
Hours: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Closed Sundays

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