How can I explain I'm a vegetarian?
You can say, "watashi wa bejitarian desu" (I am a vegetarian).
However, many Japanese take vegetarian to mean you don't eat red meat. So if you are a strict vegetarian, it's best to elaborate with:
watashi wa xxx o tabemasen. (I don't eat xxx) and insert what you don't eat as appropriate. Here is some food vocabulary to help you out:
Niku 肉 Meat Gyu niku 牛 Beef Buta niku 豚肉 Pork Tori niku 鶏肉 Chicken Sakana 魚 Fish Kai 貝 Shellfish Tamago 卵 Eggs Chi-izu チーズ Cheese Yo-o-guruto ヨーグルト Yogurt Gyu-u-nyu-u 牛乳 Milk Hachimitsu ハチミツ Honey
Meat or fish is often in fish stocks, so if you are a strict vegetarian you can check by saying:
Niku (meat) ka sakana (fish )ga haiteimasuka? (Is there meat or fish in this?)
What types of restaurants are good for vegetarians?
Shojin ryori and macrobiotic restaurants are great for vegetarians visiting Japan. Primarily eaten by Buddhist monks, shojin ryori prohibits the inclusion of meat, fish, onions, leeks, and garlic.
Vegetables and fruits are used, along with soy beans and nuts for protein. Temples and restaurants serving shojin ryori are mainly found in cities with a large number of Buddhist temples, for instance, Mt. Koya, Kyoto and Nagano. If you decide to go a temple to sample shojin-ryori, advance reservations are recommended.
For more on temple stays and shojin ryori on Mt. Koya, visit eng.shukubo.net/vegetarian-cooking.html.
Kanga-an is a popular place to try shojin ryori in Kyoto. Tenruji Temple and Daitokuji Temple are other great places to try it.
Macrobiotics is a dietary regimen which involves eating grains as a staple food supplemented with other foodstuffs such as local vegetables, avoiding the use of highly processed or refined foods and most animal products. See the restaurant listing websites below to find macrobiotics restaurants in Japan.
Tokyo has a wide range of vegetarian-friendly restaurants, including Indian, macrobiotic, Chinese, tofu and healthy eating restaurants. See bento.com’s vegetarian listings for Tokyo here.
In Kyoto, in addition to the temples serving shojin ryori, there is the fantastic Mumokuteki Café and many others than you can find listed on HappyCow.net.
If you are stuck for a snack, convenience stores always have rice balls (onigiri) stuffed with things like konbu (sea kelp) or sansai (mountain vegetables) and in Japan you are never far from a convenience store!