It’s a commonly held misconception that Japan is a great place for vegetarians to live. Sure, for pescatarians (who happily eat fish but stay away from meat products) Japan is a dream come true due to all the delicious and fresh seafood, but for actual vegetarians, it’s just not the case that Japan easily caters to their dietary needs. In the West, we’re used to a dish being either vegetarian or containing meat/fish, but my experience of living in Asia is that these food boundaries are much more blurred – even if you order something that seems to be vegetarian, more often that not it will come with a sprinkling of fish flakes on top, a meaty broth or coated in sauce made from fish. So as you can see, finding a quality vegetarian restaurant in Japan is of vital importance to those who don’t eat meat, and the Private Lodge Cafe&Diner in Kumamoto is one such place that is well known for its dedicated, non-meaty menu.
The cafe is quite small with only about 20 covers (not including the outdoor terrace area – where dogs are more than welcome) but there are always seats available. Despite the deliciousness of their food, vegetarianism just isn’t very popular in Japan and so the place is never packed. Designed in a modern, loft-cafe style, the Vegetarian Lodge is an oasis of calm with soft lighting, comfy sofas, and undulating music. Grab a book from the shelf and relax in wonderful peace and quiet with one of their many beverages.
The Private Lodge is a restaurant, cafe and bar all rolled into one, and has different menus available at different times of the day. On Monday to Friday, Lunch Time is from 12:00 – 16:00, Cafe Time (drinks and cakes) from 15:00 – 18:00, and Dinner Time from 16:00 – 19:00, with reduced opening times on weekends and holidays – check the website before you visit to avoid disappointment as the restaurant has irregular holidays.
As for the food, I’ve been to the Private Lodge several times and have never been disappointed. Not a vegetarian myself, I often feel let down by vegetarian meals in restaurants which are frequently bland and unoriginal – not so at the Private Lodge! The meals on offer are varied and unique, with a medley of flavours and ingredients that blend together perfectly. In the UK, it’s so often the case that restaurants only have one vegetarian option on their menu, two at the most, and so to be given a variety of options can make it difficult to know what to choose.
For anyone unsure of what to pick I recommend the ‘Brown Rice Lunch’, which is a perfect tasting selection of delicious vegetarian foods. The dome of flavoursome brown rice is accompanied by a small bowl of soup, salad with a delicious dressing, and a tapas-style selection of mini dishes which change from day to day based on what fresh, seasonal ingredients they have. Other options include the pasta lunch, the curry, the vegetarian burger (made of soy and brown rice, served on a whole grain bun – yum!) and for those of you who really just can’t choose, you can opt for the Special Lunch which includes both the daily brown rice lunch and a half-size portion of the pasta… win-win! Lunch options are available as individual or set options that come with mini desserts and drinks.
Dinner options include those from the lunchtime menu, as well as other options such as risotto, noodles, and the mega Macrobiotic Shunna Dinner Course which includes 7 different dishes (recommended for two people to share, order 2 days in advance, with an all-you-can-drink option available).
If you’re not hungry enough to devour a whole meal, take a look at their tapas menu for a small snack or, better still, the cake menu. Tried and tested favourites include tofu cheesecake (yum!), okra and raisin cake, wheat-free cake using Kumamoto rice flour, chocolate gateaux, soy milk pancakes, dairy-free chocolate parfait and the Macrobiotic Sweets Set with three pieces of your favourites served in half portions. There are also daily specials – we tried the pumpkin and raisin cake on offer during our last visit.
During Cafe Time, there is a cake set available where you can purchase a slice of cake and a drink for a reduced price. A variety of hot, cold, and alcoholic beverages are available to cater to everyone’s needs. Hot drinks include espresso, organic fair trade coffee, soy milk latte, chicory, Indian tea, soy milk chai (yum!) and a variety of organic herbal teas. For cold drinks, choose from teas, coffees, juices and smoothies. For alcoholic beverages, choose from beer, sake, shochu, plum wine, and a variety of cocktails.
If you’re not able to stick around and enjoy the ambience of the cafe, they even offer lunch and dinner bento boxes for your vegetarian dining convenience! Choose from the daily rice lunch, burger, or curry for lunchtime, or for dinner just the daily rice is available.
Speciality dining is often expensive compared to ‘normal’ restaurants, but almost everything at the Vegetarian Lodge is a really good value. Lunch options cost around 830 to 1,250 yen with a small additional cost for the set option. Dinner time will set you back between 930 and 2,600 yen (for the 7 dishes mega set), and cakes cost from 420 yen upwards, with the Cafe Time cake set priced at a very reasonable 630 yen. The only thing that is slightly expensive at the Vegetarian Lodge is the booze – 500 yen for a glass of wine or shochu, 550 yen for the beer, 600 yen for a cocktail, and 700 yen for sake – but as this is really more of a cafe/diner than a raucous bar, I think it’s fair enough that they don’t want to encourage people to get hammered with cheap drinking options.
I am not a vegetarian and probably never will be, but sometimes it’s nice to detox from one’s usual diet and try something both healthy and delicious. The Private Lodge is one of my favourite restaurants in Kumamoto – the relaxed atmosphere and amazing food make it a great place to unwind after a busy week. The owner is a really friendly lady who speaks a bit of English – the menu is all in Japanese but she can help you if there is something you don’t understand, or you can use Google Translate when looking at their online menu. If you want to check their opening times you can send a message to their Facebook group and you’ll get a reply within a day or two.
The restaurant is child-friendly (kids menu available) and can also cater for events and parties. Special events are occasionally held there such as yoga, music workshops and other courses (check the website for details.) If the prices aren’t enticing enough already, check out the ‘coupon’ section of the website for special deals and offers. I highly recommend the Private Lodge to both vegetarians and meat-lovers alike!