Visiting Japan as an English-speaking celiac is like walking through a maze of barbed wire blindfolded and expecting to come out unscathed. You can do it, but you have to be very, very careful to avoid the pain and suffering that awaits you at every corner. While sticking to a gluten-free diet in Japan may require some extra effort, a little planning before your departure can save you from spending half of your trip on the toilet.
Gluten-Free Culture in Japan
Celiac disease and gluten intolerance are not well heard of, or understood, in Japan. It may be perfectly normal for a restaurant at home to adapt a dish to suit your dietary needs, but in Japan it’s not as easy. Some chefs liken the food they create to an art form, and to change a dish is unacceptable. Perhaps because of this, Japanese diners are less likely to ask for a special diet to be accommodated, lest they come across as rude to the chef. If you’re celiac, you will have to ask for recommendations or accommodations every time you eat out. With the exception of some gluten-free restaurants we had researched before arriving in Japan, we were turned away from every restaurant we approached. If a restaurant can not meet your dietary needs, offer a polite ‘arigatou gozaimasu’ and move on.
Despite the perilous nature of eating a gluten-free diet in Japan, this was the first trip we successfully navigated without either of us getting sick. How did we manage that? By avoiding almost EVERYTHING.
Tips for Keeping a Gluten-Free Diet in Japan
Eating Gluten-Free at Your Home-Away-From-Home
We always pack some gluten-free food when we travel, but for Japan, literally half of our luggage was food. There was not a moment during our two weeks in Japan where we regretted bringing this much food. We ate everything we packed and honestly, a few more protein bars would have done us some good.
I would highly recommend booking accommodation where you have access to a kitchen. Even with only a microwave and kettle, you can fare reasonably well and will at least be able to cook oatmeal for breakfast. However, finding an apartment with a stovetop in the kitchen isn’t too difficult. There are plenty of options on Airbnb to fit all budgets.
Since it can be difficult to find gluten-free food when you’re out, it will save you a lot of time and stress if you carry your own food. Pack a good piece of Tupperware with your luggage (make sure it’s leakproof and won’t spill stinky, old broccoli juice all over your backpack). This way, you can save some dinner leftovers to take for lunch when you’re sightseeing.
If you don’t want to cook, rice cakes and tuna (pick up some cheese in Japan for more sustenance) may not be exciting, but they will get you through the day.
Additionally, I always throw a couple of protein bars into my day bag for emergencies.
Eating Gluten-Free at Restaurants in Japan
First and foremost, always have a copy of a celiac card explaining what you can and can not eat in detail. The best one I found was at the Legal Nomads website, but it’s worth checking out the cards at Celiac Travel as well.
Restaurant staff want to provide you with exceptional, friendly, and safe service. They will read your celiac card carefully and take it seriously, but celiac disease can be difficult to navigate, even when you speak the language. Have patience and understand that every time you eat out, you are taking a risk.
Many tourists like to have the experience of staying in a traditional ryokan in Japan. These accommodations often come with set meals that will definitely not be gluten-free. If a ryokan stay is in your plans, absolutely contact the hosts ahead of time. There is a chance that with advance notice, they will be able to accommodate your dietary restrictions. If not, you may be able to negotiate a reduced price by booking a no-meal reservation.
If there are any particular restaurants you absolutely have to eat at but are unsure about, make a reservation and ensure they know about your disease ahead of time.
Do some research before you leave home to find out where other gluten-free people have eaten. I have provided a list of some recommended places in this article. Save these to your Google Maps (for more Google Maps Tips read this) to easily locate a safe place to eat when hunger strikes.
Consider joining the Gluten-Free Expats Japan! group on Facebook. People here are always posting products and restaurants they find that are safe for gluten-free diets.
Understand that soy sauce is everywhere! If you are dining at a celiac-friendly restaurant, they will have gluten-free soy sauce and will reassure you that your dish is safe to eat. However, when in doubt, don’t be shy about communicating that you can not eat soy sauce.
You might think that sushi would at least be safe. But it’s not. The fish in sushi and sashimi is sometimes seasoned lightly with soy sauce – but you can ask that this be omitted during preparation. Additionally, sushi rice is prepared with vinegar and, very often, this will be malt vinegar – which of course, contains gluten.
Finding Gluten-Free Foods at Stores in Japan
Always, always read the labels when buying processed foods from stores. Ingredients vary in different countries and, what may be safe to eat at home, can make you sick elsewhere. For example, Japanese M&Ms and Snickers are not gluten-free. Many of their potato chips also contain gluten. In fact, almost anything with any kind of seasoning is potentially unsafe.
Learn some of the Japanese kanji for the foods you need to avoid, or at least have a copy of them on hand, so you can read ingredients. It is a slow and painful process to go through all the characters, but you will become more familiar and quicker. You will probably find yourself surprised at foods that contain gluten that you would have otherwise thought safe. Make sure you have Google Translate on your phone. It’s far from perfect – it once told us one of the ingredients was blended human – but it can save you a lot of time and energy when you’re hungry.
7-11, and other convenience stores, are your friends. They are everywhere, clean, and have a small selection of safe foods available (onigiri, fresh fruit, boiled eggs, etc.). 7-11 stores have wi-fi, which means you will be able to use Google Translate to help read the ingredients.
Department stores in Japan have food floors on the lower level where you can find a variety of prepared and fresh foods. It’s also the place to go if you’re looking for a $100 mango.
Take advantage of grocery stores and markets when you stumble upon them. You can stock up your fridge with fresh foods for healthy meals.
Foods That are Safe, And Foods to Watch Out For
Just because a package of noodles is labelled buckwheat, doesn’t mean it’s gluten-free. Buckwheat is often mixed with wheat. Always check that the noodles you are getting are 100% buckwheat.
Harusame noodles are made with rice or sweet potato.
Edamame is typically safe, but check to make sure it hasn’t been cooked in noodle water.
Yaki-imo is a street food that is simply roasted sweet potato. You can find vendors by looking for trucks or vans with a roaster and red lantern in the back.
Mochi/Daifuku is a traditional Japanese sweet that is safe for the celiac. It is made from sweet rice flour (aka glutinous rice flour or sticky rice flour) and flavouring. Check the ingredients on store bought mocha as they may contain wheat starch.
Onigiri are rice balls and make a great snack. However, almost all of them will contain gluten in some form (usually soy sauce). We had success with plain rice and pickled plum onigiri.
Tofu is generally safe, if you’re buying the plain stuff and cooking it yourself. Otherwise, beware of how it is prepared.
You can find prepared boiled eggs at convenience stores. If they’re in the shell, they should be safe.
Matcha is ground green tea leaves and safe to drink. Mugi tea, or mugi-cha, however, is made from barley. If your tea looks more brown than green, don’t drink it.
Miso in Japan is often made with barley (mugi). As a celiac, you can only eat the miso made from rice. Even then, make sure they haven’t added soy sauce to it.
Soups will often have soy sauce in the broth.
Yakitori is a grilled chicken skewar. Carnivores can ask to have this made with salt, instead of soy sauce. Yakitori is called shio yaki when it is prepared this way.
Unagi, freshwater eel, may be delicious but should always be avoided as it is prepared in a soy sauce.
Faux meat, such as you may find in Buddhist dishes, is often made with gluten. The ingredient to watch out for with faux meats is seitan – another word for wheat gluten.
Beware of any brown sauces! A brown sauce is usually a soy sauce. Teriyaki, ponzu, and hoisin are all off limits. Oh, and tamari sauce in Japan, may not be celiac friendly like it is at home. So, if you really want sauce with your food, bring some gluten-free soy sauce packs from home.
Wasabi may contain wheat.
Seaweed (nori) may be flavoured with soy sauce.
Anything that contains ‘seasoned’ vinegar may be referring to malt vinegar. Proceed with caution.
Koji, the mold used to ferment rice into sake, barley into shochu, and soy beans into miso, is gluten-free itself. Premium sakes (Daiginjo, Junmai Daiginjo, Ginjo, Junmai Ginjo, Junmai, Tokubetsu Junmai, Honjozo and Tokubetsu Honjozo) will be gluten-free. Futsu-shu is a cheaper sake that may contain MSG (which may contain gluten). Some shochu is made from rice. So don’t worry, you can still get drunk.
MSG is usually gluten-free, but there are rumours on the internet that, at least in Japan, it may be cut with wheat.
Gluten-Free Restaurants in Japan
The following lists comes from extensive hours of research on the internet. Establishments that we personally ate at are indicated with an asterisk and are listed first. Keep yours eyes open while you’re wandering around. Japan is incredibly diverse and there are more restaurants than a person can go through. Every once in a while, you will see a sign advertising gluten-free food and it’s worth stopping to see what is on offer.
Gluten-Free Restaurants in TOKYO
* Gluten Free Café Little Bird: Definitely go here. It’s a bit out of the way, and tricky to find, but worth the trip for gluten-free ramen and dessert pizzas. I will be writing a separate post for this little gem that offers some traditional Japanese dishes.
* Gluten-Free Bar Hapa!: This is another place that deserves its own article. The food is more sophisticated and less traditional, but absolutely superb. There are limited options for pescatarians and fewer for vegetarians, but still a spot worth looking into.
* Natural Cream Kitchen: About the only thing this restaurant has that is gluten-free are the rice pancakes. These are more of an angel food cake than a pancake, but they do have a savoury eggs benedict option. You will see these pancakes all over Japan, but Natural Cream Kitchen tops theirs with loads of fresh cream products. You won’t leave hungry.
Come Hiro/Komihiro: According to their website, “In Komihiro, we make simple bread without using flour, gluten, eggs, yeast food, preservatives, thickeners etc. for all bread.”
Soranoiro: Gluten-free ramen. Their online menu shows some soups containing soy sauce or wheat noodles.
Afuri: Noodles made from yam. They also have regular ramen, so take the usual precautions.
Namiki Yabusoba: Ramen made with buckwheat noodles. No website.
Aoyama Three: Gluten-free pancakes, french toast, lunches, and dinners.
Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum: Stores #4 and #6 have gluten-free ramen.
S Komatsu: Restaurant. No website.
Kakurenbo: Rice flour pasta.
Kogomebana: Gluten-free restaurant.
Rainbow Bird Rendevous: Gluten-free restaurant.
Tsukuru: Gluten-free izakaya.
Gluten-Free Restaurants in KYOTO
* Choice Café and Restaurant: They are advertised as being completely vegan and gluten-free, but some drinks contain barley and some desserts contain oats. The food here is Italian-like, but well prepared. They are rumoured to have the best vegan cheese.
* Breizh Café: This must be a chain, because we also went to this place in Paris. They make sweet and savoury crepes. Make sure you order the galettes, which are made of buckwheat (crepes are made of wheat flour). They also have a decent, if pricey, selection of French ciders.
Rokkon: Rumoured to be allergy friendly and even serve gluten-free tempura! There is no physical address, so this might be a bit hard to find, but they have instructions and photos on their website.
Toshoan: Advertises gluten-free sweets. One person said they were able to eat cream puffs, cheesecake, and cookies there.
Gluten-Free Restaurants in Osaka
* Megumi: If you only go to one restaurant in Japan, make it this one! Stay tuned for a separate post with more details. It is also vegan.
Gluten-Free Restaurants in Okayama
Hototogisu Gluten Free Bakery and Farm: They have a picture of cream puffs on their website…😊
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