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8 Tips For Eating Gluten Free in Japan


Travelling anywhere can be stressful in itself. Adapting to a new climate, long delays and lost luggage are all potential obstacles we have to face whilst trotting around the globe. But how about food? Okay, you might struggle with differences in flavour, a spicy surprise or a quick bout of food poisoning whilst on your travels, but for some people just being able to find a meal they can eat is the biggest challenge, and Japan is no exception.
Decorative torn edge
Female traveller at Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto

Food intolerances have risen dramatically over recent years and can cause uncomfortable, often painful digestive reactions to certain foods. Along with the discomfort, those with a food allergy have to deal with knowing which foods they can cope with, which foods to avoid completely and finding alternatives to popular everyday ingredients. Not surprisingly, all of these factors combined can make it blimmin’ difficult to eat with ease – not just at home but when eating out, too. And what about when you’re planning your trip of a lifetime? Food is a massive part of a country’s cultural identity and a must if you want to fully immerse yourself in local life. But with unknown ingredients and a potential language barrier to contend with, eating whilst travelling can be a source of stress for those with an intolerance.

So, let’s talk about gluten…

Pasta, bread, cake, biscuits – you name it, it’s probably got gluten in it.

You’ve probably heard of people voluntarily going ‘gluten free’ as a way of losing weight and avoiding carbs ready for that much-anticipated beach holiday. But for some people, living a gluten free lifestyle is not a choice. Gluten intolerance can range from a mild allergy to a lifelong illness, Coeliac disease, which sees the body’s immune system mistakenly attacking healthy tissue. Whatever the reason, being unable to eat gluten can be a real issue when travelling, and can make eating a headache rather than a pleasure.

If you’re planning on heading to Japan and are worried about what you’ll be able to eat whilst you’re there, then fear not! Grace, our lovely Friend of Rickshaw, has developed a gluten free guide to Japanese cuisine and some top tips on how to travel this intriguing country whilst eating to your heart’s content…

edamame beans
Tamari sauce

1. Bring your own Tamari

Japanese cuisine is hard for coeliacs, as soy sauce is pretty much the key ingredient in everything savoury you’ll see. My first and very important tip – bring your own tamari! I brought a big bottle with me in my checked luggage and used it on pretty much everything I ate. You can also buy small sachets and travel bottles of it on the internet if you want a more portable option. Don’t buy it in Japan – not all tamari is gluten free over there.

2. Take a gluten free translation card

Communicating your needs is very difficult if you don’t speak Japanese so getting yourself a gluten free translation card is a must. You can download them from the internet free of charge and they’ll make your life a lot easier!

Japan food
local restaurant

3. Ask for food to be made with salt

Ask for food to be made with salt ‘shio’, instead of with soy sauce ‘shoyu’. This works for yakitori restaurants, but yakiniku restaurants (Japanese BBQ) are your best bet as you receive your own clean BBQ to grill the meat yourself. No worries about cross contamination on these grills and you can enjoy as much as you can eat – though it’s not the most exciting of food! These were the best places to go as you felt that you were getting an authentic Japanese experience without the worry of cross contamination/soy sauce everywhere.

4. Look for the kanji

I learnt two types of kanji before I went: wheat (小麦and soy sauce (醤油). These two are the main culprits, and even if you see only one of the kanji on their own – avoid it, it could be barley or rye, foods coeliacs cannot eat. It saves your life when you’re in supermarkets and not sure what is/is not ok.

Japan food
local food

5. Try some alternatives

Thinking about authentic Japanese food that you can eat – unfortunately it is very little. Rice is definitely your friend, but be careful with sushi as the rice can be mixed with a vinegar that contains barley. Edamame is fine as long as it has not been cooked in the same water as the noodles – cross contamination galore. Sashimi is a great choice for coelaics, very fresh and delicious if you like it!

6. Know what you can eat in supermarkets

The Seven Elevens (they’re everywhere) do plain rice triangles which are gluten free, along with a rice parcel with salmon on top which again is safe. I ate about 3-4 of these a day. Some bento places in train stations will have salads that are GF, with a salmon and potato salad being my saviour on a long train journey, though not very Japanese. If you can do it – cook fresh! I highly recommend trying to stay in places with kitchen facilities if you are able to as you will be able to control exactly what’s going into your food.

Market Japan
woman holding menu

7. If in Tokyo…eat in the Gluten Free Café!

There is the holy mecca in Toyko – a completely gluten free café. Hidden away in a residential area near train tracks is a coeliac Japanese chef who wanted somewhere for people to experience Japanese food without the worry that being a coeliac brings. Everything was gluten free, and we had ramen, gyoza, chicken kara-age, and the very authentic waffles with strawberries to end. It was delicious and I almost cried with gratitude to the chef after we’d finished our meal.

8. Go on…indulge in Daifuku

Mochi/Daifuki (rice balls) are pretty much the only sweet treat that are available to coeliacs. Note that this isn’t the case for all mochi, so triple check before you eat. These sweet, gooey parcels are delicious and come in a variety of flavours, including red bean paste, which is lovely!

In summary…

Japan is pretty tough for people with a gluten intolerance. Spontaneity has to take a slight leap out of the window and you will have a much easier time if you plan ahead. HOWEVER – if you take the essentials with you and arrive prepared you can still appreciate the intriguing and energetic energy of this Asian nation without having to stress too much over what’s going in your belly!

local daifuku