Guest Post: Gluten-Free in Japan

I do not travel nearly as much as I want to but I realize that many of my gluten-free friends and fellow bloggers go on some amazing (and jealousy-inducing) trips. I have decided to start featuring guest posts from gluten-free travelers.

In the fall of 2011, my friend Sean H. went to Japan. Sean had only been gluten-free for a short time so this was his first overseas adventure on a gluten-free diet. I asked Sean to write up his story to share with my readers. The following is Sean’s story of Japanese gluten-free travel. The views and experiences expressed below are solely his own. If you have questions or comments, please post them below and I will direct them to Sean. 

Traveling to Japan may seem like a daunting challenge when you are eating gluten free. The flight is around 12 hours direct and airplane food is mostly off limits. Japan is like a different planet. Japan welcomes tourists and most of the signs have an English translation.  However, some people in Japan speak English and others barely speak any English at all. However, with a little work, it is possible to enjoy all that Japan has to offer.

For the flight, I brought some fruit and a few bags of assorted nuts to get me through the journey. An important thing to carry with you is a Japanese Gluten Free Restaurant Card that explains your food allergies in Japanese so the wait staff will know your issues.

In my case, I was traveling to see a Japanese friend. Her sister has a wheat allergy and she knew some food allergy-friendly restaurants. She also instructed the wait staff on my gluten issues when necessary. She recommends that people do their research before they make the trip.

Organic, vegetarian, and vegan restaurants are a good place to start when eating gluten free in Japan. These restaurants have salads and protein dishes that are free of soy sauce. The vegetarian restaurants will have a better variety of menu items from which to choose. They will also be very accommodating to people with food allergies. These restaurants are easy to find via a Google search.

Some time honored traditional Japanese food is safe. One of the obvious delicacies is Sushi. Sashimi Sushi is raw fish and is safe. The sticky rice that is used with Sushi is made with rice vinegar. It is safe. There are some ingredients such as artificial crab that should be avoided. There is debate on the safety of Wasabi. Wasabi is a spicy sauce. Some Wasabi is safe while others may contain wheat. So it might be better to avoid it. Soy sauce is not safe. However wheat free soy sauce is available in Japan. Finding it will not be easy though. An alternative is bringing your own.

In Tokyo, we viewed an American memorabilia sales district that was once a black market location for American serviceman. We stopped at a nearby Sushi Bar. The Sushi was served on a conveyor belt that traveled around a circular island. These types of establishments are common in Japan. Each type of Sushi was served on a specific patterned plate. Each pattern had a price designation. At the end of the meal the plates were added by the waitress. It was an interesting and quick way to eat!

Rice balls are an early example of Japanese ingenuity. They are made from the same type of sticky rice that is found is Sushi. In the middle of the rice ball is a protein like chicken or a fruit like sour plum. Rice balls were invented by Samurai warriors for battlefield nourishment. Rice balls are easily found in convenience stores throughout Japan. They are a good balance of portable carbohydrates and protein. They fill you up and keep you going. You will need the energy as visiting shrines and tourist attractions in Japan involves a lot of walking.

Another Japanese treat is Yakitori. This is Japanese grilled chicken. However, the Japanese eat the whole chicken. This includes the gizzard, heart, egg yolk, liver and even the cartilage! Each part of the chicken is presented as a separate meal course. The chicken is prepared on sight on a smoky grille.

Yakitori restaurants are known as meeting places for boisterous businessmen who talk loud and drink liberally. I ate at a Yakitori restaurant in Kyoto, Japan. It was there that I spotted an authentic Geisha. The Geisha was paying a lot of attention to these businessmen. It is very rare to see a Geisha in the flesh. They are hidden from public view in Japan. So I consider myself lucky to have seen such a rare sight while consuming almost every part of a chicken!

There are American choices. I did eat grilled chicken at The Hard Rock Cafe Yokohama on Halloween night. I also ate a steak at an American style café in the Kyoto train station. There are a lot of American style diners that serve classic American cuisine. So, if you are terrified of eating Japanese, there is an alternative.

Throughout the trip I drank water, tea, or coffee. They give you sugar syrup that is real sugar. It works great with Ice Coffee. Sake is a rice based Japanese alcoholic drink. However, only Traditional Gekkeikan and any Sake with “Junmai “ on the bottle are safe. Junmai means pure. Other forms of Sake may be flavored with barley and are therefore off limits. As for beer, there is currently one gluten free beer in Japan. It is called Nadogoshi Nara. It is wheat and gluten free. It does use Soy protein though. Nadogoshi was created to dodge Japanese taxes on Malt. It has become very popular and it may be easy to find.

The word for Wheat in Japanese is Komugi. Barley is known as Oomugi, and Malt is Bakuga. On packaging everything is written in pictograms which makes it that much more difficult to understand.

Above is the Japanese Pictogram for Wheat. However, you should be able to find nuts, fruit, and chocolate at convenience stores. The most prevalent stores are 7/11 stores. They are similar to 7/11 stores in the U.S. However, the food and selection is much better.

So are thoughts of traveling to the Far East still scaring you half to death? I hope not. I was apprehensive but I found the Japanese to be incredibly polite. They always greeted me with a bow and a smile. They will be more than accommodating when you present a Gluten Free Restaurant Card. The Japanese economy depends on tourism and they welcome tourists. They want you to visit their country. Many of them struggle with their own allergies. It is a beautiful country with history that is completely different from Western and European History. Going gluten free in Japan is difficult, but it is possible. There is no reason you should let your gluten free diet stop you from enjoying this jewel of the Far East.

10 thoughts on “Guest Post: Gluten-Free in Japan”

  1. Hi – thanks for the info! I am gluten intolerant. I’m also going sightseeing in Japan (for two weeks) at the end of November, so of course this issue is high on my list of things to think about.

  2. Congratulations on navigating your trip to Japan! I was there for seven weeks, a week, and then ten days; having a restaurant card and knowing what to look for on ingredient lists helped tremendously. I’d recommend Vietnamese restaurants, as their food is generally gluten-free, especially the pho. Here’s my blog post, Eating gluten-free in Japan with the relevant kanji and phrases to give waitstaff and your hosts. Happy eating and traveling! Ganbaru!

  3. FYI: The name is NODOGOSHI NAMA. A slight mispronunciation in Japan can lead to complete communication breakdown. 🙂 Also, in Japan, this beer is considered the lowest of the low quality of beer due to the lack of malt in the brewing process.

    1. That’s right — it’s Nodogoshi Nama, but you don’t need to say the “Nama” part. However, you will never need to say it, because it isn’t sold in restaurants or bars, only supermarkets, convenience stores, and liquor stores. There are several varieties now, but the only one that doesn’t list barley in the ingredients is the original (Nama), in the gold can. Also, Sapporo’s Draft One and Suntory’s Jokkii Nama are in the same category as Nodogoshi Nama.

      FWIW, I’ve tested several Japanese beers with home gluten testing kits, and Asahi Super Dry (the version brewed in Japan) appears to have the least amount of gluten among the major Japanese brewers and varieties. I also tested a bottle of Corona that I bought at a Japanese supermarket, and it tested negative for gluten.

  4. Hello,

    Would you happen to still have a list of vegan restaurants in Japan ? I am allergic to eggs and peanuts myself. If you had any globally allergen-free Japanese restaurants as well, that would really help !

    1. Hello Kai-V, thanks for your comment. I don’t personally have any recommendations for vegan restaurants. I highly suggest translation cards. I used when I went to Thailand. You can get custom cards that are “severely worded” that alert of your allergies. They were very handy.

  5. This is such a great website! Helped me no end before I headed off to Tokyo 😃
    I have written my own guide to going gluten-free in Japan – check it out here! I hope it helps someone.

    Thank you!!!

    Nicola, xo

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