If you’ve been reading my blog for some time, I’m sure that by now you’re more than familiar with the fact that I have celiac and therefore cannot eat gluten because it makes me sick. A bummer, I know, but I don’t let it stop me from living my life. The problem is that when you have dietary restrictions, it adds an extra layer of complication to your travels. It is what it is, and I try to prepare ahead of time for the kinds of issues I might face when traveling. The farther afield and the bigger the language differences, the more preparation I do ahead of time. While I had no issues at all eating gluten free in Australia, Japan was a little more difficult, but I did learn a few things that helped me immensely. If you’re in my situation, I hope you can benefit from my research and experience on your own trip to Japan….
Sneaky gluten is everywhere.
Sure, Japanese food is largely meat and rice-based, but there are also a lot of hidden sources of gluten lurking, so it’s important to be aware. Noodles in dishes like ramen of course contain gluten with the exception of 100% buckwheat soba noodles. Be sure to check, however, because many soba noodles are buckwheat mixed with wheat. If you’re unsure, it’s best to (sadly) abstain. I had a harder time than I thought finding food because most restaurants around served either noodle-based dishes or things that were battered and fried as the bulk of their menu. Both of those things are filled with gluten, however, so….yeah.
Your other issue is going to be soy sauce…it’s in everything! Soy sauce contains wheat unless you get gluten free tamari, but it’s not likely that is what they are using and it’s hard to explain something as complicated as that if there are language barriers. It helps to carry around a translation such as this one letting restaurant staff know about your issue:
This meal was safe (only the soup was suspect)…and it had avocado!
It’s exhausting to try to negotiate with every restaurant, however (and many places will just say no to special requests) so if you’re looking for something you can just eat without having to go into a whole explanation of your medical history, here are some suggestions:
- Yakitori (chicken skewers) served ‘shio’ style, which means it’s just seasoned with salt rather than the usual soy sauce-based sauce.
- You can eat mochi! Do be careful however and really look at the packaging because I bought a mochi while I was there and it turned out to have cake inside of it.
- Rice balls are safe as long as the filling doesn’t include wheat or soy sauce. I found the tuna and mayonaise ones that were available anywhere rice balls were sold (convenience stores, grocery stores, etc.) were a good and safe option.
- Sushi is generally safe as long as you don’t dip it in soy sauce.
- Sweet potatoes were commonly available as a street snack.
- You can get hard boiled eggs at many convenience stores.
- In Kyoto, they had these crab sticks at street food stalls. He was brushing it with a sauce that looked suspiciously like soy sauce but when I asked him for no sauce, he just grilled it up for me no problem…and it was delicious.
Some GF street foods I found….
At one point, we decided to try a Mexican restaurant for a little variety. I wasn’t sure if the tortillas would be corn or flour, but the menu clearly stated the nachos had corn chips, so that’s what I had and it was actually pretty good! Plus, the people that worked there were SO delightful!
The easiest place I found to get food that I knew I could eat was at the convenience stores, such as 7 Eleven, Family Mart, and Lawson (as well as many other chains and independently owned places). They always had things like rice balls and hard boiled eggs, so it was always somewhere I could count on in order to feed myself when hungry. They also sometimes had things like fruit or salads and yogurt on offer, and treats like mochi that I could buy. I even bought bags of things like frozen broccoli there and heated it up at my Airbnb. Since I was constantly searching for food that I could eat, I ended up spending a lot of time eating at convenience stores. The plus side to this was that my trip ended up being really inexpensive due to my only eating small, cheap foods, but the down side was that I got incredibly bored of tuna rice balls and hard boiled eggs pretty quickly.
Another thing I did when I just couldn’t take the rice balls and eggs any more was to seek out buffet restaurants. I was able to pick out the items that I knew didn’t have wheat in them (such as yogurt, fruit, vegetables, smoked or grilled salmon, etc.).
I also went to sushi restaurants and got sashimi, which had no soy sauce in it.
Carry your own GF soy sauce.
On a whim before the trip, I went online and purchased some packets of gluten free tamari soy sauce and brought them with me to Japan. It was wonderful to be able to have my own soy sauce to flavor things and to use in my own cooking at the Airbnb as well. I even used it at a sushi restaurant in place of the soy sauce they provided and I got to have a nearly normal meal for once.
Bring a couple bars with you.
I brought Kind bars with me to Japan. I like Kind Bars and they travel well. More importantly, I knew it might be difficult to find food right away and I wanted to be prepared for when the hunger pangs hit. This turned out to be a really good idea, as there were a few times when I needed a quick bite and they came in handy. I definitely recommend that if you have dietary restrictions of any kind that you carry some snacks with you in case you find yourself in a situation where you can’t find anything you can eat. You don’t want to be hangry, do you?
Speaking of Airbnb…
It was a lifesaver having my own place with a kitchen while in Japan. I was able to go shopping and prepare some of my own food, which made things easier when I was just hungry and needed to eat. Plus, it’s kind of fun to go grocery shopping abroad. Even if you’re not staying somewhere with a kitchen, you can usually stock up on a few supplies that don’t need to be cooked or refrigerated such as fruit and other snacks. I highly recommend that you do this.
This Ryokan was wonderful…
I should mention that I stayed at a Ryokan in Kyoto and the stay included breakfast served in my room. There was also an option to order a dinner, which I wish I had done. When I booked, I emailed them and asked if they could prepare me a gluten free meal, to which they happily accommodated. The meal was wonderful, by the way. I had a wonderful time at this ryokan and highly recommend it to anybody looking for a good one. One thing I should probably warn you about the meal, however, was that it was a traditional Kyoto Kaiseki breakfast. This breakfast included a raw egg in broth. I was fine with it but my husband couldn’t hang with the raw egg. Thought you should know so you won’t be surprised, hahaha.
It was surprisingly difficult to eat in Japan and though I did have a few memorable meals, I mostly was confined to easily identifiable convenience foods. Yes, that was a bit of a bummer and I looked at some of the treats I wasn’t able to eat with envy. That being said, I never had too much difficulty finding something I could eat, so I didn’t go hungry. With the combination of staying in more economically priced Airbnb rentals for the bulk of the trip as well as eating at convenience stores and at the house most of the time, this trip ended up costing me significantly less than I had anticipated it would. Even if you’re not restricted in your diet, this proves that it’s possible to explore Japan on a budget, so I encourage everybody to go there and experience this truly amazing country. I’ll be writing more about my experiences there in the coming weeks, so stay tuned for more!