Japan: Coeliacs' dream or nightmare?
Updated: Mar 8, 2020
The culturally rich nation of Japan should be on everyone's bucket list. But there is a few things to think about before you go if you have dietary requirements.
I've been to Japan three times so far, but only once with my gluten free diet. Thankfully, I speak enough Japanese to be able to loosely communicate my dietary needs, "Rice: Good. Soy Sauce Bad". And it was relatively successful, enough for me to plan a fourth trip for later this year. Here's a few tips and tricks for navigating this wonderful country with Coeliac Disease.
There are 100% Gluten Free Restaurants and Cafes.
In Tokyo there are several gluten free only eateries, and they serve all sorts of wonderful traditional and modern Japanese cuisine. You might have told yourself before your trip that there is no way you'll be able to indulge in yakisoba (fried noodles) or gyoza (dumplings) but the good news is that you are able to, and they are just as good, if not better, than their gluten filled cousins. I have a Tokyo, Kyoto, and Kawaguchiko guide in my travel section of my website so head there for the best coeliac friendly spots to eat.
Soy Sauce is everywhere.
If you are trying your luck in a non-gluten free restaurant (which will happen a lot outside of Tokyo and Kyoto) you might find yourself having to explain multiple times that, not only you are you unable to eat gluten, but that includes soy sauce. Followed by looks of shock from the poor Japanese Chef you are talking to. Soy sauce is in EVERYTHING so be prepared to be turned away from restaurants. But don't take it personally, Japanese chefs take allergies incredibly seriously, so if they are unable to serve you, it's just because they can't guarantee you won't be glutened.
HOT TIP: Bring your own soy sauce! It is especially useful in sushi and sashimi restaurants where the food will likely be gluten free apart from the dipping sauce.
Only a few people will understand what Coeliac Disease is.
Coeliac disease in Japan, and many Asian countries, is incredibly rare. This could be down to genetics, environment or diets. So it's not surprising that for a long time, they didn't cater for it. Why that can be frustrating for western tourists with dietary requirements, it is understandable from a Japanese point of view. However, Japanese people are also incredibly accommodating and willing to help. I find it easier to explain that I have a wheat allergy instead of Coeliac Disease (which is more or less unheard) of and the closest word to try explain would be Jikomen ekishitsukan, meaning autoimmune disease, and lets face it - we aren't committing that one to memory anytime soon.
Convenience stores are your savior
Japanese Con-bi-ni (convenience store), should be the 8th wonder of the world, or at least they are for a hungry Coeliac in a foreign country. They are usually immaculately stocked with fresh sandwiches, rice balls, sushi, fruit, edamame, and so on, as well as crisps, sweets, chocolate and ice cream. While most of this food in off limits, you can always find a few things that are safe to eat such as:
Salted rice balls - most flavours contain wheat, but salted, plain salmon, and occasionally pickled plum are ok.
Grapes - it might seem like a mundane mention, but Japanese grapes are world renowned for there perfect shape, large sizes and sweetness. Japanese people usually peal the skin so it's not bitter.
Mochi/Daifuku - these are pounded ricecakes filled with flavours like sweet red bean, candied walnut, or chocolate.
Plain flavoured crisps - check first before, as not all are gluten free
Plain rice crackers - once again, check first as there are only a few brands that sell gluten free ones. I quite often brought some pre-sliced cheese and proscuitto. Divine.
At the end of the day, it is trickier to navigate that most European countries, but it should not deter you from ever travelling to this wonderful country. There is so much to do, see, and experience in Japan. It has such an interesting history and wonderful mix of modernity and traditional values and it should definitely be on you bucket list.
For more facts on travelling Japan, check out the travel section of the main menu.