When my boyfriend and I first started discussing visiting Japan two years ago, the first thing he asked was, ‘What are you going to eat out there?’ While some Japanese cuisine is naturally gluten free – rice and fish being predominant staples – they incorporate soy sauce into a huge portion of their dishes; which is definitely not coeliac safe. Aside from this, coeliac disease and eating gluten free is nowhere near as widely recognised as it is in many other countries. An initial Google search also threw up tales from other coeliacs, who stated they’ve found it impossible to eat out there, had been constantly glutened, and to avoid at all costs. My boyfriend said there was no way we could go as he didn’t want to see my suffering/incessantly hungry for two weeks straight.
However, as much as I also don’t want to be either of these things, I equally don’t want to miss out on visiting amazing places and enjoying experiences just because my stomach doesn’t want to co-operate sometimes. So I started researching. A lot. While I always investigate restaurants and gluten free food options prior to any holiday or trip away I take nowadays, Japan took it to a whole new level. I cannot count the number of hours I spent trawling the internet, reading blogs, reviewing restaurant menus, and searching social media – then cross checking anything I found to see if it really was a viable option. In the end, I found over 150 different eateries across several places in Japan that were due to be on our itinerary. I was determined to make it work, so we booked – and my research continued right up until the day before we flew out.
Now I’m back from 17 days in that incredible country, and I can (very) happily say that I wasn’t glutened a single time while I was there. However, I’m going to be honest: some days were very hard. Despite all my research, eateries in Japan seem to disappear as quickly as they pop up – and many places that I found which catered to gluten free diets had closed down.
But I’m happy proof that visiting this amazing place on a gluten free diet is definitely achievable. For my full guides to eateries, you can read about Tokyo here and Kyoto and Nara here. Otherwise, read on for my general tips for eating gf in Japan.
Take plenty of snack supplies
I took lots of gf food out with me – Nairn’s crackers, Nakd and Eat Natural bars, Perkier porridge and Itsu noodle pots – and they totally saved me on the days where I was out in the sticks and there really was nothing to eat. The only glitch came when I hadn’t thought beforehand about how I’d actually fill up the noodle pots when I was out for the day rather than in my room with a kettle – fortunately, the kind people in both Starbucks and a museum café were more than happy to give me a mug of hot water (for free!) which I was then able to pour in
Download the Google Translate app. Seriously. It allows you to take a photo of text (in my case, the backs of food packets) and then quickly translates it for you. It’s free and helped me more times than I can remember – I’d have been truly lost trying to find what I could eat if I hadn’t had it.
If you find yourself stuck for restaurants, head to one of these – a trusty convenience store. Before arriving in Japan, my boyfriend said that they are everywhere, and he wasn’t joking: in the cities at least, there is literally one to be found on every corner. However, whereas you can walk into a shop in most Western countries and distinguish gf items with a cross grain symbol or the words ‘no gluten’ in a logo, it is far rarer to come across here. While gf is becoming more widely known in this country (the increase in awareness and places offering it between the time I first started researching and actually went was impressive), overall it’s still a very alien concept. Having said that, any allergens in ingredients lists are clearly marked, so it’s not as if they don’t recognise them as being an issue.
However, convenience stores sell naturally gf items such as fruit, nuts, yoghurt and plain salad, and they’re also the go-to place to pick up my new favourite snack: onigiri. These are rice balls stuffed with ingredients ranging from red beans to salmon and are a staple in the Japanese diet. The majority of the fillings unfortunately do contain wheat, but I did find a couple (thanks to Google Translate) that don’t have any gluten-containing ingredients and also no sign of a may contain warning on the packaging. The ones I had I was totally fine with, but if you’re concerned about any possibility of cross-contamination in the production process or just feel unsure trying to find the gf ones, then I’d suggest sticking to fruit and the like.
Don’t want to end up being given a lone banana to last you the entirety of a long haul flight? Answer: fly Japan Airlines! nope, this isn’t a sponsored post, I just was totally overjoyed with the meals I had on both my flights. I was super nervous about what the airplane food was going to be like, but I could not have been happier.
Staff are incredibly attentive and, before take-off, put a little sticker on top of your seat so all those serving up food are aware of your dietary needs. There was an insane amount of food during the main meals (sadly I wasn’t able to eat the snack they bought round earlier but these more than compensated), with each component presented in its own individual mini box.
Food I enjoyed included chicken with broccoli rice, beef with potato salad, fresh fruit, a little potato bowl filled with a quinoa salad, prawn jambalaya, and chicken and avocado salad (and that still isn’t a list of everything). I actually said on the flight out that I was already looking forward to the flight home just so I could enjoy more of the great food. Now hands up who has ever managed to say that about a flight before?!
So, the moral of the story is: don’t be afraid to go to Japan. I managed 16 days straight with no glutening here, whereas closer to home in Budapest where coeliac disease is much more recognised, I was made ill twice in two days. With the right research prior to a visit and due diligence taken while out there, there’s no reason at all why you can’t eat well (and safely). Major cities offer up the most options, so they’re the safest of bets – but this country is so beautiful, rich in history and full of the most charming people, that it’s worth taking a punt on.