Gluten-Free in Japan

March 3, 2020

When I booked my trip to Japan, I assumed gluten-free dining would be a breeze. A diet traditionally full of rice, vegetables and fish led me to believe I would be touring through the country eating a surplus of gluten-free buckwheat soba noodle bowls and sushi. I thought the only obstacle would be wheat-filled soy sauce. To my surprise, when I arrived in Japan, I quickly realized that learning to say “without sauce” wasn’t going to cut it. Japan turned out to be one of the toughest places to eat gluten-free.

I have celiac disease, an autoimmune condition, where eating gluten causes damage to my small intestine. The damage to the intestinal lining leads to malabsorption and consequently a long list of varying health complications. For me, eating gluten-free is a must not a fad. Having food allergies, while becoming more common and accepted, is still a major pain! Avoiding food allergies at a dinner party is inconvenient, but when you travel overseas, avoiding food allergies can limit the ability to experience one of the most important cultural aspects of a country.

Here are some tips to help you eat gluten-free in Japan while still being able to experience the amazing Japanese cuisine.

Why is it so difficult to eat gluten-free in Japan?

If the traditional Japanese diet is gluten-free, why is it difficult to eat gluten-free in Japan? The first step to avoiding gluten in Japan is to understand the evolution of wheat in the country. In the early 1900s, the Japanese consumed very little wheat. Western-style cafes offered pastries, but other than that, wheat was not part of the daily Japanese diet. Wheat started making a presence after the Sino-Japanese War and WWII. Food became scarce during wartimes, and Japan had to rely on food imported from other countries. One of the foods imported was wheat.
Golden Temple Japan
In 1889, with efforts to keep children nourished, Japanese schools started serving lunches to students. This program was first started as a plan to serve impoverished children, but it evolved into serving all students. WWII threatened the lunch program by creating a food shortage in Japan. In 1947, American aid brought a new school lunch program to the country. In the new program, powdered milk and wheat rolls were introduced.
Japan Night Temple
The evolution of wheat in Japan continued when the Oregon Wheat Growers League organized a trade delegation to the country. From 1956 to 1960, the Oregon Wheat Growers League established the program, “Kitchen on Wheels.” The program traveled around Japan and taught people how to cook with wheat flour. As Japan’s economy and trade grew, so did the amount of wheat in the country. As I tried to avoid wheat in obvious and not-so-obvious places during my trip, this complex history rang true to me.
Water Japan

Finding Snacks in Convenient Stores

While in Tokyo, I was shocked by the size of the energy drink and food replacements sections at convenient stores. Tokyo has the reputation for people working extremely long hours and even dying from overwork at a very young age. This condition is called karoshi which translates to “death from overwork.” With karoshi, the most common cause of death is by cardiovascular disease, stroke, or suicide.

This Calorie Mate, not gluten-free or recommended, was one of the only items I could find with the ingredients listed in English. It’s not the best quality photo, but the Calorie Mate is a reflection of the demand for quick meals in Tokyo.

Calorie Mate
Besides the Calorie Mate Block, very few items at convenient stores had ingredients labeled in English. I did have a list of Japanese symbols that would indicate gluten, but Japanese food labels were too confusing.

Luckily, I found that most convenient stores had bags of steamed edamame with salt, bananas, and hard-boiled eggs. These foods, along with the Larabars I brought along, became my safe snacks.

Despite eating my safe snacks, I lost six pounds during the two and a half weeks I was in Japan. Although I was limited to the food I could eat, I couldn’t blame all six pounds on not having enough food.

Street Food

After spending a day exploring Fushimi Inari in Kyoto, my friends and I made our way back to the vendors and the Tori Gates. Yakitori is a type of skewered meat often sold by street vendors. I learned that yakitori is typically gluten-free because the meat is grilled with salt and pepper only, and the sauce is added separately. We found a yakitori vendor, and I decided to give it a try! The chef confirmed I’d be safe after I showed him my gluten-free card. The meat was a little fatty, but full of flavor. After eating the yakitori, we continued our evening by exploring the Geisha area of Kyoto, and then returned to our accommodations.

That night, I woke up with the urgency to head to the bathroom! Luckily, I made it to the bathroom before violently vomiting for what felt like an eternity. When I left the bathroom, one of my friends said she had been up for an hour with the same symptoms. Then, the third friend in our group woke up and joined in on the food poisoning fun! The next day, we were in bad shape, so we decided to visit a local clinic where we were treated with IVs to hydrate.

Kobe Beef

Twenty-four hours after leaving the clinic, we made our way to Kobe, home of the infamous and highly sought after Kobe beef.

With the food poisoning kabobs still fresh in our memories, even the thought of high-quality beef made us nauseous! After a long debate, we forced ourselves to go to a teppanyaki-style restaurant that was recommended by our hotel.

We are glad we went because it was one of the best meals of our entire trip! The chef was accommodating to my food allergies. He made sure to cook my food first and on a different side of the stove while demonstrating knowledge of and avoiding wheat-based sauces.

Assume all sauces, especially brown sauces, contain wheat.

Sushi and Sashimi

While in Kanazawa, my friends and I found a small sushi restaurant. I was nervous to show the itamea (sushi chef) my gluten-free card, thinking he’d interpret it as an insult. Luckily, when I showed it to him, he was politely confused.

In broken English, he told me that the soy sauce didn’t contain wheat. While I wanted to trust him, my celiac instincts kicked in, and I knew I needed to confirm the ingredients. After the itamea looked at the bottle of sauce, the fact that his sauce did indeed contain wheat shocked him!

I showed him my appreciation for double-checking, and also showed him the packets of gluten-free tamari in my purse. Amused, he asked to see the packets. I was relieved that the itamea responded with intrigue, not anger.

Another one of the best meals of the trip, and bonus I didn’t get sick from cross-contamination.

Noodles and Dumplings

My gluten-eating travel buddies were very patient with me as we traveled WAY out-of-the-way to find a 100% buckwheat soba noodle restaurant in Kyoto. Even our taxi driver seemed quite confused about where we were going when GPS directions took him down a back alley in an industrial part of town. The restaurant, Teuchi Toru Soba, has minimal seating but is worth the trip as they serve authentic 100% gluten-free buckweat soba noodles! I ordered at least three courses of soba noodle variations and enjoyed every bite! For anyone who is gluten-free, this place is a must!

Another restaurant that is an absolute must for a celiac traveling in Japan is Gluten Free T’s Kitchen in Tokyo. This 100% gluten-free restaurant in Tokyo is a safe place to try authentic and gluten-free favorites like ramen, gyoza (Japanese potstickers), udon, and tempura. They even serve gluten-free beer! This place is truly a gem.

Drinks

Coffee and sake are gluten-free! The coffee is Japan was extra cute. For some reason, this made it more fun to drink. Matcha tea is also gluten-free, and I recommend participating in a matcha tea ceremony while in Japan. The green matcha is gluten-free, but avoid the brown mugi teas as they may contain gluten from barley.

While visiting Nagano’s Jigokudani Monkey Park we stumbled upon St Cousair Winery and orchard. The scenic vineyard was worth the visit, yes for the gluten-free wine and cider tasting, but mostly for the fresh and very low sugar containing jams. These were the best gifts!

Mochi

Traditionally made of rice flour, mochi should be gluten-free, although some variations are coated in wheat flour. Even with my gluten-free guide, I found that many street vendors could not confirm if their mochi was gluten-free. Use caution when eating mochi and if possible find a vendor who makes their mochi and can definitely discuss ingredients.