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Celiac (Coeliac) disease sufferer Megan Stanley shares her tips and favourite restaurants for a fuss-free gluten-free trip to Japan. A useful guide for people who suffer with food intolerance or allergies.
Allergies in Asia
As someone with Celiac disease as well as dairy and shellfish allergies, I was really nervous about travelling to Japan. While I was excited to see this beautiful country, I was very aware of the fact that many traditional foods in Japan are made with soy sauce or wheat flour, which is off-limits for anyone avoiding gluten or with Celiac disease.
It turned out that my worrying (while well-founded) was for naught. I found that with a little planning and web-based research it has actually been pretty easy to avoid allergens throughout Japan. Soya milk is also very popular in Japan, so being dairy-free was easier than I had imagined! You may not have as many food options as in Western countries, but you will be able to sample local fare while also staying safe.
Here are a few tips to get you started on a stress-free eating experience:
Know before you go…
- Celiac disease and “gluten-free” is not prevalent here at all, so most people won’t know what you’re talking about immediately. In larger cities some people may understand “gluten-free” but may not grasp the severity of Celiac disease. You’ll need to explain that you cannot eat gluten (wheat, barley, and rye) and that you need to avoid soy sauce since it contains wheat.
- Bring allergy cards with you!
For this trip, I made cards with all my allergies and explained that my food cannot touch any of these or I’ll get very sick. This makes it clear that it’s not just a preference. However, what I mostly use in restaurants is a screenshot from Google Translate with this information. The app includes a full-screen option that is easy to read and (if you’re like me) you are less likely to leave your phone at home than a tiny translation card!
- Download languages to your phone
Both Google and Microsoft Translate have good apps now that translate from text or images and you can download languages to use offline. This is so helpful when you are in the grocery store and need to look at an ingredients label or need to do an on-the-fly translation for a waiter or chef!
- Pack snacks and sauces
While you will likely be able to find allergen-friendly places on your travels in Japan, it’s always a good bet to bring some protein bars, rice cakes, mixed nuts, etc. to snack on while in transit or if you get stuck with no food options. I also brought single-serve packets of tamari (gluten-free soy sauce) and keep them in my purse for use in sushi restaurants (Bonus: you can bring these in your carry-on luggage from home and can buy easily online). If you’re in Tokyo or Kyoto you can also buy a bottle of tamari at Natural House food stores.
Communicating with restaurants
- Call/email/Facebook message beforehand.
I generally found that most restaurants were best about answering me via Facebook messages and I could see if they had read my message yet, but email also worked. Let them know your allergies and make sure they will be able to accommodate you before making a reservation.
- Make reservations when possible with allergies noted.
To follow up from the last point, we found it important to make reservations because many places have very few tables and the reservation both guaranteed us a spot and made sure there were no surprises for the chef in terms of dietary restrictions. Everyone breathes easier when there’s a plan in place!
- Present allergy card/screenshot when you arrive.
Make sure they know it’s an allergy, not just a preference. We found it helpful to sit at the counter or bar where they are preparing food just to make sure there’s no cross-contamination (and also to make friendly chit-chat with the chefs, who were always very polite and helpful).
- Review places that accommodate your allergies.
Websites like Tripadvisor and Google reviews made a huge difference in our quest for allergen-free food. By reviewing the places that do a great job handling allergies it strengthens their commitment to offering these foods and helps other travellers (like me!) find safe places to eat. Think of it as paying it forward.
Best bet restaurants/markets
Now for the fun part – places to eat and buy food! We spent about a month in Japan in total, so we certainly did not find all the possible places to eat, but here are suggestions based on my own experiences of places that were really great about understanding and handling allergies.
100% gluten-free and vegan cafe. They pride themselves on their homemade vegan cheese, which is amazing.
Family-owned sushi spot near Nijo Castle. Bring your own tamari, but they do understand allergies and will wash their hands and prep in a separate spot.
Yak & Yeti
Charming Nepalese restaurant that also has a good grasp of food allergies and will walk you through the menu and ingredients. The curries are delicious and several are gluten-free.
A tiny restaurant offering a mix between Japanese and Western foods. They offer gluten-free soy and teriyaki sauces and will gladly tell you what you can safely order.
A mostly vegetarian restaurant that can also make gluten-free pastas and vegetable sets.
This department store has a huge grocery store (Tavelt Food Market) on the basement level. In the Natural House section you can find tamari as well as gluten-free cereals and baked goods.
If you’re missing a bit of Western food, or if you want to try some Japanese fusion in small-plate form, LBK has a great selection and friendly staff. The curries were all gluten-free and many dishes are labeled as vegan.
The best service we had in Japan, hands down (which many reviewers note). You’ll want to email them about allergies beforehand and they will make sure to prepare a delicious meal for you. Reservations are a must as they fill up in advance.
Located just outside of the JR Nara train station, they have a great selection including gluten-free pastas, fresh cut fruit, and sushi.
Littlebird Gluten Free
This cafe is 100% gluten-free and also has an extensive dairy-free menu. You can safely eat local food like ramen, gyoza, and kaarage, and pair it with a gluten-free Kirin beer!
This tiny gluten-free restaurant specializes in Italian food and they make their own fresh buckwheat pasta and buckwheat galletes. Call and make a reservation since they fill up fast!
Located right across from the Tokyo Skytree, this huge supermarket has lots of good snack options like fresh-cut fruit, nuts, rice cakes, and soy yogurt. Note: Calbee potato chips are sold in most stores and the original flavor is gluten-free. The first floor also has a very inexpensive juice bar where you can get fresh-blended smoothies!
You can find these in most cities and they have all had soy milk available for dairy-free drinks
This popular fast-food chain has a “low allergen menu” where the ingredients are free of the seven main allergens, but they do make them in the same space. I tried it and enjoyed it, but beware of cross-contamination!
While there are other options for allergen-free foods throughout Japan, hopefully this will get you started and help ease the stress of planning travel in a foreign land! Be sure to talk to your hotel concierges, too, as they can be a wealth of information on the local food scene.
Read more about Megan’s travels and her favourite places to eat gluten-free abroad over on her blog: www.aceliacabroad.com
Our team of travel consultants are also happy to help with advice and translations for restaurants, so do get in touch.