When considering the food in Japan, many might automatically assume that the cuisine is inherently gluten-free. Given the myriad of rice dishes, it seems like it should be a gluten-free heaven, however, this is not quite the case. Many dishes in Japan are served with or prepared with soy sauce which contains wheat, along with many other sauces containing wheat, barley or other grains. Even the vinegar that is used to prepare sushi rice may contain barley.
Now, more than ever, wheat can be found in many ingredients and dishes in Japan, from ramen noodles to convenience store snacks, making it quite difficult for those following a strict gluten-free diet. Here are a few helpful tips for those who are celiac, or follow a gluten-free diet when traveling in Japan.
Use a Gluten-free translation card
When traveling, it can be very helpful to have a few common phrases written down on cards, which makes it much easier and clearer to explain to locals what you are looking for, or what you need. By traveling with a clear card explaining you cannot eat gluten, or that you follow a strict gluten-free diet can make a world of difference.
Another important distinction to include written cards is the importance of cross-contamination, if relevant, and when possible to use alternative suggestions, for example replacing wheat noodles with rice noodles.
Travel with your own Gluten-Free sauce
By simply packing your own wheat-free tamari sauce, it can make a world of difference. Since most wheat is found in sauces, bringing you own sauce helps to eliminate this issue. Many dishes can then be ordered without sauce, and then seasoned accordingly using your own wheat-free sauce.
Enjoy the seafood
Much of Japanese cuisine highlights fresh seafood, and many fish dishes can be enjoyed without any inclusion of wheat or gluten. Sashimi, for example, is an excellent option for celiacs or those who are abstaining from gluten.
Learn the language, or the kanji in advance
By simply learning a few Kanji (characters) it can make a big difference in reading labels, menus and knowing what to look out for, and what to avoid.
Here are a few helpful Kanji:
Soy sauce (醤油)
Whole wheat (全粒小麦 )
Shop Gluten-Free in Convenience Stores and Supermarkets
When looking for quick on-the-go snacks, or inexpensive groceries, convenience stores, known as Konbini, in Japan sell extensive options, many of which are gluten-free. Knowing what to look for, or how to read the Kanji on labels can make it much easier to find.
Often bento boxes can be a safe bet, especially ones with sashimi and salad. Onigiri (rice balls) are also a possible option, although when possible read the labels as sometimes the rice contains vinegar which contains barley. In general, the pickled plum (ume) onigiri and salmon onigiri are safe bets. Mochi, in general, is made from rice flour or arrowroot flour, and often tend to be vegan, as well as gluten-free. Checking the labels is also important when selecting mochi. Edamame is another safe choice, however, when prepared it can sometimes be boiled in the same water that prepared noodles, meaning cross-contamination has occurred. Prepackaged and prepared hard-boiled eggs can be purchased from the konbini and are also a reliable bet for being gluten-free, and offering a punch of protein.
Also eating fresh fruits and vegetables is always a safe choice.
Eat in a gluten-free cafe
In Tokyo, there are a few gluten-free cafes that are worth paying a visit to, to enjoy worry-free gluten-free food in Japan.
In Shibuya, cash-only, Japanese fare, pizza, pasta and more. 1-1-20 Uehara | JP Bldg. 3F, Shibuya 151-0064
Gluten Free61 cafe & bar
In Roppongi, gluten-free and vegan dishes like chicken satay and dumpings. 3-4-6 Roppongi | 1f, Roppongi, Minato 106-0032, Tokyo Prefecture
Gluten Free Ramen
In Chiyoda City, gluten-free and vegan ramen. 1-3-10 Hirakawacho, Chiyoda City, Tokyo 102–0093, Japan
Gluten-free pizza in Tokyo. 3-1-19 Nishiazabu, Minato, Tokyo