You might think that being celiac you will have an extremely hard time in Japan, but don't despair! While it may be true that finding gluten-free food in Japan can be harder than in a lot of other countries, it is not impossible.
You just have to prepare a little more in advance: know which food you can safely eat, which to avoid and, most important, which are some of the best restaurants for finding gluten-free food. When travelling, safety is always important; and being safe is the only way we can truly relax and enjoy our trip.
So… check out our short guide and learn more about gluten-free food in Japan!
- Rice, the staple food in Japan, is gluten-free
- Gluten-intolerance is not as widespread in Japan as elsewhere, and many people are unaware of it
- There are plenty of dishes you can eat safely: sashimi, edamame, kaisen-don, tofu, etc.
- Soy sauce, miso and vinegar are some of the most common ingredients you should avoid
- Even if the concept of gluten-free is not as widespread in Japan, there are still a lot of places where you can eat safely, especially in Tokyo
Gluten in Japan: an overview
Even if rice, which is gluten-free, is the most common ingredient in the Japanese diet, a lot of dishes still contain gluten, so it is necessary to be careful. For example, a problem can arise with soy sauce, usually fermented with wheat; and a huge number of Japanese dishes use soy sauce in one way or another.
You also have to be aware that, in Japan and in the rest of Asia, being celiac is not so common, and so a lot of people have never heard of gluten-intolerance.
Besides, it is quite uncommon for someone to ask a chef to modify a dish; in fact, doing so can be seen as rude. So, don't be surprised if a chef refuses to do so. Don't get angry. Just make clear everything you need from the beginning and, if necessary, change restaurants.
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Alisa Liu was my contact person for Asia Highlights. She was remarkably punctual, she was thoughtful, and she handle an emergency on my end, with grace and patience. She recommended great hotels in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka Japan that put us in the center of the action. The guides she choose were personable, punctual a knowledgeable about their cities.More
Brent Zadorozny, Oct 2023
Started using Asia Highlights to plan my trip to Japan. Sharon was very helpful, giving me all the information I would need for the tour. I would definitely use Asia Highlights again, when planning another trip to Asia.More
Rachel Nelson, Oct 2023
Our airport pick-up went very smoothly. Our guide, Vivian, on the second day was very nice, very accommodating, took into account our preferences. In Osaka, our trip to the castle was a very long walk with lots of steps to climb and quite honestly wasn’t very interesting. But Dotonburi is a must-see and we enjoyed that very much.Our trip to Hiroshima was very memorable. I highly recommend it. Our guide, Etsuko, was very knowledgeable and kind. The trip to Miyajima island, on the other hand, wasn’t too memorable. Our next city, Kyoto, is a truly wonderful place to visit. All the temples we went to were very interesting and very distinctive from each other (Kinkakuji temple, Nijo castle, Sanjusangendo temple,Kiyumizo temple, Fushimi Inari shrine, Kasuga Taisha shrine, Tojaidi temple). The sake tour was a downer and wouldn’t recommend it.Our guide, Ritsuko, was a darling. She was very knowledgeable too and kind and warm and easy to talk to. Our last tour in Tokyo was a rainy day and Sue, our guide, was able to change our tour to the next day. She was so efficient and so accommodating and so kind and very knowledgeable too.More
Mrs Cristina Hidalgo Loris, Oct 2023
Very good tour of Japan
Very good tour around Japan for 10 days, including Tokyo, Hakone and Kyoto. Excellent guides and experiences. Albee, the tour organiser, was always available to sort out changes to itinerary or extra requests.More
Guy Slimmon, Oct 2023
Everything is good
All of the hotels were wonderful and our guides were super friendly, knowledgeable and flexible. We had a 10 day trip that included multiple cities and lots of different sights, we squeezed in as much as we could, including a 2 day hiking trip to Mt. Fuji (our guide Sun Nan was awesome!). Our guide in Tokyo, Jennifer, was lovely and our guide for 2 days in Kyoto, Dennis, was also super great. We did a food tour in Osaka with Vivian which was nice Sallie Fujimoto-SwunMore
Ideale Tran, Oct 2023
Thank you for the wonderful experience…
Thank you for the wonderful experience we all truely enjoyed. From the beginning (making first contact with Sharon from Asia Highlights) to the end (Saying good bye to our amazing guide Lilly) the experience was top notch. Great communication while preparing the trip and excellent local knowledge of our tour guide. I can highly recommend Asia Highlights and would not hesitate to use them again for our next trip.More
Dany Gruosso, Oct 2023
Vacations in Japan
The guides Jessie and Vivian were very kind and professionals and the drivers as well. In a future vacation we will get in touch with Asia Highlights without a doubt.More
Hilda Andrade, Oct 2023
Experience with Asia Highlights
This was my first time working with a travel agent to plan an international trip and because of the seamless experience I had, I have decided to always work with an agent when booking international trips. Asia Highlights did an amazing job in ensuring we found a trip that worked well for our budget and provided us with special experiences in Japan that exceeded our expectations. From travel logistics in Japan to lodging and activities, we felt taken care of. If I had known that travel agents were this helpful, I would have worked with them in my prior travels. I definitely plan to book my next trip to Asia with this agent.More
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Jason and Cathy from Asia Highlights…
Jason and Kathy from Asia Highlights did a great job for us. They were very responsive and professional. Hotel choices and attractions made for a wonderful first time trip to Japan.More
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This was one of the best experiences in…
This was one of the best experiences in Travel that I have ever had... and I have traveled extensively. The reliability of the the driver and guide, the kindness each displayed (different people in different cities same result) and the flexibility to work with my family's requests was outstanding. I now wish for this experience where ever I may travel next!More
Donna Huck, Sep 2023
First and foremost, this review is based strictly on prompt response from Asia Highlights.I was browsing Asia Highlights website on the night of September 17th 2023 and really impressed of the positive reviews. So I decided to send an e-mail for an estimate of a private tour guide in Tokyo Japan for 6 days/7 nights including hotel accommodation for my 90-year-old father and I. I provided as much information as I can what areas of interest we would like to visit. I was really expecting a 72-hour delay response from Asia Highlights given time difference in California and Japan. The following day, I received an e-mail from Kate Long. Impressive! Kate provided a very detailed suggested itinerary with great consideration for my 90-year-old father. I truly appreciated her thoughtfulness! I will definitely reach out to Asia Highlights on our next trip! Thank you Kate!More
F K, Sep 2023
Perfectly planned and organized
Albee at Asia Highlights created a diverse, fun-filled itinerary for our trip. She listened carefully to our interests and made sure that we made the best use of our time in Japan. Our local guides, drivers and vehicles were excellent. Albee was always available to answer all my questions with a lightening fast response time. A very memorable experience and I would definitely book with Asia Highlights again.More
Carol Ann Paget Brown, Sep 2023
Sharon provided great service while…
Sharon provided great service while planning and booking our Japan trip! Unfortunately, we had to cancel due to family medical reasons. Sharon was very understanding of this and helped process the cancellation and refund in a very timely manner. When we are ready to book our trip again, I will certainly be reaching out to Sharon and Asia Highlights!More
Ali Tahir, Sep 2023
I just wanted to tell you how pleased…
I just wanted to tell you how pleased we were planning and coordinating our recent Japan trip with Alisa Liu. Alisa was responsive, answered questions in a timely manner despite our 15 hour time difference, and coordinated a trip for a 6 person multi-generational tour to everyone's satisfaction. (ages7-70!)We were particularly thankful for her help as 2 typhoons bore down on Japan during our stay. She helped us rearrange train and hotel reservations, and was able to get us a refund from a hotel that would not typically offer that. I have referred other friends to her with confidence.More
Berdine Bender, Sep 2023
Not only Albee was great! Each of our guides and drivers were also a joy. Daniel was our first knowledgeable guide who spoke excellent English and was so much fun throughout the day. Jeremy was our guide for the next few days and he also was fun, flexible, and had so many interesting tidbits to share with us throughout the day. Kiko was our guide on the next leg of our journey. She had such a joyful sense of adventure and curiosity that was such a hoot. Vivian was also professional and very aware to what our needs were in the moment. Tian was incredibly flexible and when our plans literally changed when he picked us up, he showed great flexibility and took us to some really fun places at the last minute that were some of our best experiences. And finally Charlie was our last guide and he was so thoughtful and consistently anticipated our needs. By the time we realized we might need something, he would already have it taken care of. All of our guides were so thoughtful and conscious of either making sure we got time to ourselves or of being available right when we needed them. They were each fun and had their own personal flavor that they brought to the experience. We are so grateful for the consideration and flexibility that Asia Highlights showed us consistently and would highly recommend them for anyone interested in visiting Asia. Thank you so much! It was an amazing trip!More
Leah Stine, Aug 2023
Alisa is awesome!
We have been looking to go to Japan for a long time. The food, the culture, and the rich history have always intrigued us. We tried many times to set up pieces of the trip on our own, but couldn’t put together a sensible vacation. Then we found Asia Highlights and Alisa! She helped us tailor a remarkable adventure to Japan! She answered our many questions and shifted our itinerary to maximize our time in each city. I highly recommend Alisa to help you put together the trip of a lifetime. We are looking forward to our journey!More
Mark Linn, Aug 2023
Sharon has been very helpful since the…
Sharon has been very helpful since the beginning coordinating our itinerary in order to accommodate everything we want to see, it been great working with herMore
May, Jul 2023
When I first book I was scared of what…
When I first book I was scared of what to expect, but oh my God! What an amazing experience this has been, from Sharon to all the guides Shawn and Mr. Ho, such amazing people! Their work is excellentMore
Saul Velez, Jul 2023
Albee was very helpful and responsive…
Albee was very helpful and responsive in helping me make plans for their 10 day Japanese tour.More
Bhavini Patel, Jul 2023
Alisa was a perfect tour consultant
Alisa responded to my numerous questions with efficiency and accuracy. She was constantly suggesting options to make the trip more enjoyableMore
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What food is gluten free?
You will be happy to hear that the staple food in Japan is rice, which, of course, is gluten-free. The variety of rice used in Japan is called "glutinous", but don't let that fool you: it only means the rice is "sticky", not that it contains gluten.
There is one variety of rice, called zakkoku-mai (cooked with barley, oats and other grains) that is not gluten-free.
Besides rice, maybe the most popular Japanese dish is sushi, which if prepared without soy sauce, along with sashimi – fresh seafood served with grated horseradish – is completely gluten-free. Kaisen-don is a similar dish, but the ingredients are placed on top of a bowl of steamed rice (which is not cooked with vinegar).
You will also be happy to know that you can freely eat soba, a kind of noodle made with buckwheat flour (which, despite the name, doesn't contain wheat). Soba is served in a hot soup with a dipping sauce.
Tofu is gluten-free as well: it is nutritious and tasty. Just avoid marinated tofu, usually made with non gluten-free sauce.
And if you like meat, try yakitori, pieces of grilled chicken on a skewer. Usually, you can choose between two options: shio (with salt) and tare (marinated). Choose the shio, as the tare may contain soy sauce that is not gluten-free.
Other generally gluten-free foods
Some other foods that you can eat without any worries are:
- onigiri without soy sauce
- sushi prepared without soy sauce (avoid unagi)
- sweet potatoes
- seaweed that is not flavored with soy sauce
- harusame noodles made with rice, sweet potatoes etc.
- yakiniku or Korean barbecue (but avoid sauces containing soy sauce)
Foods to avoid: common ingredients with gluten
A lot of the most common ingredients used in Japanese cuisine contain gluten. Some of the most common are:
- Wheat flour: used to make some common dishes like ramen, tempura, okonomiyaki and takoyaki.
- Panko: a kind of flaky breadcrumb used to coat breaded foods, like tonkatsu, croquettes and deep-fried shrimp.
- Miso: obtained from fermented soybean paste, extremely common in Japanese cooking. Some brands are gluten-free, but most are made with wheat or rye. If you buy miso from a store, avoid brands that present this character: 麦 ("mugi", or wheat).
- Soy sauce: made from soy beans, a quintessential seasoning of Japanese cuisine. Sometimes wheat is used during the brewing process. To be safe, buy some tamari soy sauce, made with 100% soybeans (you can bring it with you to the restaurant).
- Vinegar: the variety of vinegar called kokumotsu-su, made from corn and wheat, contains gluten (unlike all other kinds). To be safe, only use vinegar made from rice.
- Fu: a vegan-friendly food you have to avoid if you are celiac.
Useful sentences when ordering
If you don't speak Japanese, it would be worth learning or writing down some useful words and sentences you could show to a waiter, to warn that you can only eat gluten-free food. The following short list provides you with relevant English words, the corresponding Japanese characters and the transliterations.
- Gluten (麩 質, グ ル テ ン (ふ し つ)
- Soy sauce （醤油）
- 味噌 (み そ)
- Wheat （小麦）
- I have an allergy (にアレルギーがあります）
ni arerugii ga arimasu
- Is there (name of the food you cannot eat) in this? （〜 が入っていますか）
~ ga haitteimasu ka?
- No soy sauce (醤油抜きで）
Shoyu nuki de
Where can you eat?
As mentioned above, some restaurants might refuse to change their dishes, so it is always good to check in advance and, if necessary, to change restaurant. There are, however, plenty of restaurants where you can eat safely, relax and enjoy your meal.
When eating in a sushi restaurant, you only have to ask if they use wheat in cooking the sushi rice (for example using wheat-based vinegar). If not, you can eat most of their dishes, especially sashimi.
Do not order anything with sauce, like eel, because you can never be sure what is made of (it often contains non gluten-free soy sauce).
You will be able to choose from 'normal' sushi restaurants and 'automatic' ones (with conveyor belts).
Tofu is completely gluten-free – even though it is often served with soy sauce. When in Tokyo, we especially recommend Shiba Ukaitei, where you will find plenty of gluten-free dishes. To avoid any problems, call ahead to be sure what they can and cannot do.
Yakiniku and Teppanyaki
As long as you avoid marinated meat and sauces, you will be fine. These are delicious grilled meats, vegetables and seafood. You can always bring your own sauce, or you can eat your dishes seasoned with salt and lemon juice: a simple and wonderful combination!
If you want to order a dish that usually comes covered with sauce, you can ask instead to have it cooked only with salt. Just learn or write down this sentence: "Shio-yaki dekimasu ka?" (塩焼き出来ますか?).
Konbini (convenience stores)
Konbini are packed with food: just look for onigiri (rice balls) made without soy sauce. Salads are usually served without dressing; hard-boiled eggs are a great snack (avoid pickled ones), and bananas and yogurt are always a healthy choice. Before you buy anything, remember to check the list of ingredients.
Department store basements
After a long day shopping, just head to the basement of your department store to find a lot of delicious Japanese dishes. We strongly recommend Japanese sweets like mochi and daifuku, made from rice and red bean paste.
Besides, you will find tons of different dishes – like fruit, vegetables, ready-made sushi, etc. – so you only have to ask if something is gluten-free.
Indian and Thai restaurants
Indian restaurants offer alternatives to Japanese curries: in fact, Indian curries are made without flour. Of course, you cannot eat naan bread, but rice goes extremely well with these delicious curries.
The same is true of Thai restaurants: Thai dishes are gluten-free, and it is easy to arrange gluten-free versions. Be careful, however: some Thai dishes served in these restaurants are adapted to meet the Japanese taste and may contain soy sauce or other ingredients you should avoid.
Even if, as mentioned above, many Japanese restaurants are unfamiliar with the concept of gluten-free, the staff at most vegetarian/vegan restaurants will know what you are talking about. Nevertheless, not all vegetarian/vegan restaurants in Japan have gluten-free options, so it would still be good to check the menu in advance.
Gluten-free food: a Tokyo guide
The capital of Japan offers the whole range of food you might want, and gluten-free food is no exception. Of the many gluten-free restaurants you will find here, we strongly recommend checking out the following ones:
Where: 1-14-1 Ebisunishi, Shibuya, Tokyo
Buri is a yakitori spot with plenty of food for gluten-intolerants. It is really close to Ebisu station, and you will be especially pleased by its cozy atmosphere. Here you will also find an extensive collection of sake.
Gluten-Free Café Little Bird
Where: 1-1-20 Uehara, Shibuya, Tokyo
In this café everything is gluten-free, even the ramen, crepes, tempura, etc. Eat here and you can be sure you will be safe. There is no risk of cross-combination.
Where: 3-1-19 Nishiazabu, Minato, Tokyo
If you are craving pizza, Pizzakaya is the only place in Tokyo that sells a gluten-free version. A great, small place if you just want a slice of pizza in a cozy atmosphere.
Gluten-Free 61 Café
Where: 3-4-6 Roppongi Minato, Tokyo
This is another café selling exclusively gluten-free goods. It is located right across from the Roppongi Grand Tower, and offers organic wines, lunch specials and healthy dinner options. The dumplings, pancakes and eggrolls are completely safe to eat.
Where: 1-3-10 Hirakawacho, Chiyoda, Tokyo
When in Japan, it is hard not to try ramen. If you cannot eat gluten, don't despair! Just go to Gluten-Free Ramen and you will be able to enjoy a good bowl of ramen without any worries.
Where: 3-12-13 Kitaaoyama, Minato, Tokyo
Revive is the perfect place for gluten-intolerants, vegetarians and vegans. It has vegan desserts, gluten-free pancakes, French toast and plenty of other items you will love.
Dominique Ansel Bakery
Where: 5-7-14 Jingumae, Shibuya, Tokyo/4−6−16 Ginza, Chuo, Tokyo
Maybe you want something from a bakery, and you can't find one that fully understands the concept of gluten-free. Thankfully Dominique Ansel Bakery comes to the rescue, a place where gluten-free items are clearly marked in a lovely atmosphere, perfect for a cookie and a cup of coffee.
Visit Japan with Asia Highlights
Don't let your gluten-intolerance ruin your next trip to Japan: with a little extra preparation, there is nothing to be afraid of! We at Asia Highlights can help you craft the perfect trip for you and your family: we will handle all the hassle and let you enjoy your Japanese adventure.
Why Travel with Asia Highlights (98.8% positive customer reviews among 10,000+)
- Unique experiences tailored to your interests: Enjoy a premium trip that goes beyond the typical tourist attractions.
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- Experienced and knowledgeable guides: Your guides will be local and love to work for travelers' smiles.
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