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.
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.