The Gluten Free Japan Guide
Everything you need to know about eating and dining gluten free in Japan
Japan is a wonderland full of rich culture, beautiful natural landscapes, great food, and great shopping. It’s a place of convenience, mindfulness, politeness, and safety. It is my favorite place (that I’ve been to) on earth. But it’s also the hardest place for celiacs and gluten intolerant people to eat.
Traveling gluten free in Japan will be difficult. It will be annoying and sometimes discouraging. But don’t let that stop you or worry you. I promise Japan will be good to you and I’m here to help!
You would think that Japan would be a celiacs wonderland, with an abundance of rice, fish, and sushi. Unfortunately for us with gluten intolerance, Japanese food has soy sauce sprinkled over everything. And as I’m sure you know soy sauce is not gluten free.
Every guide for how to eat in japan gluten free recommends using an allergy card and handing it to restaurant employees when sitting down to eat.
Get a gluten allergy card HERE
I have used an allergy card in several different countries and I have never liked the experience, I find it uncomfortable. I don’t enjoy people making a fuss over me, you can tell it stresses the wait staff out. The few times I did use it in Japan I was turned away (politely) from eating at their establishment for fear of making me sick. Nothing is more uncomfortable than leaving a restaurant after you’re already seated.
Instead I avoided that circumstance.
My tips for not using an allergy card
- I only ate at restaurants where I knew I could eat something
- Stick to types of restaurants you know are safe (I will list below)
- I would plan which restaurant we were going to eat at before we went anywhere via research on Google maps and viewing customer images (this is especially effective in larger cities like Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, etc.)
- Many restaurants have a menu outside (typically both English and Japanese) that I would look to make sure they had something I could eat
- If you are more adventurous than me I’m sure you could find more food options by using the card, but my preference is not to use it
- No matter what you order make sure to tell them ‘Shōyu wa shinaide kudasai’ (aka no soy sauce)
Dining Out Must know
- Japanese restaurants are not like western restaurants. The majority of restaurants will not change, alter or substitute something in a meal at a restaurant
- Many Japanese restaurants you can not split a single meal, everyone sitting at the table must order at least one item. If everyone orders something, you can share that, of course. Even tea and coffee places
MUST KNOW: GLUTEN FREE
To get by eating out in japan gluten free I would order my food carefully, I always picked the food item that is typically gluten free. I would then tell the waiter ‘shōyu wa shinaide kudasai’ (no so sauce please), you can also add ‘watashi wa komugi arerugi arimasu’ (I have a wheat allergy).
- Most people will not understand what gluten is and they will probably politely debate with you that it’s not in soy sauce
- Japanese restaurants and grocery stores use a vinegar solution in their sushi rice that does contain gluten. Unfortunately you have to avoid sushi
- Learn how to say ‘watashi wa komugi arerugi arimasu’ (I have a wheat allergy)
- Also Learn ‘shōyu wa shinaide kudasai’ (no soy sauce please)
- Memorize the Kanji for Wheat, barely and Rye so you can review package labels (you’ll get good at this after a couple of days): 麦
- The Japanese word for Barely is Mugi (there is a fairly common “Mugi Chya” or Mugi Tea. If you hear the word “Mugi” – avoid it!
- Wheat is ‘Komugi’ (麦)
- The kanji for soy sauce is 醤油
Words / Terms to learn:
- Shio = salt.
- Shōyu = soy sauce
- ‘Shōyu wa shinaide kudasai’ = No soy sauce please
- ‘Shio Kudasai’ = salt please (There are a few types food that give the option of salt or soy sauce. Typically Yakitori, or bbq chicken on a stick, will give this option. More on that below)
- ‘Watashi wa komugi arerugi arimasu’ = I have a wheat allergy
I would highly recommend installing the Google Translate app on your phone and downloading Japanese so you can use it when you’re not connected to a network / wifi (directions here).
SAFE places TO EAT
- Conbini aka convenient stores: Family Mart, Lawsons, and 7eleven are your new best friend (7eleven’s were the worst for gluten free). Now to be clear, at a conbini you won’t have a lot of choices, in fact, you will have very few gluten free items to choose from. BUT what I loved about eating at a conbini was that I could read every single ingredient and know that what I’m eating is safe for me.
- Eat at International Restaurants. I ate at Indian, Thai, Mexican (which are somewhat rare), and American restaurants, all were delicious and less risky when it comes to gluten contamination
- Izakayas are small late night restaurants that serve grilled meat and vegatables also called Yakitori. Not only are they a fun experience, the grilled meat and vegetable options are delicious. *Always say Shio kudasai and say Shoyu shinaide kudasai!* (That means salt please, no soy sauce please). Be aware that there’s a chance for cross contamination from the grill. It never affected me, but it just depends on the person and your level of intolerance/allergy to gluten. If you’ve had a problem with cross contamination in the past I would bring attention to that to the cook and ask them to wipe off the grill.
- Grill your own meat places (Yaki Niku). There is a grill your own wagyu beef restaurant on just about every block in the tourist areas. These places are great because you can control what you eat. *Always say Shio kudasai and say Shoyu shinaide kudasai!*
- I found a Sushi Chain restaurant (Sushi Zanmai) that I ate at all over Japan without getting sick. They don’t use vinegar in their sushi rice, and their miso is also safe to eat!
- Less touristy areas have large grocery stores, I enjoyed perusing the isles looking at the fun packaging but also it gave me the chance to buy larger quantities of gluten free packaged foods, such as cereals, granola bars, deli meats, mochi, chips, fruit.
- Bring snacks with you! I brought 3 boxes of granola bars, gluten free oats to make at our air bnbs, and jerky
- Consider staying at an airbnb or a place with a kitchen so you can cook your own meals. There are markets and grocery stores everywhere, so it’s not hard to find vegetables and meat
- Download google translate so you can search Japanese words on the go (directions here)!
- Plan where you’re going to eat before hand
- Eat at Convenience stores so you can check the ingredient list on everything you eat
- Check the list of ingredients on everything you buy. Look for this symbol 麦 . If you see it, avoid. This is the Kanji for Komugi, this symbol is also in wheat, barley rye, and malt. Good news you only need to memorize this one symbol for all ingredients
- If there’s somewhere you REALLY want to eat call/email/facebook before hand explaining your situation. It’s much better to talk before hand than to be kicked out of the restaurant once you’re there
- Bring your own packets of gluten free soy sauce with you
Gluten Free Food, Safe to Eat
- Plain rice
- Yakitori with salt (Shio): Understand that there might be cross contamination from the grill.
- Sashimi (Raw fish)
- Bubble Tea
- Grilled meat (Yaki Niku), again with salt (Shio)
- Edamame (Soy beans): Sometimes these are boiled in water that has soy sauce. Be aware.
- Yakiimo (sweet potoaotes)
- Roasted chestnuts
- Indian Curry
- Indian food in general (typically English is spoken at Indian restaurants and they’re aware of gluten allergies)
- Most international foods
- Deli meat from a conbini
- Fruit or salads (avoid the dressings)
- Onigiri: onigiri are those little triangles of rice covered in crunchy seaweed filled with either fish, fish eggs, or plum. I found GF safe ones at Family Mart. Always check the ingredient list first! I would not order these from a restaurant without asking if they have “Komugi” in them first.
- Mochi (always double check)
- All of these items listed above are USUALLY safe but I would still practice caution with every single thing you eat.
- Don’t ever just assume it’s safe
- Read every single ingredient list
- And if you’re worried about it I would use an allergy card!
FOOD TO AVOID
- Sushi rice. They add a vinegar solution to their sushi rice that has gluten in it. Lucky for you I found a sushi chain restaurant that doesn’t use that vinegar! More on that below!
- Buckwheat noodles. Most buckwheat noodles in japan also have wheat flour. It is possible to find all buckwheat noodles but very hard to find and it wasn’t worth the risk and effort to me
- Soy Sauce
- Seitan (wheat meat)
- Soba noodles
- Mugi tea: a brown tea they often serve for free
- yakitori prepared with soy sauce-based sauce
- udon noodles
- Japanese curry
- Ponzu Sauce
- Gomadare sauce. It’s the sesame sauce you eat with shabu shabu
- Generally all salad dressings
- Chicken Kareage
- Chahan- fried rice
- Shabu Shabu- make sure the broth isn’t made of soy sauce or wheat
- Pre-made sushi
- Bento boxes
- Rice crackers and nori crackers all have mugi
- All sauces
- Daifuku- this mochi is often filled with mugi
Where to Eat Gluten Free!
Now the fun part, places you can actually eat! I went through all my research, other blog posts, other gluten free guides, and saved every gluten free restaurant I could find on this map.
There are only a few designated gluten free restaurants in Japan. These restaurants listed below are not all GF designated restaurants but places where myself or other people have had success eating gluten free!
Gluten Free Japan Friendly Restaurant map!
WHERE WE ATE
Yak and Yeti: Great Indian food. They have a combo plate designated to be gluten free.
Nishiki Market: we got super fresh sashimi, mochi, and a bunch of other small bites here.
Kyoto tower food basement: we got sashimi, there were tacos, smoothies, yakitori, alcohol and much more to choose from!
Choice: 100% gluten free. Good food but expensive and small portions.
Kerala: possibly the best indian food I’ve ever eaten!
beware they speak less english in Hiroshima. A allergy card might be a better idea here.
Cafe ponte: good food but not great.
For dinner we walked into a couple Yakitori places: I did not document the names but they all were great. Yakitori places are pretty safe, just by sure to ask for ‘Shio’ (salt) and if cross contamination is a concern consider using an allergy card.
Sushi Zanmai! This is a chain all over japan. I ate sushi and miso safely here in both Osaka and Tokyo! The Dontonburi location was very fresh and yummy!
Dontonburi street food and izakayas: This area is full of street food and yakitori restaurants. *This was actually my favorite area in Japan. We had so much fun!
Cafe Little Bird: We ended up coming here two days in a row. Their fried chicken is TO DIE FOR! Best gluten free fried chicken (or, in Japanese: karaage) I’ve ever had.
Guzman y Gomez Laforet Harajuku: Mexican food in Japan! This was like chipotle but smaller portions. Mexican food is my favorite so I was VERY happy.
Shinjuku: There are plenty of izikayas to choose from near the Godzilla head (Hotel Gracery) and Golden Gia.
Kobara Cafe: Right under Godzilla head. Decent not the best but good Indian food (very clean, new place).
Sushi Zanmai: same place as osaka.
Shinijuku Station: had a lot of international places to choose from.
Good luck eating here gluten free. We ended up eating at the Family Mart for every meal. But GET THERE EARLY. Everything sells out super fast. Also restaurants close super early, so plan ahead.
This is also a great place to stay at a Budist Temple or Traditional Ryokan, I emailed a couple places before hand asking if they can make their meals gluten free and unfortunately they couldn’t, so I’d say don’t bother and plan on going to the conbini frequently.
It was still absolutely worth staying at one, for the experience! Just opt out of the meals and ask for a price cut since you won’t be eating.
I always ate breakfast at home. I brought gluten free oatmeal with me to Japan. If you eat eggs you can buy eggs at a grocery store and make them at home. Same goes for any meat and vegetables you’d like – this is why I recommend renting an Air Bnb.
90% of the time we at lunch at a conbini. I would get a couple Onigiri and a couple plain chicken skewers (Yakitori, be sure to ask for Shio). The onigiri at family mart were the safest.
I would often buy fruit to have as a snack, conbinis, food markets and grocery stores all have fruit (it is expensive in Japan).
Occasionally I made my own salad, I bought a pre-made salad, added deli meat or grilled meat and used a gluten free dressing.
We would typically go to a restaurant for dinner. Either a grill your own meat place, an Izikiya where I would get Yakitori or a sushi restaurant where I would get sashimi.
Let me help you!
If you are planning a trip to Japan and have a food intolerance let me help you! Any question you have ask away! Japan is worth traveling too despite the lack of food options for gluten intolerant.