Gluten-free in Japan

Catherine Rose

Catherine Rose eats her way around Japan – without getting glutened – just.....

DISCLAIMER: I am writing this from my own experience and could not hand-on-heart say that I was 100% safe from gluten due to the language barrier and the fact that the Japanese do not understand Coeliac Disease or the importance of ensuring no cross contamination of gluten. All I know is that I didn’t have obvious symptoms of being ‘glutened’. The following article is meant to inform, guide and give you confidence for travel in Japan whilst following a gluten free diet.

Well, first things first, you probably think “why on earth is this even a problem? Japanese cuisine is all rice based, right?” Wrong.

There is gluten in pretty much everything. It’s in all those beautiful pastries, all marinades, all flavourings, thickeners, all soy sauce, in MSG, in their rice wine vinegar (which is used in sushi rice), in cheap wasabi, in some yoghurts and even in some tea! But it is still possible to enjoy this stunning, exquisite, polite, spellbinding, insane, bonkers, historical beauty of a country if you follow a gluten free diet.

As mentioned in the disclaimer, I cannot say that I didn’t consume gluten (who knows!) but I know that in the past 2 weeks whilst in Japan I had little if any symptoms of being ‘glutened’. In fact, the tummy aches I did experience on one or two occasions could very well have been down to the excessive consumption of mochi.

First things first, please prepare before you go. At the end of my trip I actually said to my partner: “I’ve been really lucky not to be glutened while we’ve been here”. To which he replied “you were bloody well wasn’t luck”. So please, before you go, you must prepare.

By “prepare” I mean think ahead. Due to the language and alphabet barrier, you will need to ensure that you know how to tell restaurants about your condition. The Japanese don’t understand Coeliac Disease, but they do take allergies very seriously. So, although Coeliac Disease/gluten intolerance are not allergies, for the purpose of not being harmed, it became an allergy for me. The Japanese also don’t always understand “gluten” so I had to think carefully about what was most likely to be in the food and so I decided to go with “wheat flour” and “soy sauce”.

I memorised the following things:

1. Wheat flour

2. Wheat


3. Soy sauce

4. I have an allergy to wheat flour & soy sauce
Watashi wa komugi, shōyu ni arerugī o motte imasu

This little fellow “麦” became my best friend when my partner and I scanned the ingredients lists on packets. And this phrase:
was shown to every single restaurant whilst pointing wildly at myself to further emphasise the point that it was me and not my long suffering boyfriend who was the “undesirable”.

One thing that always ensures you eat safe food is to make your own. This is not the most alluring prospect when on holiday, but the alternative is not too appealing either. For this reason, we booked AirBnB’s for two legs of our trip where I could cook fresh food for myself. I also brought with Ilumi pouches to heat up in emergencies, snacks like Bounce Balls for hiking trips, cereal to eat at breakfast (a notoriously difficult meal for GF in Japan) and soy sauce to take to restaurants.

Most airlines will allow you extra baggage to carry diet foods and medicine so do check before you travel. We got away with an extra 2kg on British Airways because I had a note on our booking that I had Coeliac Disease and I got a doctor’s note to carry with me for Check-In.

Like I said…I was prepared.

For more details on how I prepared, have a quick glance at my Vlog here.
It includes some medication I took and more things I planned in advance such as gluten free friendly restaurants (also detailed at the end of this vlog).

So, that was before the trip. But what about when I was actually there? Well, it was hard. Every meal had to be thought about. Thanks goodness for my cereal and soy sauce though is all I can say! Having my own (6 bottles) of gluten free soy sauce with me and being able to communicate my “allergy” to chefs meant that I was often given plain rice, meat, fish and veg which was seasoned with salt or I could use my own soy sauce.

There are a few dishes that lend themselves to gluten free which I found I ate a lot of:

Catherine Rose
  • Sashimi (raw fish)
  • Donburi / Chirashi (raw fish on top of plain rice)

Just check this is ie shoyu too.

  • Yakitori (meat skewers)

I am vegetarian usually but you try taking vegetarianism and Coeliac Disease to Japan…GOOD LUCK! I would hardly have eaten anything! So for this trip, I relaxed my moral high ground and I sought veggie meals where possible.

Make sure you get the yakitori with shio (salt) not shoyu (soy sauce). Just say ie shoyu (no soy sauce) whilst shaking your head; it’ll get the idea across.

Worth noting here that cross contamination is obviously an issue as they will use the same grill for everything. This is where my medication Gluten-Zyme must have worked it’s magic because I didn’t feel the effects of cross contamination. This may change from person to person though so please listen to your own body and make your own judgement call.
(Ed. Coeliacs should be aware that although Catherine obviously found it helpful, as do others with gluten intolerance, Gluten-zyme is not recommended for coeliac use as it is not thought to be able to break the CD-relevant gliadin bonds.)

List continued……

Catherine Rose
  • Grill your own wagyu beef

Some places give you a plate of raw beef and a grill or hot salt slab to cook yourself. You can season as you want. Just check that the meat is completely raw and unmarinated.

    Catherine Rose
  • Mochi

These glutinous rice balls or sheets are the best thing ever. Fact. And they are filled with yummy fillings and come in loads of flavours. Some places even grill them for you and they are delicious street food options. Eat them. They’re gluten free. Oh, and bring some back for me.


  • Onigiri

These are triangular shaped rice balls covered in seaweed with different fillings. You can get them in most convenience stores. Most are GF (NOT the ones in 7:11’s, but Family Mart is OK). Always check the back of pack for the Komugi or Shoyu characters shown above.

  • If all else fails, there are quite a few Indian restaurants around where the food is often GF but it shouldn’t come to that.
  • Stay clear of:
    • Soba noodles – very rare to find 100% soba (buckwheat) noodles
    • Miso Soup – the paste is often made with barley or wheat
    • Pre-made sushi - often contains soy sauce or wheat flour.
    • Bento boxes – did not find even one that was gluten free.
    • Catherine Rose
    • Tempura – not even a tiny bit of chance to find this GF anywhere.
    • Milt – not because it contains gluten but because of what it is. Google it. I dare you.

    Watch out for it at Sushi restaurants where the chef prepares you pieces one by one…they’ll pass you that one and being a tourist you think “what the hell, I’ll be polite and eat the thing that looks weird”. You eat it. Then you Google it. Then you can’t sleep all night from terror.

That is a real whistlestop summary of how I stayed Gluten Free in Japan. It was definitely difficult but totally worth it. What a completely stunning country with beautiful hearted people and incredible culture. If you do get the opportunity to visit Japan, don’t let your diet stop you. Or this evil monkey…

Catherine Rose

Please do contact me through my website below or come and find me at my café Printworks Kitchen if you want any more info or restaurant tips or addresses (of where I’ve hidden some GF soy sauce around Japan) etc. I’m happy to help.

My details:
Printworks Kitchen, 20-26 Rosebery Avenue, London, EC1R 4SX

Also see my vlogs about my trip to Japan here.

Amazing websites and blogs to read for some additional info:

December 2015

For more articles on travelling with allergies and intolerances see here.

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