I’ve recently returned from 2 weeks of the most amazing holiday of my life. 2 weeks back in the UK and I’m still reliving it. Japan is a country to be experienced and treasured. It has a plethora of historical stories to re-live and culture just seeps out of its pores. The Japanese are probably the friendliest people one can wish for whilst travelling, nothing is too much trouble for them. The sights are only surpassed by the feelings viewing them bring. Incredible respect and humility in witnessing in real-life things you only read about in books and travel-guides: sumos, geishas, cherry blossoms, samurai, bullet trains, shower-toilets!
It is truly a jewel in a travellers wish-list of places to visit. It has everything.
Except for the food. As a gluten-free traveller.
It was difficult.
No really it was. I touched back down on UK soil and the first thing I bought was a Galaxy chocolate bar. And boy was that wolfed down. After 2 weeks of constantly avoiding food so as not to accidentally consume wheat/gluten – a Galaxy bar was an oasis of a treat, a well-deserved reward I reckoned.
My words of wisdom for any gluten-free traveller to Japan is prepare, prepare, prepare. It will help you and stop you from fasting for the duration of your holiday. I did this before I went and so grateful I did as I didn’t completely starve. There are some great blogs out there that inform you of why gluten is so prevalent in Japan (see links below for recommended blogs) but for a short summary – the Japanese use soy sauce for 90% of their cooking. The soy sauce they use contains wheat (it helps to thicken the sauce) and when I say they use soy sauce in everything – I mean everything! Even things you thought would be safe will have soy-sauce in them – e.g. sushi – you will need to ask whether it has been dipped into soy sauce. Soy sauce is often hidden in lots of dishes so even if you ask the restaurant/chef and they say no soy sauce, it may well be used in the oil to fry/bake the food and then food becomes off-limits. You do end up becoming rather averse to trying restaurant food even if the chef says it’s fine because you just don’t have 100% confidence.
As a starter, the below dishes will be completely off-limits:
· Tonkatsu curry
· Miso soup
· Soba noodles
· Pre-made sushi
· Bento boxes (widely available boxes providing a variety of different Japanese dishes in a portable compartment box – wonderful idea, shame we can’t eat it!)
· You’ll also need to avoid anything covered in hoisin
Also anything that has obvious wheat in it is also off-limits, so unfortunately you won’t be able to try the luscious-looking pastries and cakes and doughnuts and all the other lovely desserts the Japanese are famed for. Nor can you have crisps, crackers, biscuits and bread (they have tonnes of bread!).
Quite depressing isn’t it? What’s even more depressing is that you feel as though you are missing out on the Japanese experience by not being able to taste their culinary prowess they are famed for, it makes the holiday half the experience.
Yet if you go to Japan being prepared and an acceptance in your mind that certain foods are off-limits it will greatly help you with the experience and with enjoying everything else this beautiful country has to offer. It gets frustrating and you do get hangry! But if you research beforehand and prepare yourself mentally, you can certainly enjoy the whole experience. Whilst reflecting back on my holiday, there were days when we were in Japan and I was so hangry that I hadn’t eaten properly but yet I seem to have forgotten all of that since being back so wanted to pen down some tips and thoughts to ensure you have less hangry times than I did.
Some tips I found useful and hopefully they may help you too:
1) Print off and laminate a wallet-sized gluten-free card which details in Japanese what ingredients you cannot eat in a polite and respectful way – use this link to help print it off which helpfully has English translation too. You’ll find many comments on the blogs that say the words aren’t right/correct but I had no problem with this translation being understood by any Japanese nationals I showed it too. Make sure you get it laminated and/or take a couple of copies as this will be your saviour on many occasions so you don’t want it to crumple or get lost. Show this card at every single restaurant you go to. We used to show this even before we sat down to make sure that there could be something on the menu that could be accommodated for me. If there wasn’t it was back on the restaurant trail again
2) Get a bottle or packets of gluten-free soy sauce before you head out to Japan. I bought this one from amazon. Definitely worth it as it adds flavour to otherwise bland food, and also helped to get me into some restaurants when I showed it to them.
3) Pack food you can eat with you – I took numerous packets of quinoa, cauli-rice, gluten-free energy bars, gluten-free crisps, lots of chocolate bars (although most local chocolate bars (without crispy bits) are fine to eat in Japan but I craved the taste of Cadburys and Mars!) These will all come in helpful for those moments when you just can’t find anything and are getting very hangry! Also when your fellow traveller(s) are all gorging on the beautiful Japanese pastries, having an energy bar or nut bar that you’ve brought won’t make you feel even more left out. I discovered a new breakfast whilst I was out there which I’m starting to have now that I’m back home – quinoa mixed with almonds, bananas and strawberries – it was actually delicious or maybe that was because I was so hungry for food that anything was delicious!
4) Learn the kanji for wheat, barley, rye – you will spend a lot of your time scouring ingredients for this – see links below for details on the different kanji. And get yourself familiar on how to read ingredient labels – this site helped me
5) Prepare yourself mentally – get used to the fact you will be hungry and that you will feel as though you’re missing out on some of the experience. Once you accept that you can then start to rummage through what you can and can’t eat and it will just make it a whole lot more pleasant for you – and your fellow travellers!
Places and things I ate in each city:
· On our 1st night we had friends take us to a local restaurant where they served Shabu Shabu (a hotpot dish of thinly sliced meat and vegetables boiled in water). Whilst sometimes you need to be careful of whether the broth that the veg and meat is boiled in doesn’t have soy sauce, you can request it without so perfectly safe and delicious!
· Omoide Yokocho – a small network of alleyways colloquially known as “Piss Alley”(!) on the northwest side of Shinjuku Station – use East exit from the station. It’s filled with numerous tiny eateries serving mostly yakitori (meat/veg on skewers) and I whipped out my gluten-free translation card and made sure it was cooked with salt (shio) and not with the soy sauce (called tare). This was fine for me and I ate dozens of it! Plus the experience of sitting with locals in squashed little areas added to the authenticity. Shio yakitori is fine for you to eat anywhere you see yakitori (which is 90% of the places) It can get quite repetitive to eat the same thing but it’s food and here’s where your gluten-free soy sauce bottle comes in useful. Be aware they are quite oily but that’s the price you pay if you want to eat!
· Three Aoyama (Revive Kitchen), less than 5 minutes away from the Omotesando Station. Take B2 exit and walk straight down until you see Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf Cafe on the main street and take the small road on the right directly opposite the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf Cafe. Walk up approx 50metres and you’ll see the Three Revive Kitchen on your right hand side. This was a haven for me in the last 2 days of my trip in Japan. It gave me pancakes! PANCAKES! And a delicious lamb salad with rice toast, as well as lots of lovely detox juices and smoothies. The menu also offered gluten-free chocolate scones and banana muffins as well as 4 or 5 gluten-free main dishes – a lot of choice after being restricted for a couple of weeks. I came here twice to fill up because I had given up looking around for places that could accommodate my dietary requirements. Really enjoyed the meals here and the venue was lovely – enjoyed eating leisurely and sipping on my drinks. Again it was quite pricey but filling.
· Hotel Sakura Terrace 5 mins from (Restaurant on ground floor) – breakfast (c.£10 per person) of scrambled eggs, salad, fruit, yoghurt. A high price for a breakfast but it’s worth it when your stomach is full for a good time. I even asked the chef for an evening meal and he was able to prepare a soy-sauce free salmon steak and vegetables for me when I showed him my food card.
· Macrobiotic Prunus, 9-4, Kurumamichi-cho, Saga Tenryuji, Ukyo-ku, Kyoto, 616-8373. Tel: +81-75-8622265. It’s open: Tue-Wed 12:00pm-4:00pm, Fri-Sun 12:00pm-4:00pm. However for a gluten-free meal you will need to make a reservation at least 1 day ahead so make sure you plan this in. The restaurant is located in front of the Saga-Arashiyama station on the 3rd floor, exit the station and walk straight down the road (i.e don’t follow directions for the bamboo forest etc). It’s about 150m down on the left hand side and on the top floor – you’ll see a sign of the restaurant name. Plan this in when you visit Arashiyama and the bamboo groves. I had a lovely meal here of traditional Japanese bites that was so filling and delicious. It was expensive though but again you forget the money when it comes to a filling meal.
· Coco Ichibanya – these are fast-food curry chains throughout Japan and I only discovered in Kyoto they have a gluten-free dish! It was only rice and sauce and you can order sides (eggs, meat etc but I avoided as again didn’t know how the meat was cooked) but it was a welcome sight. Look for these in the cities you travel in and it’s a cheap, quite delicious easy food place to go and grab lunch/dinner.
Yatsuhashi – this was a life saver and a part of my daily breakfast! It’s a well-known Kyoto confectionary and is made from rice flour, cinnamon, and sugar. When it contains the traditional azuki bean filling, yatsuhashi is 100% gluten-free and delicious!
Known as the ‘kitchen of Japan’ it truly lived up to its name of delicious food and was probably the first place where I truly experienced Japan in all its glory with gluten-free food. I was a happy bunny whilst we were here and all because of the hospitality of the chefs.
· Mizuno, 1 Chome-4-15 Dotonbori, Chuo Ward, Osaka. I became aware of this restaurant through research (link) and saw that it made its signature dish okonomiyaki (a popular mixture of flour, cabbage and egg made into a savoury pancake with any ingredient you wish – ANY ingredient!). However at this restaurant it is made with yam flour – 100% gluten free! So on arrival the husband and I made a bee-line for it as soon as we dropped our bags off at the hotel. Its just off Dotonburi (3rd alleyway on the right as you walk down Dotonburi from the main street). Initially it was closed to us but my wonderful husband managed to blag us in and am I so grateful that he did. You order your food whilst in line ( there are always queues here so be prepared to wait – as I said we were lucky so had about a 10min wait but have heard waiting times can stretch to an hour). When the waiter came to take our order, I pulled out my gluten free card and was met with a shake of the head, my heart sank. A few seconds later he took it to the head chef who promptly came out to say no as well. Whilst still holding onto the card and asking what I could eat, I then pulled out my gluten-free soy sauce and the head chef suddenly brightened and indicated he could cook me an okonomiyaki. The sheer relief I felt is indescribable. Not only did they cook it for me, but they used a separate area and cleaned their kitchen utensils so as to avoid any cross-contamination. The whole experience was sheer bliss. And what made it extra memorable was the gift the head chef provided of the traditional kitchen utensils the restaurant use to make okonomiyaki. Truly a unique experience that we will always treasure.
· Hozenji Yokocho Robatayaki Mizukake Chaya – 1-1-20 Namba, Chuo-ku | Hozenji Nishimura Bldg., Osaka. The 2nd evening we stumbled on this restaurant, closeby to the Hozen-ji Temple. It’s a Japanese styled BBQ/grill and had a great selection of fresh-food cooked right in front of us by the chef. I showed him my gluten-free card and to my surprise he took it and kept it by his side as he was cooking. Salted marinade on scallops, salmon, pork, chicken, garlic veg was pure heaven for me and my gluten-free soy sauce came in handy again! Again another wonderful experience of both Japanese food and the extremely helpful nature of the Japanese.
· Pantry supermarket– this was a supermarket we came across in Shin-Osaka station. It’s located on the ground floor as you’re heading towards Namba metro lines from East entrance of Shin-Osaka, and looks like a regular supermarket with a large green and neutral brown coloured sign. It was an oasis of gluten-free snacks for me. Expensive? Yes! But again worth it to 1) feel relief at seeing gluten-free products and 2) being able to eat until your heart’s content. Got lots of energy bars, cereal and even gluten-free mochi here (asked the in-house pastry chef and she was more than obliging to point out what was gluten free). FYI –mochi is a traditional Japanese rice-cake made of rice, it is meant to be gluten-free but it’s become consumerised so a lot of the mocha you see in department stores have some form of gluten in there which makes it disappointing. However the natural/specialist shops do make traditional mocha which is fine to consume.
Recommended blogs to read:
· Probably the best blog out there on gluten-free in Japan that goes into a lot of background and gives some great tips on what you can and can’t eat – http://www.legalnomads.com/gluten-free/japan#card
· Some good recommendations and interesting interviews with chefs who are cooking gluten-free in Japan – https://glutenfreeinjapan.com/
· Some Tokyo recommendations – http://www.foods.thinknext.co.jp/en/GFinfo/