Staying Healthy and Loving Your Experiences in Japan

お久しぶりですよね! It’s been quite a while since my last update on here.  I just left Japan about a week ago and have moved back stateside after spending four years living in this beautiful country.   I wanted to update one last time here because I know a number of people come to this site looking for travel information on how to eat gluten free in Japan.  Because I am no longer living in Japan, I will just leave this information up for others to find.  I won’t be able to offer any updates unless I move back to Japan anytime soon.  BUT, if any of my readers who travel through Japan wants to guest post about their gluten free adventures, please contact me.  I never intended Gluten Free in Japan to be an ongoing blog, rather I wanted it to be a beacon for others who, like myself, were either living in Japan with Celiac Disease/Gluten Intolerance, or intending to spend time in Japan, either studying, working, or traveling.

When I first moved to Japan, as I have written before in former posts, there was very little information on the web about living in Japan while following a gluten free diet.  I had no clue what I was getting into and thus my first year was spent in emotional and physical turmoil as I came to grips with living on an isolated island, going through culture shock and everything that comes with that, all the while destroying my health by eating things that people said were “wheat free” or that “looked OK” to eat, or that seemed to lack gluten in it.  Because I wasn’t prepared for the transition of living in a country that did not label foods as gluten free, and did not have any experience with Celiac Disease/Gluten Intolerance, I lacked the support I needed to transition into a healthy, happy life in Japan.  Somewhere around the 8 month mark, I became severely ill and was in and out of hospitals on that island, trying desperately to get some relief for the physical pain I was facing.  None of the doctors on the small island in Yaeyama knew much about Celiac Disease (“This is a foreigner disease.”  “This is very rare.” “Japanese don’t have autoimmune issues.”) I decided from that point going forward that I needed to reach out to anyone, anywhere who might have more experience in living in Japan and following a GF diet.  I started writing articles to inform others about the issues that we face on a day-to-day basis, because most people I met – including a large number of fellow expats/foreigners/外人 — didn’t understand and really could not relate.

After starting this site, I  met another fellow blogger and JET who has Celiac Disease and who is based in Kobe.  His website had a similar name to mine and because of this and because we both were on the JET program, we decided to form an online support page for JETs and other ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers) who needed access to info about the gluten free life while living in Japan.  Having this group on Facebook really allowed me to feel more connected, and gave us all a space in which we could share info and share recipes.  Unfortunately, it’s only open at this time to those who are teaching, working, or living in Japan long term. If you are reading this and you aren’t on JET, but you are living long-term in Japan and you are seeking a support group for CD/GI, send us a message and let us know who you are.  We get too many spammers trying to join the group, so we need to know who you are in advance and why you want to join.  For those of you who visit my blog in preparation for a short term trip, this Facebook group may not be so helpful as it is about recipe sharing and how to locate foods to cook with, discussing other problems that come with living long term in Japan and dealing with dietary restrictions.

For those of you who email me with questions about places to eat, places to stay at, and other ways to enjoy Japan while touring it, I recommend that you do a ton of research in advance.  I haven’t ever lived or spent more than 2-3 days in Tokyo or Yokohama, so I cannot offer in depth advice to that region, or any other region outside of Okinawa, where I lived for four years.  If you currently live in any regions throughout Japan and you would like to contribute to a guest post about restaurants, hotels, and food supplies that people coming to Japan for a short or even long-term stay should know about, please send me an email and we can discuss this.

It look me a long time to find restaurants that I could eat at safely, and even then, I always felt like I was playing Russian roulette with my health.  Still, if you are touring Japan, you will need to find places to eat that can offer you food so you can enjoy your stay.  At this point, I only have two recommendations for hotels that served me food without any hesitation, but I think from these experiences it should be noted that every place you stay at or visit is case-by-case and the Japanese are often willing to accommodate you if you give them advance notice and if you’re able to communicate your dietary needs to them in Japanese.  You can do this with a dining card that is written in Japanese, or you can have others who speak Japanese phone ahead for you, if you do not speak enough Japanese.

My advice for you is to prepare, prepare, prepare and prepare in advance as much as you can.  And tell everyone you know in Japan, including any hotel concierges or tour group leaders about your dietary needs and your disease.  Use this chance to inform others about CD/GI.   Do not come to Japan thinking you can just pop into any restaurant or any hotel without having done due diligence on them.  Our disease is a complicated one and one that isn’t well known in Japan.  The Japanese also have managed to incorporate so much gluten, most of it in hidden forms like flavorings, salts (Ajinomoto), in the bases of soups, etc.  that you simply cannot afford to play a game with your health by popping into a combini and hoping for the best that the onigiri you’re eating is safe (IMPORTANT:  At this time, NO onigiri at ANY convenience store is safe to consume if you have Celiac Disease or gluten intolerance, because it almost always has a wonderful thing called amino-san added to it for flavoring and that is going to mess up your gut like nothing else).   Be wary of websites that claim you can pick up processed foods at combini/convenience stores that are safe for consumption (besides Soyjoy bars, I did on occasion find imported foods from Italy that were labeled gluten free, but these came and went with the seasonal trends unfortunately).  If the website states that convenience store onigiri are safe for consumption, then it means the authors did not research ingredients, or they are just guessing from scouring other erroneous online blogs/sites. Even if the site/post looks professional, you cannot risk your health.  Do you own research, learn the Japanese words needed to read labels, and assume that anything processed or prepared has gluten in it.  By the way, the only things at combinis that I recommend are juices, fruits, veggies, eggs (you need to cook them), natto (fermented soybeans without the tare/soy sauce packet), cheese, milk (if you consume dairy), and nuts without any added flavoring.  Each combini will have different things so there may be other things you can eat.   I never felt good when eating yogurt in Japan, so I do not recommend it.  I ate chocolate, but I feel like there are too many extra ingredients and places where gluten can be hiding for me to say that they are safe for consumption.  I took some risks for sweets, but I also double checked everything.  Mochi, which should be safe, can sometimes contain unsafe ingredients, when you buy it processed.

A reader once commented on my blog that she/he had no problems going out places and finding restaurants that could accommodate gluten intolerance.  I am uncertain where this individual lives in Japan (I assume Tokyo), but where I lived in Naha (the capital city of Okinawa), there were no restaurants apart from Coco Ichibanya Curry that listed allergens and even they only listed wheat not gluten on their list of allergens.   The majority of Japan does not have allergy lists or chefs who know and understand what gluten is.  Perhaps in some areas of Tokyo/Kanto they are starting to list all allergens at the restaurants, but when I traveled to Yokohama and Tokyo, I did not see this.  Be prepared for restaurants that do no have allergen lists, and even if they are major chains like Ootoya or Coco Ichi, which do have these lists, be prepared to find no foods that you can safely consume (Ootoya has nothing for us sorry.  Coco Ichi’s allergy free curry is iffy because it contains an unlisted starch – though it’s not derived from wheat).

Some Japanese foods that you can eat at restaurants, with caution, are shabu shabu しゃぶしゃぶ and yakiniku 焼肉 as long as no tare or soy sauce/sauce is used that contains gluten/wheat in it.  If you go to a shabu shabu or yakiniku restaurant, bring your own condiments/soy sauce with you and order 塩だけ shio dake (salt only) for the yakiniku and water-kombu for the shabu shabu broth.  Sashimi is always safe, but wasabi isn’t usually unless it’s なまわさび (freshly grated wasabi) which is rare and almost never found in Okinawa.  Check with you sushi chef about vinegars that they use to flavor the rice before indulging.

For those of you starting your life in Japan either on JET, or in another capacity, know that there are plenty of options for us, but these options are usually in the form of whole foods such as meats, fish, eggs, seafood, vegetables, fruits, rice.  You will have to learn to love to cook.   If you want to bake or make foods that are traditionally off limits to us, there are a few options around.  Of course, you can always shop on iherb.com for gluten free snacks, on foreign buyer’s club to import gluten free flours, and in some Japanese grocery stores that have an allergy section (most grocery stores sadly do not have allergy sections).  A few companies (オタフク)(Glico) (イチビキ) in Japan make foods that are made without known major allergens. Glico even has a gluten free flour available by mail order if you use a home bakery/bread machine. They are often marketed towards children, since Japan thinks that only children have allergies.  Ichibiki (linked above) has an excellent wheat free soy sauce that you can order online (or if your local store has an allergy section, it might be located there).   The organization Food Action Nippon promotes Japanese domestic rice production in products where wheat is traditionally used (rice gyoza wraps, rice noodles).  Not all of these products are gluten free though.  If you have other allergies, you might want to check out this article regarding allergens and how to read labels in Japan.  Many wheat free/gluten free food products in Japan are often available online, but you need to be able to write and read in Japanese to order them.  The companies, if they have a corresponding English site, might not have the same products available on their English language sites.

I hope this helps you on your amazing journey to Japan!

I wish you all the best in staying healthy and loving your experiences in this amazing country.

Having a Wonderful Gluten Free Life in Japan

I just wanted to offer some link love this week for those of you who are seeking info on either living or travel in Japan while following a gluten free diet.

A fellow JET foodie whose sister has Celiac Disease created a short guide that may be helpful for those who need info on food on the go or those who are traveling through Japan who don’t have access to kitchens.  I would still recommend that you check the ingredients for everything that is listed and use a card that lists your dietary needs when ordering out anywhere (if you do decide to risk it when going to a restaurant).  I know that some of the foods mentioned are usually gluten free, but I have sometimes found that gluten ingredients are added (in the case of mochi).  But the list is good. She also was a darling and linked this blog. <ありがとうね>

Another JET who has Celiac Disease has more info on what to eat and what to look out for here.  He’s written some useful info about what to look out for kanji-wise in the Japanese language.  Since we happen to be blog twins and both on JET, he and I decided to start a help group on Facebook called Gluten Free JET, for anyone on the JET program.  Please join it if you are a JET.

Gluten Free Gaijin has a good write up on why eating food in Japan is so difficult for us.  His research on MSG in Japan is a very important read for anyone who plans to live or travel here.

And I’ve just discovered this awesome Paleo blog called Nom Nom Paleo.  Right now they’re focusing on bento (lunch box) recipes.   I don’t know this person who runs it, but I’m glad they’re out there making these ideas available.

I did want to make a few points clear to those of us with gluten intolerant/CD guts out there searching for info on what is safe to eat in Japan.  I suppose this is a disclaimer for this blog.  Take everything you read on the internet with a grain of salt, or rather…gluten.  Do your own homework and double check everything.  Ultimately, you have to be responsible for what you put into your body and not rely solely on another person’s advice.  Just because they didn’t feel like they were glutened doesn’t mean the item doesn’t have gluten in it.  I’ve come across so much erroneous information online regarding gluten free traveling in Japan.  When a website states that convenience store onigiri (rice balls with fillings) are safe for those traveling who are gluten intolerant/sensitive or who have Celiac Disease, I know that the authors have not done enough research.   I would not recommend convenience stores for anything but juice, water, and fresh fruits or vegetables (if yours sell these), and maybe eggs and dairy if you are able to eat those items. Unfortunately, there is no centralized info from a Japanese nutritionist online and the information you are getting is from individuals who are also just trying to find ways to live over here on their own or they’re traveling through and writing up what they thought was safe to eat.

If there is any advice I’d like to offer you it’s that living in Japan is not an easy place to live if we’re looking for gluten free alternatives to the foods around us.  But eating gluten free isn’t difficult at all if you decide to only eat whole foods.  While I’m not fully immersed in the Paleo world, I do follow a modified paleo diet that includes brown (and sometimes white) rice. Ok, sometimes I also make non-paleo cake (with traditional gluten free flours). But overall I recommend eating vegetables, fruits, meats, fish, nuts and (sometimes) dairy (if you’re not intolerant) as a great way to live a healthy, happy life in Japan (or anywhere).  Plus, you’ll lose weight and you’ll also know what is in everything you’re eating.

Gluten Free Failure

This is an old post from last summer that I’m transferring from my other blog to this blog.  I remembered it recently because I haven’t been feeling well lately.  I had to work at an English camp last week and the other ALTs wanted to go out to eat every day.  I was carpooling with them so I had no other choice but to join them.  I should have been more strict with myself and just brought my own bento, eaten it beforehand, and joined them for coffee or tea.  But it’s been super hot here in Okinawa, nearly 35 degrees everyday, and cooking in this heat isn’t fun.  Still, I have to cook because it’s either that or feel like garbage.  Anyways, I’ve been wishing for a gluten free restaurant to spring up in Okinawa or even somewhere else in Japan.  Or a gluten free tour of Kyoto or Tokyo or even Hokkaido.  In fact, I want to ask my readers for advice on places they’ve eaten at or traveled to in Japan that have catered to their needs.  I think it would be great to get some insight as to how others who are following a gluten free diet are surviving in Japan.  So, if you’re out there and you’re reading this blog, please drop me a comment or send me an email.  I would love to hear from you.

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The Problem with Eating at Restaurants

I’m currently writing a short guide on how to follow a GF diet while living or traveling in Japan.  This guide will have more information on this subject with ways to order foods that are safe for you to consume. In the meantime, I wanted to offer some quick advice on eating at restaurants in Japan.  I’ve written about this topic before, and my attitude on it wavers from time to time, depending on whether I’ve been dosed accidentally with gluten or not (which has happened mainly at restaurants that are questionable and not serving organic foods).  

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Izakayas are probably the hardest places to find something to eat in Japan for someone who is gluten intolerant or has Celiac Disease. Unfortunately for us, most people socialize at Izakayas.

My current basic rule is this:  if you’re going to eat at a restaurant, eat where most of the ingredients are not processed.  You should look for restaurants that focus on slow, organic, natural foods.  This does not eliminate the possibility of cross contamination, but it will be much easier for your chef to understand what she/he can and cannot prepare for you.  If the restaurant does not rely on processed foods, you’ll be much more likely to have a meal that is gluten-free.  When it comes to processed foods – even as base ingredients for meals that seem to be gluten-free — its most likely they are derived from or are a source of wheat and/or barley.  

When you head out, use a gluten-free dining card or make one yourself if you cannot afford to purchase one.  There are a few that are free online in addition to the ones you can buy.  I currently use Triumph Dining’s Japanese gluten-free card, but it’s not perfect.  It doesn’t list everything on it and I’ve unfortunately been dosed with gluten because a chef served me a soup base made from consomme. 

The longer I live here, the more I realize that wheat and barley are basically in almost everything that’s processed in Japan.  Instead of having to memorize a ton of kanji for technical terms for certain food products  or attempt to explain that  not only does 醤油 – shouyu (soy sauce) have wheat in it, but that コンソメ (consomme) (the processed stock base used for soups) or 水あめ (or 水飴 – mizu-ame) which is in nearly all candy/chocolates and sweets in this country) also do as well, it’s easier to just eat fresh foods that are in the natural state (not processed).  Even if you tell someone that you have 小麦粉と麦アレルギー (komugi-ko to mugi arerugi), it’s just not enough to help a chef decipher what’s safe for you to eat and what is not, because often they don’t know what’s in these processed food products they use.  If you don’t have a dining card that lists everything you cannot eat, it will be too difficult for them or you  to figure it out.  Complicated, right?

So if you’re going to eat at a restaurant (or if you’re traveling and you’re unable to self-cater), eat at organic restaurants or high end hotel restaurants that can cater to your needs (the luxury places will do it because you’re going to pay them a ton of money to do this).  The food will be closer to the paleo-like diet that is gluten-free.  It’s a safer option for you. 

 

What to Eat When You Can’t Eat Anything at All…

Many people ask in online forums about what it will be like traveling to Japan and following a GF diet.  Before I came to Japan, I thought it would be easy to adjust my diet here seeing as rice is their main dietary staple.  What I didn’t expect was that soy sauce would be found in almost every dish they serve.  It should also be considered one of their main dietary staples as well and as most of those on GF diets know, soy sauce has wheat in it which means it is off limits and any food seasoned with it is as well.

Well, that’s puts a bit of a damper on being a gourmand in Japan.  I mean, you can buy a bottle of wheat/gluten free tamari soy sauce, but you’re still not going to be able to eat most of the foods that are prepared for you at restaurants, at the staff parties, at BBQ’s, at izakayas, at festivals, etc. Yes, some restaurants will prepare foods without wheat for you, but if you’re severely intolerant or celiac, or if you’re allergic to other things besides wheat/gluten, you’ll need to realize that you won’t be able to eat all of the delicious foods that you see everywhere.  There is so much wheat in the Japanese diet that it’s misleading to say that rice is the main staple here.  Yes, rice is served with almost every meal, but so is a form of wheat.

Delicious Japanese foods that you cannot eat.

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