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.


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).  


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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