At the edge of the horizon

At the edge of the horizon
At the edge of Japan

Thursday, June 9, 2011

What to Eat When You Can't Eat Anything at All: Living Gluten-Free in Japan

This entry could be an entire focus of a blog, so I'm going to limit it as much as I can without glossing over the important details.  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 foods that you cannot eat.

Ok, that's a bit of a depressing fact.  I know because I've had to come to terms with it.  Luckily, I can eat sushi and sashimi and I bring my bottle of tamari with me to do so.  But anything outside of that when going out to eat Japanese or Okinawan food with my friends is treading dangerous waters.  I've unfortunately been exposed to a lot of gluten this year because I wanted to try the foods here and I'm paying for it physically.  The physical and emotional pains of this disease disappear once you're on a controlled, gluten-free diet and you start to forget how you once felt.  Then, if you're foolish like me, you think you can have a little bit of gluten here and there and low and behold, you're back to feeling extremely ill. Your body bitch-slaps you for betraying it.  So, in essence, you cannot go off your diet, even if you want to try the takoyaki or the sukiyaki or the Ishigaki beef that's marinated in soy sauce.  Sorry, you can't.

Most people don't understand what gluten intolerance or celiac disease is and frankly I don't want to have to constantly explain it to them as I don't really like labeling myself as The Girl Who Can't Eat Anything.  But if you don't tell people that you cannot eat wheat, they will serve it to you in many different forms.  I usually tell people that I'm allergic.  Of course, if you don't go into anaphalactic shock or break out in hives after consuming wheat/gluten, people start to wonder if you're really allergic.  Could it just be that you're a picky eater?  Are you just craving attention??  I cannot understand why people would doubt another person's self-limitations.  Sorry, I'm not choosing this for attention, nor am I lying about it.  I feel like garbage when I eat anything that has even a small amount of gluten in it, so why would I lie to you about that?  Just realize that some people aren't capable of empathy when it comes to this matter and leave it.   Sometimes though, people forget that you cannot eat wheat or soy sauce.  In fact, they often forget.  Just be kind and gently remind them for the nth time that you can't and move on.

Everyone's reactionary symptoms to this systemic disorder are different, mine involve vitamin/mineral deficiency which then leads to anemia which causes extreme fatigue and anxiety.  I also get skin issues, gastrointestinal problems and so on.  Lovely!  If you are gluten intolerant and you continue to eat wheat/gluten (or you stupidly decide that it's OK to sneak wheat/gluten back into your diet) you run the risk of developing much more severe autoimmune and gastrointestinal diseases.  Would you like a side order of Lupus or Crohn's Disease with that tempura and beer you're enjoying?  It's scary to feel like your body is no longer functioning properly, but I know what causes this pain and I know I can control it if I just follow the diet.  But how do you solve a problem like gluten in a country where most of the foods contain it?

Tetsu san, the chef at Ristorante Tetsu makes specially prepared Italian meals for me.

He made a roll cake without using Gluten or Wheat

The easiest way is to forgo the Japanese food experience at restaurants and izakayas, buy yourself a Japanese cookbook, buy the necessary wheat/gluten free substitutes and cook every meal yourself.   I do this often, but I've had to spend quite a bit of money via online retailers to get 100% buckwheat soba noodles, wheat/gluten free tamari, etc.  You can always eat veggies, fruits, rice, quinoa, buckwheat, fish, meat, tofu (be careful about which tofu though as some of them do have gluten in them), so maintaining a healthy diet and weight while living in Japan is probably easier than most of your fellow expats who are busy trying every fried morsel they can get their all-you-can-eat Western hands on.  But you want to go out and party with your friends, you say.  Ok, fine.  There are always restaurants, especially the smaller restaurants, that will go out of their way to prepare meals for you.  There is indeed a small, gourmet restaurant even on a remote island like Yonaguni, where the chef will prepare everything without wheat/gluten.  You just have to make certain the chefs here understand that you're not only allergic to wheat, but you cannot have soy sauce (most people don't know that wheat is an integral ingredient in soy sauce) or oats, barley or rye (they don't usually cook with rye, but just make it clear).   If you're severely intolerant, you cannot do this as cross-contamination is almost always certain.

I found out recently that even the taco rice (which is basically like a burrito bowl: rice, taco meat, salsa, cheese, salad, tomatoes) has wheat in it!  They use a filler with the meat or they marinate it in soy sauce.  This is a good example of foods that seem safe but actually are not.  Mozuku, a delicious, healthy seaweed that is integral in Okinawan cooking, also has hidden wheat in some of its forms (when it's flavored). 

More food you cannot eat.

As for barley, while at one of my school's during a break, I once mistakenly drank some cold, refreshing mugi cha (barley tea) thinking it was sanpin cha (jasmine tea, which is popular here in Okinawa) and within 20 minutes I had a migraine and no amount of ibuprofen would help while I tried to teach my way through the headache.  I could barely stand up straight and probably should have gone to lie down in the nurses office or gone home, but I try not to miss classes.  So, I recommend that anyone coming to Japan to live or even visit here who has a gluten/wheat intolerance or who is celiac, be very careful and realize that your culinary experience in Japan is going to be very different from your friends and co-workers.  Ultimately, you're the one who needs to be in control of what you're eating because other people do not know or understand what it's like when you consume wheat or gluten unknowingly.  The only people I know who have a good idea are those with food allergies (maybe different from yours, but they understand how you feel if you eat the food).

It's taken me quite a while to come to terms with not being able to eat many foods and while it's doable in the USA as there are many alternatives, especially organic alternatives, in Japan the concept of gluten/wheat free has not yet caught on.  Online shopping for baking supplies helps, but even online retailers are limited (at least the ones in Japan are).  At the end of the day though, I still can enjoy many types of foods as long as I prepare them myself.  I save the socializing with friends for either restaurants where I know I can safely eat or non-food related fun times.   You can enjoy your time in Japan as much as your wheat-eating friends can.

The most important advice I can give is to learn the kanji (and hiragana/katakana) for soy sauce/shoyu (kanji: 醤油 hiragana: しょうゆ), wheat/ko-mugi (小麦), barley/mugi (麦) and any derivatives from these such as malt (if it has these symbols, it's a no-go).  Rye/kuro-mugi/rai-mugi ( 燕麦 or ライ麦 ).  Also, oats/embaku ( 燕麦), if you notice have the kanji that link it to wheat, even though oats aren't supposed to be related.  Learn these and also learn the hiragana and katakana spellings of them as sometimes these alphabets are utilized in ingredient labels instead of the kanji.  Please also double check all of the kanji here with your own electronic or book dictionary.

Another tip is to avoid anything pre-made (ie, sauces, curries, etc) that are seducing you when you enter the big supermarkets.  Stick to the peripheries (the veggies, fruits, fish, meat, rice) and avoid the pre-packaged stuff if you can.   If you're ever in doubt about whether something has been marinated or prepared with soy sauce, it's better to ask (actually, it's better to assume it has been even if it's a basil marinade).

If you need help in getting started, I'd suggest buying a Japanese cookbook written in English (I use "The Complete Book of Japanese Cooking" by Emi Kazuko as well as "Japanese Meals on the Go:  Bento Boxes" by Naomi Kijima, because I've had to make quite a few bento boxes so I could eat during school lunch with the students.  Since I'm living in Okinawa, where the vegetables and foods are very different from mainland Japan, I also use "The Okinawa Diet Plan" to think of Okinawan dishes that I can cook easily while living in Okinawa prefecture.  I'm not on the diet, but it discusses the importance of following traditional Okinawan cooking as well as exercise and it seems very logical.
My first attempt at GF Goya Champeru, an Okinawa delicacy.

One of my favorite Gluten-Free websites is The Gluten-Free Goddess.  I really enjoy reading Karina's entries and her recipes are fantastic and accessible (ie, they're delicious, creative and not difficult to make).  Plus, she's a very talented writer.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

There are many foods we can't make if we follow the ingredients step by step, so learning how to substitute with different flours, grains and seasonings,  if it's possible, is very important.  I substitute rice noodles, rice itself and 100% buckwheat soba for noodle dishes, but I cannot buy these noodles at the stores where I live, so I have to buy them online.   Learning how to find seasonings, flours and grains and gluten-free noodles is also important.  Check with local organic grocery stores, use the FBC (Foreign Buyer's Club) to import some of your favorite GF/Wheat free foods, favorite seasonings that you know are GF or use the Alishan Organics website for Gluten/Wheat Free organic flours (be careful as not everything in the GF section is GF, though it may be wheat the ingredients).

I hope this helps some of those coming to Japan with these dietary restrictions feel a bit less confused, lost, unhappy or nervous.  I'm not a dietary specialist, just a regular person teaching English in Japan, and this is how I live my life here.  You can enjoy Japan and live Gluten-Free. 


  1. Wow you summed up getting sick so well. I think hey I have been eating great. This peace of pizza won't hurt. Wrong. This whole post is very helpful btw I am going to japan and was sort of worried.

  2. Thanks Keegan for your comment. I am sorry I didn't respond earlier. I did not have any alerts on for comments and didn't see this. If you need any advice or ideas on how to manage your diet in Japan please do not hesitate to contact me. I am not really a food blogger, but I cook my own foods here in Japan and they are Gluten Free. It's taken me a long time to figure out how to navigate my way through Japanese culture and food related issues, so please stay in touch.

  3. Hey! Great post. I am actually going back to Japan in a few days and am worried about this. My girlfriend wants the izakaya experience and I figured that I can stick to edamame, donburi, and raw fish, but I am not so sure. Do you have any other specific foods that you recommend while eating out that are usually prepared well and GF upon request?

    1. Hello! I recommend that you get a dining card in English/Japanese such as the ones found at am not affiliated with them, but I have used this card with great success). The things I stick to are edamame, sashimi, sushi (I am careful with this as out for wasabi and sushi vinegar that they season the rice with -- sometimes these both can have wheat in them) and I sometimes have yakiniku (making certain that it's not marinated meat and is only spiced with salt and pepper), etc. If you take one of these dining cards with you you can navigate some of the other dishes (such as certain veggie and tofu dishes), etc. I don't live on mainland Japan, but I have heard that 100%pure Soba is safe to consume as long as it has not been dipped or prepared in dashi/soy sauce combo. There really is not much else I can eat at izakayas, but I tend to do OK with the things above. I hope this helps!

  4. I would love to see more recommendations on specific foods to order when out - thanks so much :D

    1. Hello! I can definitely put together a list of places I have gone to in Okinawa, but that will only be specific to this prefecture. I recommend getting an English/Japanese gluten free dining card from It has been a lifesaver for me since I got it. It states exactly how imporant it is for the chef to understand what we can and cannot eat and it lists ingredients which are safe for us, ingredients which are sometimes not safe (depending on how it was processed), and ingredients/foods which are off limits. It also makes it clear that anything prepared with soy sauce is off limits, and that pots/pans/cutlery should be carefully washed before using to prepare gluten free meals. There is also a section which discusses hidden sources of wheat (such as アミノ (MSG), 麦芽 (malt) and でん粉 (food starch), both of which are often derived from wheat or contain gluten). Be careful using the liquid sweetener if you go for a coffee (it's derived from wheat). If you can eat fresh foods and not processed ones, I recommend it. Don't eat the onigiri from the convenience stores.

  5. Great post! I am gluten intolerant also and was recently in Japan. It was such a struggle to find anything gluten free that I ate a lot of gluten. Probably should have learnt a lot more Japanese than I did before I went. I've noticed that my gallstones are only triggered when I eat fat with wheat too so I had a bit of pain over there. Can't wait to go back but not looking forward to the food aspect of Japan. Was travelling with a vegetarian so we ended up going to a lot of Italian restaurants just to find anything she could eat.

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