At the edge of the horizon

At the edge of the horizon
At the edge of Japan

Monday, July 16, 2012

Gluten Free in Japan

I get the most hits on this blog for information about being gluten free in Japan. Most people seem to be looking for restaurants that serve Gluten Free food. I've already written about my experiences living on a small island in Okinawa prefecture, but I haven't written about them on mainland Okinawa. This year has been challenging for me in different ways. I was still slightly in denial of how strict I needed to be with my diet (I followed a wheat free/gluten free diet, without realizing how nearly everything in Japan that is edible has a form of wheat/gluten in it. Yes, even the convenience store "rice-only" onigiri has a form of MSG -- it's listed as アミノ -- for flavoring, and that has wheat in it).

I don't want to spend too much time rehashing information, but I do want to make people aware of how difficult it is to live in Japan on a modern diet (a diet of convenience). If you want to live here and you need to follow a GF diet strictly, then I suggest not even looking for gluten free restaurants or places that serve gluten free treats. These things just do not exist in Japan. Transitioning from a country where Gluten Free is labeled on a large amount of items, to a county where it's unlikely that you'll find a label that lists allergen information (it does exist, but only for some items and not for gluten) can be a challenge. You really do have to give up the diet of substitute breads, cookies, etc. that you've come to rely on, and replace it with a diet that is much closer to the Paleo diet.

For individuals like myself, who cook but aren't really that keen on cooking all the time, every day for every meal, it is very frustrating. Believe me, I loved the convenience of gluten-free restaurants when I lived in NYC. Or grocery stores such as Whole Foods or Greenwise/Publix (Florida) or smaller, local organic stores, which have Gluten-Free selections. Eventually though, you do come to terms with cooking everything yourself. And then you start to realize that eating food that has one ingredient only (ie, fish, meat, rice, vegetables, fruits, etc) is the best thing that you could do for your body. It's how we are supposed to be eating. I've come up with a number of yummy dishes while living in Japan on my own and I've made more time for myself to cook. Granted, I live in a tiny apartment (with an even tinier kitchen that resembles a small closet), so if you live in a larger apartment and you've got space, then cooking won't seem like you're also perfecting your gymnastics routine.

As for socializing around food...yes, you can go out to eat. If you find a restaurant that can serve you gluten-free food then you will have a place you can go to. But you have to trust that the chef understands what GF really means. You can convey this via a long list of things you can/cannot eat and by letting them know about Celiac Disease/Gluten Intolerance. You should probably also book ahead in advance at most restaurants, unless they already know you. I highly recommend the Triumph Dining Gluten Free cards. They are written in both English and Japanese. Please get these. They will also help you understand exactly what you can and cannot eat in Japan. Like I said, anything that is pre-made/pre-packaged and has more than one ingredient is suspect. I don't eat at a number of restaurants, so my experience in Japan is very different from my fellow expats/ALTs who tend to fall in love with the food here. It just isn't going to happen for me, and I'm ok with that.

I do wish there were more people who knew about this issue and that there were support groups for it in Japan. It can be difficult to live overseas on your own, and even more so when you have dietary issues such as this one. If you are considering moving to Japan or even traveling here, please educate yourself about the challenges you will face in this country. I didn't do enough research before coming and I wish I had. The more you know about what you can/cannot eat, the healthier you'll be (and you'll be able to enjoy your time in Japan much more when you feel good).

Here are some helpful links:

Eating Gluten Free in Japan

Hokuriku Expat Cooking

Celiac Travel

From Japan with Love

If you have any questions, feel free to send me a message. I would love to hear from others out there who are either in Japan or are thinking of coming to Japan, who are following a GF diet.

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