At the edge of the horizon

At the edge of the horizon
At the edge of Japan

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Gluten Free in Japan

This is a quick reply to a number of requests for tips to survive gluten free in Japan.

1.  Live in a bigger city.  What this means to those of you contemplating the JET program is that you'll need to think seriously about whether a year in the 田舎 is worth your health.  I spent a year on an isolated island when I first arrived and while living on a remote island is a dream to many people, it was a particularly difficult experience for me dietary-wise.  I was often very sick for the majority of my time on that island unfortunately.  The problem with the JET program is that you do not get to decide where you will live.

2.  If you're just traveling through Japan, think about where you're going to stay in advance.  Find a hostel or pension that has a full kitchen where you can prepare meals for yourself.  Always prepare food in advance because, unlike those without dietary restrictions, you won't be able to pop into a cheap ramen shop or even a convenience store to get food if you're hungry.  Make your own food. If you're severely intolerant and cannot share appliances or dishes, then I suggest you reconsider coming to Japan unfortunately.  Unless you want to spend lots of money for bowls and plates you won't use again.

3.  Remind yourself constantly that almost everything besides plain rice, vegetables, fruits, and unprepared meats are most likely either saturated with gluten or contaminated with it.  Keep reminding yourself even when you're starving and you want to reach for an onigiri that you know you shouldn't eat.  Remember, your health is the greatest wealth.  Especially when traveling.

4.  Stick to the peripheries when shopping in the grocery stores.  There are just so many foods that are off-limits in grocery stores, whether in your home country or in Japan.  Buy fresh foods -- veggies, fruits, meats, nuts and stick to rice, potatoes or sweet potatoes as your carb of choice.  If you're a vegetarian in addition to being gluten free,  be careful about soy milk.  They have several version of it in Japan and some of it has barley in it.  I rarely drink soy milk to be honest, but I have tried an Okinawan drink called 玄米 which means brown rice and I became violently ill with a massive migraine for an entire day.  I know you want to try lots of different foods in a foreign land, but you'll have to just accept the fact that most Japanese food is off-limits to you.

5.  This is sort of difficult to write because I love going out to restaurants, but I suggest being very, very careful where you eat.  Pick one restaurant and stick to it.  Don't rely on Indian restaurants (which can usually serve gluten-free curry) to serve wheat-free curry in this country.  Curry is thickened in Japan and the Japanese like to have an Indian curry that tastes like their Japanese curry.  Just be careful about it.  Also, most meats you will eat will be marinated in soy sauce.  So if you eat a curry that has chicken in it, triple check to see if that meat was marinated.  More than likely it was.

There isn't one restaurant I've been to that really fully gets the scope of what a celiac or gluten intolerant person goes through.  Most don't in the USA, but in Japan they don't even understand what gluten is.  Even with one of those Triumph Dining cards, you're still playing Russian Roulette.

If you are traveling and you must go out to eat for dinner, look for macrobiotic, organic and vegetarian restaurants.  These restaurants tend to have staff that are more interested and knowledgeable in the preparation of food and they may be able to cater to you.  If you visit Naha, Okinawa I suggest trying Ukishima Garden 浮島ガーデン。Call ahead to the restaurant.  Go visit them in person.  Don't assume you can walk into a restaurant, hand them your gluten intolerant card and have the chef be able to specially prepare things for you.  I have done this and honestly I think it's unfair to both the restaurant and myself.

Remember, your life isn't like everyone else's.  You have a serious disease that can be controlled via diet.  But if you don't control it, you'll end up suffering and it may lead to the decline of your health.  It took me a while to come to terms with living in a foreign country that has such amazing food and accepting the fact that I really can't eat any of it.  Once you go through the stages of acceptance, you realize that you can actually prepare these foods on your own if you take the time to learn about alternative ingredients which you an find at health food stores or online. (Tamari is a great alternative to soy sauce, but check to make certain it is gluten free tamari.  Buy gluten free flours online if you can.  Use rice noodles instead of udon or ramen).  

I might start to post some of the Japanese foods I prepare so that you can try them too.

If you have any other questions or comments, please leave them below.


  1. Thank you for this. I commented on your earlier post about eating in Japan which was very informative. I'm a foodie and love trying new things. I was SO excited to explore Okinawa as I was told there were hidden treasures both Japanese and American/European all throughout the island. To learn that most of the food, at least Japanese food, has hidden gluten is so disappointing. I'm from NY where gluten-free is widely recognized, so this is a harsh reality that I'm hoping to fully accept before I get there and try to be daring. I'm totally open to cooking these recipes at home but its just not the same!! I hate that I will be so restricted when eating out for the next three years. I hope to at least find other cultural gems out there that are maybe more accommodating as I can understand the confusion it may cause the Japanese who are not educated on Celiac as much as Europeans and Americans are.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. I just realized that my other comment never published on your other post. My husband is a Marine and we will be stationed in Oki come July for three years. I have Celiac so when I googled gluten free in Okinawa, instead of finding resources for restaurants and meals to eat out, I found blogs about not being able to eat out due to Japan not being Celiac friendly. NOT encouraging at all!!! I hope to get some insight frm fellow gluten intolerant folks who live/lived out there about places that are more accommodating or understanding. Any ideas of places you ate at while you were in Oki?

  4. Hi! I still live here in Okinawa. There are only a few restaurants that I feel are safe enough to go to. Are you Celiac or Gluten intolerant? I know what you mean regarding NYC. I used to live there before moving to Okinawa. I'm not in the military. I teach English here so I have less resources than you will. You will have access to GF foods in your commissary and you can easily order GF flours via iherb or Jules Gluten Free that are harder for me to get.

    I can do a breakdown of places that I have visited that have not caused me to have a reaction. That being said, I don't know how sensitive you are. All restaurants will have gluten contamination unfortunately. I don't mean to give you bad news, but it is very hard to accomodate to living in Japan after having access to GF restaurants and staff at those restaurants that know what GF means.

    Anyways, there are a ton of things here in Okinawa that will make up for the dietary issues though. I've stayed here 2.5 years and have really loved my life here.

  5. I suggest you get a Triumph Dining Card that is in Japanese/English. You can use that when you go to restaurants. It will be very helpful for you.