Since committing to going gluten free in 2010 I had been vigilant about trying not to ingest even a crumb of it. There were mistakes, like the time I ate some red vines, but by avoiding it nearly all the time I found I did not react to small exposures like the amount in red vines or even soy sauce (which may have next to no wheat left in it).
So I wasn’t sure how things would go once I moved to Japan. A lot of Japanese cuisine is naturally gluten free, but I’ve heard the rice-focused nation began using more and more wheat in the twentieth century (What’s the history of tonkatsu?). Every grocery store I went to had a bakery section. So while it’s relatively easy to order food that’s naturally gluten free (at least minus the soy sauce), if you lack the language skills to double-check it can be hard to know for sure there’s no gluten hiding somewhere in your food. For example, miso soup can be gluten free or not, depending on how it’s made. Probably because people’s day-to-day cuisine is pretty gluten free, or maybe due to genetic variance, few people have celiac disease and the term “gluten free” is virtually unheard of, even in cosmopolitan Japan. So with all these caveats in mind, the advice I have to give is probably most useful for someone who is does not have celiac disease and is not overly sensitive to gluten. But maybe it can benefit some of you with celiac disease, particularly with knowledge of Japanese or access to a Japanese speaker.
Convenience Stores: I spent my first month in Japan without my Japanese-speaking husband, so the quickest and simplest way for me to get food was to go to a convenience store. Unlike most New York bodegas, you can fill up on pretty healthy stuff at Family Mart or 7-Eleven. When I snacked In New York I usually relied on Lays potato chips but Japan has something called onigiri. They are a delicious, ingenious invention — meat or vegetables (or pickled plum) bundled in a rice triangle and wrapped with seaweed. Spend about a dollar and you have a filling snack. Those with limited reading abilities should rely on the ones with pictures on the front or the see-through bags.
Convenience stores or mini grocery stores often have sushi, as well. Pretty good sushi, I’d have to say. Now I spoke to people who’d been around Japan awhile who claimed things like “They use the bad, radioactive fish in convenience store food” or someone whose wife’s friend worked in a factory and explained all the chemicals they spray on the rice to keep it so fresh. Who knows for sure? I’m certain it’s not the highest quality ingredients, but you can spend hundreds of dollars on sushi. I’m sure convenience store sushi is not as good in comparison, but it tastes good and it’s filling, and I’m sure it’s much healthier than potato chips (what kind of chemicals are sprayed on food that’s preserved almost indefinitely in a bag??). One thing I actually like about Japanese stores is they run out of goods: freshness is really important there, so they’ll only put a few of a particular variety on the shelf and when it’s gone it’s gone. So maybe it’s not as healthy as freshly fallen snow, but I’ll take my chances.
The second establishment I visited all throughout August 2012 was Mos Burger. They have a few burgers on the menu with rice buns! Literally, rice crushed together into the shape of a bun. I think I had my husband ask them, but you never know for sure if a random fast-food chain employee knows how the buns are made. So celiacs beware. But I loved the taste. In 2013 they changed the menu, now offering three burgers, but I think one was filled with breaded chicken. The ones I would order were the fish or the root-vegetable filled ones which were fine, but not as good as the beef I used to get. So I’m not sure how they’ll change the menu next, but I predict the rice bun will stick around, as I first tasted it on a visit in 2009.
By the way those wrappers help contain your burger, or hide your open mouth like in the Freshness Burger ad campaign.
Another great place to visit if you lack Japanese skills is Soup Stock. I love it so hard. Fast, yummy soup! I presume they use real stock, which I believe is an essential life ingredient. And the soup comes on a wooden tray in ceramic bowls (I love that hipster aesthetic). The picture menus at the door list common allergens (wheat, milk, eggs) at the bottom in English and Japanese. I would caution that occasionally I think some the soups contain cooked barley. I’ve had the same issue with some rice in convenience stores. So keep an eye out for these grains if they’re an issue for you.
A place with similar aesthetic but where you might need a Japanese speaker is the basement of the hipster home-goods store Muji located in Shinjuku next to a movie theater.
They have a wide variety of foods in their deli, which they will delicately plate for you, but the list of allergens is written in a very small font, and it can be awkward to pick out food when it’s a really crowded day.
A general type of establishment you can eat at is an Izakaya. The menus often have pictures and a wide variety of small foods to share, so you should be able to find sushi, or meat on a stick, or vegetables to fit your needs.
Finally, I got most of my food at the grocery store. There was also a health food store I randomly found near Takadanobaba that sold these beauties (kind of like nilla wafers):
Another grocery store that caters to foreign needs is National Azabu; I think I found hard cider there, but I lived far enough away that even if they’d had gluten free frozen goods I couldn’t take them home. Costco was the same for me. I also ordered raisins, spices and random health-food items online from Alishan. Finally, I think a lot of expats get things from the Foreign Buyer’s Club. I just mostly went without soft cookies and bread while in Japan; there are plenty of other delicious foods to be eaten (Ice cream, chocolate and Macrons work for me!).
A few more thoughts on eating gluten free in Japan:
Sneaky foods: you may have heard soba noodles are made with buckwheat. Yes, traditionally, but like the rest of the world, when it found out gluten is sticky, Japanese people began mixing wheat into most of their soba noodles. I’m not a huge fan of the cold soba noodles you can get in restaurants anyway, but if you’re looking for a quick, grainy-tasting pasta substitute, often there’s one brand in grocery stores that says 100% buckwheat on the front. Also, I initial thought this thing called a Hamburg would be perfect for me since it doesn’t come with a bun. However, it’s a patty made with panko, or breadcrumbs. A lot of places (like the mall restaurants) will have Doria, a rice gratin. It looks really good but since it’s based on French cuisine it looks like most recipes include flour in order to make a white sauce.
Like in the US, the fancier the restaurant, the more likely it is they may have heard about gluten and know how to handle it. The chefs are well trained and are adding all the ingredients themselves, so they know how to leave things out or use substitutions. Fast-food employees are less likely to know what’s in the food they’re cooking. Service in Japan is amazing; people often make you feel like nothing would make them happier than to serve you your heart’s desire. But because they try so hard to please, they worry when they hear “allergen.” We had a few experiences where we asked whether or not a food had gluten in it, and because the server couldn’t say for sure, they didn’t want to serve me. I understand they don’t want me to die, and ordinarily I might appreciate this; celiacs might find this particularly helpful. However, it led us to just google recipes for things and make our best guesses, rather than burden people with questions.
Dealing with food restrictions in a foreign language is tough, but it was ultimately a useful experience for me. I discovered I didn’t have to live as carefully as a celiac in order not to get sick, so I needn’t worry as much when I ate out, and I became more appreciative of how easily I can ask servers about food in the US the few times I did eat the wrong thing. If you’re a gluten avoider or you love someone who is then I hope this list will help you when visiting Japan.