Going gluten free in Japan was hard! Harder than I thought it would be. Research had been done, blogs read, and Facebook groups joined. If we had not done the research in advance I think we would have struggled..
Saying that, do not let the difficulties put you off travelling to Japan. There is a challenge in finding places to eat but if you have those little stars waiting for you on google maps then it makes things much easier. Now I am not coeliac just gluten intolerant which does make things a bit simpler as cross contamination is not a problem.
A great deal of recommendations and advice came from a Facebook group, it was a true saving grace! The group is Gluten Free Expats Japan, and if you are planning a trip to Japan I highly recommend you join. Also, get one of the Gluten Free translations cards. We took one with us and used it a couple of times when we were unsure of the menu. They can be found on various websites online, some free and some you pay for.
Our starting point was to take our own gluten free soy sauce with us, carefully packed in the suitcase wrapped in bubble wrap ( a small dance was done when we arrived and it had not leaked!). It is possible to get tamari in Japan but we didn’t want to have spend time looking for it as it seems to be quite elusive. With google maps full of saved places to eat (thanks to the amazing Facebook group) we set out to explore.
Tokyo was by far the easiest place to get gluten free options. Osaka was the hardest. So many of the local foods in Osaka are battered or fried/breaded that it meant missing out.
Below are a list of places that we tried and loved.
My top Gluten Free places in Japan
Noodle Stand Tokyo : This is the place for GF ramen. Its delicious. The restaurant is tiny but fast moving. Its also down stairs in a bigger building so keep an eye out for the sign. You choose your ramen from the machine and it has the option of gluten free noodles – choose that one. The staff have a little English so any issues using the machine they will understand you. Once noodles chosen then grab a seat and slurp away.
Bills, Ginza: This is a chain of restaurants by Bill Granger an Australian chef. The food is Aussie style with a Japanese twist. The restaurants are modern and a touch refined. We told the waitress we were gluten free and she brought over their big list of allergens so we could choose GF options. The food was delicious, fresh and was a nice change from the traditional Japanese we had been eating up to that point.
Little Bird: Now we never actually got to Little Bird but its a completely GF restaurant and everyone raves about it. Its a little tricky to find, but we will definitely be going next time.
Hommage: this was a beautifully exquisite Michelin star dining experience. We informed them in advance of our intolerance and they perfectly adapted the menu. We never once felt like we were missing out. If you fancy splashing out on a fine dining experience in Tokyo, I highly recommend this one.
Little Spice: This was a Thai restaurant down a little street and was delicious. Really relaxed and chilled out. Lots of rice and rice noodle dishes on the menu which are gluten free. It was cash only. The staff were really friendly.
Oink Oink: this is a pork restaurant, with pork in all its forms. Now we didn’t specifically ask for anything gluten free here, but we ate around the menu. Its very meat heavy but I am sure the staff could advise. Some of the pork came with sauce so you could have it without. It was delicious though. This was one of those meals we threw caution to the wind.
Cafe Ponte: Now I wouldn’t normally be eating at an Italian restaurant in Japan but we were desperate. Saying that the food was nice and staff friendly. They had run out of GF pasta so we had risotto. This place has its own GF menu! Our reason for eating here was because our first choice Art Cafe Elk had closed down.
Nagata-Ya: Next door to Ponte and has GF Okonomiyaki. Although they do warn you about cross contamination. There is always a queue so do not go too hungry as you may be waiting a little while.
We didn’t eat at any proper GF places in Osaka ( although there are a few out there). Here are a couple of places we did eat at and enjoyed
Sex Machine: fabulous BBQ place. We sat at the bar and watched the chefs prepare the meat. The English menu was pretty easy to understand. Pick your meat and then cook it! It was very gluten free if you do not use any of the dipping sauces.
Rotary Sushi, Osaka: Great conveyer belt sushi place. Loads of choice. We took our own soy sauce. If Coeliac probably worth showing your card to the waitress to see if its ok to eat as I know sometimes the vinegars used in the rice can contain gluten.
Engine Ramen: delicious gluten free ramen! Again you choose your dish from the machine and give the ticket to the waitress. Once you have picked your ramen you select GF noodles. We had intended to have lunch here but they were closed, but open for dinner. It seems that restaurants in Japan do not always open when their online times say they do so watch out.
Breizh Cafe Creperie: There are a few of these places dotted around Japan so keep an eye out. They do delicious buckwheat crepes. Staff speak good English as well. Its just around the corner from Engine so if one or the other is closed then it has a back up.
Ki Bar: not food but a cute little bar we found. Its run by a Canadian chap who has lived in Japan for many years. He has a good selection of local and wider Japanese drinks.
Gluten free is the new black: Amazing cafe tucked away in Nara. The owner is really nice. She makes everything herself. Lots of different cakes and sandwiches. Definitely worth going. We grabbed a picnic of sandwiches and cakes ( and cakes for later) to take into Nara Park with us.
I would recommend taking lots of gluten free snacks from home as these just are not available. I know that some supermarkets or health food stores do have rice cakes etc but it means going to look for them. When on holiday I want to relax and know that there is a cereal bar in my bag if I want one. We also took out bread with us for breakfasts.
The hotels we stayed at all had excellent breakfasts, lots of eggs and fruit and if you want to go full Japanese you can. None had gluten free bread or cereal so we did take that with us. If you want to get things locally then the Facebook group recommended above has some suggestions on where to get it.
I hope this has been useful for any gluten free brothers and sisters planning on going to Japan. Its not the easiest destination for us but it can be done and Japan is fabulous so I highly recommend going. Any questions just shout!