Japan – hints and tips

I returned to Japan late last year having not been for eight years. I was very excited to see what had changed and what new things I could find. It was Mr Life London Food’s first trip so everything was going to be new for him.

I know travel in Japan puts a lot of people off, the fear of the language barrier, the cultural differences, the food! I would say forget all that and dive on in to Japan. Its one of the friendliest countries I have ever been to, and with such amazing public transport it’s incredibly easy to get around.

I thought I would share some  helpful hints and tips to help you get a trip planned and underway.

I am a natural-born organiser, and planning holidays is what I do for a living so I always do lots of research. Japan can be done last-minute and on the hoof, but for a country that operates in a very organised and on time manner its best to do a bit of work first, especially as hotels tend to fill up and can get pricey if left to the last-minute.

Hotels

Hotels in Japan are expensive, however it is possible to get a bargain if you are flexible and are up for a mix of accommodation types. In cities like Tokyo and Osaka, there is a lot of choice but if you venture a little further out  you can get a nice hotel for a better price –  the excellent public transport means its easy to get around quickly.

In Tokyo we stayed at the Moxy hotel which was located in an area called Kinshicho, not too far from the Skytree. We were only a couple of stops from Tokyo station by train but the area we were in felt like we were seeing the real side of Tokyo, a million miles away from somewhere like Shibuya.

The Moxy hotel was modern but warm, with friendly staff and the rooms although  compact were well designed. I would definitely stay here again.

Our room at the Moxy – not the best photo but on the wall to the left there were places to hang things, but there was also a table and two chairs hanging up so you could open them up in the space where I stood taking the photo.

There are quite a few hip hostels dotted around Japan, if you do not mind sharing a dorm then it can be a very cheap options. Private rooms in the hostels are normally good value as well.

We shopped around quite a bit when looking at hotels, do not be afraid to use those price comparison websites as you can normally get a few bargains.

If you want to stay at a Ryokan, then depending on the standard they can rise in price quite a bit. I stayed in one my first visit and loved the experience. Futon’s are very comfortable.

For a real bargain and Japanese experience then try a capsule hotel. They are great fun for a night or two especially if travelling with friends. They are normally by far the cheapest option.

The adventure of a Capsule hotel

 

Transport

The public transport in Japan is amazing! It’s by far the best way to get around and if you are planning on city hopping around the country then get a rail pass. The rail passes come in 7, 14, and 21 days. You can have them for the ordinary cars or green cars, which are first class. The seats in the ordinary cars are big and comfortable so unless you have a particular need to upgrade, ordinary will be more than adequate.

Bullet train!

On the bullet trains most carriages are for reserved seats, which you can get in advance from the train stations ( look for the ticket offices) or they do have one or two carriages for unreserved seats.

We planned ahead to maximise our time and pre booked most of our bullet trains so had reserved seats, but when travelling in Kansai we just jumped on trains as we didn’t want to be restricted to what time to travel back to Osaka.

It’s not normal when in Japan to see people eating/drinking in the streets or public transport, however on the bullet trains these rules go out of the window. It’s almost strange not to see people tucking into a bento box or drinking a can of beer or high ball. So when on those longer journey’s stock up on tasty bento. Part of the fun of travelling on the bullet trains is deciding what to eat on them.

Just one of our many Bento train feasts!

We also got ourselves a Pasmo card which is a top up travel card for the metro and buses. There is also once called Suica and they are both pretty much the same. We found we couldn’t use our Pasmo card on the buses in Kanazawa, so just used coins to pay.  Both Pasmo and Suica can be used to pay for things in some convenience stores and vending machines which was great.

 

Eating Out

As mentioned in a previous post we had to do a lot of pre-planning when it came to eating out due to gluten intolerance, however, food is such a massive part of Japanese culture you will never go hungry.

Seven Eleven and Lawson stores, are everywhere. They are in train stations and on every other corner, there is always somewhere to stop and get a snack or drink.

We found that a number of restaurants mentioned English menu’s in their windows or on the door which was very helpful, where as in others that had no English menu we used google translate ( to comedy effect sometimes) or just chose from the picture. If you are really struggling, then many restaurants have plastic food in the windows so just take the waitress to them and point at what you want. Sometimes it will be a guessing game but that is part of the adventure.

The markets are also a great place to try the local cuisine. In Kanazawa, the local food market was a feast for the eyes and the stomach. As we walked around fresh fish was being served, there was BBQ eel, delicious Noto Beef and gold leaf ice cream. it was here that we had the beautiful beef sushi and Noto beef flash grilled on a stick – best beef I have ever had.

Amazing food on offer at the market in Kanazawa
So much fish on sticks in the markets

The enormous many level train stations are also the place to eat as the locals do. Tokyo station or Namba station in Osaka for example are just levels of restaurants and shops. You can find nearly ever type of Japanese food in these amazing stations. You will see family’s eating in the stations, co-workers and people on their own.

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I hope this is helpful in some way when planning for Japan. Its one of my favourite countries ( even if the food is out to get me! damn you gluten) and the people are so friendly that I do not see why you should not go and explore!

Any questions feel free to ask and I will try to help

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Gluten free Japan

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

Tokyo

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.

Kanazawa

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.

 

Hiroshima

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.

Osaka

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.

 

Kyoto

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.

Nara

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!