My husband and I recently came back from our first trip to Japan. We didn’t plan it this way but it turned out to be a Buddhist/food trip. It was perfect! However, eating in Japan with a gluten intolerance can be challenging.
The only thing that always worries me a little every time I travel is the gluten. I don’t need to avoid it completely because I don’t have Coealiac Disease (CD), but I am intolerant to gluten. Like every intolerance (e.g. lactose, histamines), symptoms may occur when a certain threshold is passed. In my case, I can get away with eating some fermented gluten-containing foods (e.g. soy sauce, sourdough) but not beer. Some breadcrumbs (e.g. eating ham and cheese off a sandwich) are fine but a schnitzel will send me to the bathroom.
I wouldn’t say you shouldn’t visit Japan if you are highly sensitive to gluten or have CD but you need to be extra careful and won’t be able to try many things.
We made up the itinerary to cover most of what we wanted to see, including Fukuoka, where my grandparents were born. For the last bit of the trip, we chose locations were we could see snow as my husband had never experienced it before.
We didn’t have an eating strategy in the beginning, other than trying as many things as possible. I had bookmarked some high rating restaurants and cafes but decided not to bother trying to get into Michelin establishments. The premise was to see as much as possible in 18 days.
We were hosted by my friend Mario and his family the first couple of days. They were incredibly generous: they made us feel more than welcome in their home, showed us around and fed us.
I soon realised moderate amounts of Japanese gluten-containing foods, such as some gyoza one night and a couple of slices of sourdough garlic bread for breakfast did not affect me. A few glasses of beer did give me reflux the following day. This made me loosen up my gluten avoidance.
We tried to eat local specialities whenever possible. Google and printed tourist guides are great for this. We also asked English-speaking staff for recommendations and they were more than happy to help. In general, rice, some sort of broth or soup, pickled vegetables and green tea are usually part of all meals.
Prices and paying
In Japan, some menus and food labels show prices excluding tax. Some labels have the price inclusive of tax in parenthesis. Tax is usually 8% for food and 10% for alcohol, although I noticed some places charged 10% for everything.
Unless you are paying for accommodation or buying something at a department store, most places take cash only. You don’t need to have exact change for the most part (except for some buses). You might get lots of ¥1 and 5 coins as change, which are not good for vending machines but you can use them for paying.
Many restaurants these days have English menus. Even if they are in Japanese, many have pictures and/or plastic food models on display. You will come across some restaurants in which the menus are entirely in Japanese, including prices.
Some staff speak English, some don’t. You can always point to an item to order. They will add up your bill on the cash register or calculator for you to pay. Some restaurants have multilingual ordering machines, which make the whole ordering and paying process easier.
Food in convenience and grocery stores often have some English on labels and tags. If not, use Google Translate or a similar app to help you out (note these are not super accurate).
As mentioned before, gluten is somewhat hard to avoid. Rice is gluten-free, of course, but there are many sauces (including soy sauce) that contain wheat. Many foods are battered, including tempura, karaage and katsu. Although soba noodles are made from buckwheat, wheat noodles are more common and yakisoba noodles are confusingly made from wheat as well.
Unlike Australia, menus don’t usually indicate which dishes are gluten-free, vegetarian, vegan, etc. I did see a restaurant in Tokyo offering gluten-free and vegan ramen, and another in Koyasan offering curry sauce sans flour. Unfortunately, those places were the exception rather than the norm.
If you have serious issues with gluten, I would suggest familiarising yourself with Japanese cuisine beforehand and researching which restaurants do offer gluten-free options, using a translation app to find out the ingredients in packaged foods. Alternatively, you can seek out the services of a dedicated gluten-free tour operator.
Where we got our food/drinks
Every single person who has ever visited Japan agrees that convenience stores (aka combinis) are amazing. Not only they are everywhere and open 24 hours, but they actually sell great food. We ended up eating most breakfasts and dinners at combinis. The biggest chains are 7 Eleven, Family Mart and Lawson, all of which have roughly the same type of items.
Apart from packaged snacks and bottled drinks, you can also find onigiri, sushi rolls, tamagoyaki, donburis, soups, pickled vegetables, salads, oden, etc. You can get your food heated up in any combini and even eat your meal at some locations. This is handy because you can throw away the packaging after eating (there are no street bins in Japan).
Combinis also sell alcohol in regular and individual (~1 cup) sizes. So convenient!
We mainly used vending machines to buy hot coffee and unsweetened tea. Yes, most vending machines have both cold and hot beverages and they’re literally everywhere. Some vending machines also sell alcohol (mostly beer), some sell canned soups.
Most train stations (ekimae) have combinis, restaurants, bento/hot food shops and vending machines. You can either eat there before boarding your train or grab something to eat on board.
As I said before, we didn’t go to any fine dining restaurants. We often ate at restaurants once per day, sometimes twice. We sometimes chose the places based on Google reviews, sometimes based on location or the menu.
What we ate/drank
Most of the time we bought breakfast at combinis or train stations. Some of our favourites were onigiri of different shapes, sushi roll sets and tamagoyaki (rolled omelette). Our cheapest combini breakfast was just ~¥320 and the most expensive ¥1065.
We had homemade breakfasts at our friends’ house, and one day I tried natto on rice. I kinda liked it. I ate natto again later in a hand roll and am planning to eat it once in a while as it packs so much nutrition.
Some of the accommodations we booked included breakfast: the hotel in Kyoto had free rice porridge in the tea room, the temple stay in Koyasan included dinner and breakfast, and the guest house in Shirakawa-go provided a huge breakfast which included excellent local milk and eggs.
Our cheapest lunch out was also one of the best. The restaurant is Udon Mitsuboshi in Koyasan, and they serve all their noodle dishes with either udon or soba. We shared a nabeyaki soba (with egg, prawn and vegetables) and a tanin donburi (with beef and egg, served with pickles). We paid ¥1750 in total.
Our most expensive lunch was at Kaseidon Ichiba, located inside the Omicho Fish Market in Kanazawa. We had to queue because it was New Years Day and only a few restaurants were open. Kaseidon is a rice bowl with fresh seafood on top (like a sashimi don) and it’s served with fish broth. The bill was ¥4140 for both.
Our cheapest dinner was at a fast-food style gyudon restaurant called Hankyu Saiin in Kyoto. I had a vegetable set menu and Alvaro had a beef rib set menu (both came with beef bowls). We paid ¥1315 in total.
The most expensive dinner was in Shirakawa-go at a yakiniku place. We paid ¥7250 for delicious melt-in-your-mouth beef sirloin and spare ribs, plus rice, miso soup, pickled vegetables and vegetables for the grill.
Other meal worth mentioning is the ramen at Ichira Ramen in Fukuoka, which we also had to queue for. Even though it doesn’t come with all the bells as whistles as other styles of ramen, the broth was excellent. The second best ramen was the one we had in a tiny shop in Tokyo. None of the 3 ramen restaurants we ate at had gluten-free noodle options so I just left noodles in my bowl.
Another culinary highlight was a tiny 12-seat oden restaurant called Tonahachi in Himeji. Oden consists in many components including fish cakes, konjac, daikon, tofu, boiled eggs, seafood, chicken skewers, etc., boiled in a soy-flavoured dashi.
One dish we tried for the first time and really enjoyed was chawanmushi, a savoury egg custard with dashi and fish or seafood.
We also tried the famous Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki, a grilled pancake with noodles, vegetables and other ingredients. We made the mistake of ordering one for each, with extras (mochi, cheese and mayonnaise). It was way too much food and we finished it. And it was way too much gluten for me. This meal definitely pushed me beyond my gluten threshold. I wasn’t very impressed with this iconic dish, I think it would make a good hangover meal but is not necessarily something I’d crave on a regular day.
We were determined to try as many mochis as possible because we love it and haven’t found any good ones in Sydney (we did find great ones at the Fremantle Market). We tried a wide range from fresh to packaged, and different local varieties such as yakimochi (grilled mochi) in Koyasan and petal mochi in Kanazawa. Probably the best we had was at a mochi shop in Fukuoka, it was fresh and cheap (¥198 for two). We also bought some pretty good ones at combinis, which costed ~¥150 each.
Aside from mochi, we tried some local specialities, such as nama yatsuhashi (a flat triangular rice dough filled with bean paste) in Kyoto, momiji-manju (maple leaf shaped wheat cake with red bean paste filling) in Hiroshima, and fukuume (a baked rice-based shell filled with bean paste) in Kanazawa. These costed ~¥120-220 each.
Even though it was winter, ice cream and soft serves were available everywhere, including vending machines. My husband had as many as he could get away with. The cheapest combini ice cream was ¥150 and the most expensive soft serve (red bean flavour with gold leaf, bought in Kanazawa) was ¥864. Other ice creams costed between ¥350 and 650. Special mention to Häagen-Dazs that makes a pretty good matcha ice cream.
I really enjoyed zenzai, a sweet bean soup with mochi.
One of my favourite savoury snacks were oyaki (buns made of fermented buckwheat flour with sweet or savoury fillings). We ate quite a few with different fillings. My favourites were the savoury ones, followed by the sweet paste one. Most oyaki were about ¥200, some (e.g. beef) were more expensive.
We tried some steamed oysters at Miyajima island for ¥500. They were ok, but I prefer my oysters raw. Later on, I queued for 30-40 minutes at the Omicho Fish Market in Kanazawa to eat one raw oyster and one raw sea urchin for ¥600 each. Expensive, but totally worth it.
Street snacks are popular, particularly in tourist areas and around temples or shrines. We ate a variety of these, including one with rice and pork steamed in banana leaf in Kyoto, takoyaki (grilled octopus balls) anddango (grilled mochi) with kinako (roasted soy flour).
We also tried vending machine sweet bean soup and corn soup for ¥130 each.
Other examples of snacks we bought for train rides, etc. were roasted fava beans, peanuts (with or without rice snacks), dried calamari and wasabi peas.
I failed miserably in my quest for good coffee, mainly because proper coffee shops in cities other than Tokyo are hard to find or were out of the way and we didn’t want to waste time. I did have a proper espresso at the Miyajima island near Hiroshima, which costed ¥350. I saw coffee in other places sold at various prices up to around ¥800. Not worth the risk, provided that vending machine coffee was cheap and decent. Black coffee and unsweetened tea in vending machines ranged from ¥100 to ¥160, but most of the time they were ¥130.
My husband doesn’t drink and I was sick for the majority of the trip so we didn’t go to any bars. We did go to a pub with my husband’s coworker, in which we spent ¥950 for a shot of gin and ¥600 for 1/2 pint of cider. Other than that, I mostly drank sake cups from combinis (usually around ¥250) and some at restaurants (e.g. ¥440-¥600). I bought a small bottle of good Japanese whisky at a convenience store for ~¥1310. By far the most expensive alcoholic drink I had was a glass of terrible Italian red at the Narita airport (¥1045).
Some shopping centres and department stores have sake and wine tastings and even in food stalls outside a shrine in Kanazawa! This is a great way of trying local beverages without spending any money.
For more photos of the trip, including the places we visited, scroll through my Instagram page.