As soon as we arrived in Japan three years ago, we were already talking about our next visit. We both just fell in love with everything about it. And at the start of 2018, we got to go back for three incredible weeks. There were a few things that were different about this holiday (we had more confidence in speaking Japanese, we visited fewer typically touristy areas, etc) but the biggest change for me was my diet. Since I last visited I’ve become a lot stricter with what I eat and when I mentioned this on Instagram, lots of people asked me how I survived a holiday in Japan with food intolerances. Ask and you shall receive!
Before we get into my recommendations on visiting Japan with food intolerances, I should explain what my food intolerances are to those of you who are new around here.
After a long period of being very unwell, I was advised to do the FODMAP diet. You can read more about my experiences with it HERE but long story short it’s a way of identifying foods that create issues for you so that you can eliminate them or eat them in small amounts. After completing the elimination and reintroduction section, I pinpointed that my biggest issues were with gluten, onions, garlic, and leeks (these are the most common foods people struggle with – apparently because they take longer to digest but ferment quickly causing bloating, pain, and … ‘bathroom issues’).
When I’m at home I can avoid these ingredients pretty well, I’ve learnt to live without delicious, squishy sandwich bread… to turn down pretty much every delightful canapé at blog events… to be that annoying dinner party guest who has to send a list beforehand of things I can’t eat. Meals out can be tricky but most restaurants are great at working around me (and if all fails I tend to go for steak and chips: the one meal guaranteed to be on most menus!). But what happens when you go to a country where the most popular meals are stuffed with gluten and you don’t really speak the language?
Last time we went to Japan I suspected that gluten wasn’t my friend. But I still spent two weeks eating ramen, chicken katsu curry, gyoza, crepes… and I suffered for it. So this time I decided to be sensible. Here are my tips on how to cope in Japan with food intolerances:
PLAN IN ADVANCE
Before we go on any holiday I create a ridiculously intense Google Maps holiday plan. I have categories for culture, bars, sightseeing, and food. In the latter category I added few places that offered gluten free items. A warning: they’re few and far between in Tokyo and two of the places we visited had shut down by the time we visited so keep your expectations very low!
USE APPS/THE INTERNET
We used the Google Translate Instant Camera function a lot: you hold it over text and it translates Japanese to English in front of your eyes. It’s not perfect but can give you a gist of what you’re getting. Most places do have some English on the menu or even provide a full English menu which is very helpful, but it’s also worthwhile Googling the Japanese words for the food you want to avoid so you can look at ingredients lists on packaging.
ACCEPT THE FOMO
Sitting across from my husband every day for three weeks while he ate the most delicious-smelling food in the world was torture, I can’t lie to you. Especially when you’re looking at a plate of rice for the third day in a row. You can’t avoid this. On some days we accepted that – in order to keep us both happy – we’d have to eat separately as it was often hard to find one restaurant that could cater to us both. We’d stop for ramen so Aaron could eat himself happy, then find a place suitable for me afterwards.
FIND WHAT WORKS
My go-to meals were as follow: Sushi (I flipping love sushi but after 5 days of non-stop sushi I was so bored of it… I didn’t even think that was possible! It’s also worth noting that some sushi rice contains wheat); fried rice (rice, bits of chicken and vegetables may not be the most exciting meal but it’s filling and widely available); and yakitori. This is basically meat on a stick and it. is. GOOD. You can often find it served in izakayas, which are small, loud, informal pubs where you are expected to order nibbles with your drinks. It is served in one of two ways: glazed in a delicious – but gluteny – sauce (‘tare’) or salted (‘shio’) so I would ask for it to be cooked in the latter. You can’t get away from the fact it’s salted meat on a stick, so it’s not going to rock your world, but it’s delicious and cheap!
FAMILY MART IS YOUR FRIEND
This is the most important tip and the one that kept me going and enabled me to survive Japan with food intolerances! Every time we passed a Family Mart, or 7/11, I would pop in to see their food selection. I stocked up on crisps, onigiri (rice balls – be careful of the fillings if you have certain intolerances – some stores do have English on the packaging but it’s not common which is where the app/Googling I mentioned above comes in handy), and hard-boiled eggs. Yup, eggs. In the first few days I was often found stood down a side-street, shovelling eggs and rice balls into my face like a woman possessed. My husband’s most used phrase during our holiday was ‘can I offer you an egg in this trying time?’ and if you know what that quote is from I will love you forever.
The foods mentioned above were a constant feature in my handbag, Aaron’s backpack, and in our hotel fridge. But I also carried around a secret bottle of Tamari (gluten-free soy sauce). Luckily we had my fluent-in-Japanese brother-in-law with us, who explained the issue and asked restaurant staff if I was okay to use my own soy sauce! I was very worried that people would be offended if they saw me using my own bottle, but once it was explained, people were fine. If you don’t have a Japanese-speaking friend with you, the advice below may be helpful…
CARRY A CARD
There’s a great website HERE that provides downloadable info cards in many different languages for coeliac/gluten-free diets. Of course you could make your own if you needed to add other ingredients and are feeling confident in your translation skills! It’s worth remembering that gluten-intolerance isn’t is a common thing in Japan, so just saying ‘no gluten’ doesn’t help as most people won’t know that this means no soy sauce, etc.
Full disclosure: I did cheat a couple of times. A reminder that I am not coeliac and I am not dangerously allergic to the foods I avoid. So at a few points of the holiday I was weak and treated myself to something delicious and I just dealt with the consequences. On one of the days when we were staying local to our hotel and had no evening plans, I ate a chicken katsu curry the size of my head, because I knew that I could go back to the hotel and lie groaning on the bed with a stomach the size of a beach ball, feeling nauseous and cursing the delicious curry. Obviously I know not everyone can do that – or would want to – but it’s just a reminder for those of you who feel a bit gutted at the thought of spending time in the land of incredible food without eating any of it!
I really hope that my tips for surviving Japan with food intolerances was helpful. Finding food wasn’t easy, and I did get very frustrated at the lack of choice, but from talking to some Japanese people I think the tide is turning, especially with the upcoming Tokyo 2020 Olympics bringing in so many international visitors.
Do you have any tips for doing Japan with food intolerances? Let me know in the comments below!