Suggestions on food/snacks to pack when travelling with celiac to Japan
February 21, 2017 11:57 AM   Subscribe

My husband and I are traveling to Japan in a few months. He has celiac disease. Due to the prevalence of gluten in Japanese food, we anticipate not being able to eat out much, if at all. What are some food items that are easy to bring along and eat, assuming we have access to very basic cooking facilities?

I've read a lot of blogs about traveling in Japan with celiac disease and the more I read, the more difficult it seems eating out in Japan will be. Gluten seems to be everywhere from the more obvious stuff like bread and cakes to more surprising things like soy sauce and some teas. Even things like edamame (which are naturally gluten-free) are sometimes boiled in the same water used to boil noodles, so the risk of unknowingly eating something that is cross contaminated with gluten is very high. We will be carrying a travel card like this to help explain what foods are dangerous to eat to restaurant staff, but we don't anticipate it making eating out completely safe.

We will be staying in various cities across Japan for about two weeks and will most likely be renting small apartment AirBnBs for a couple of days at a time, so we will have access to a kitchen. However, as apartments in Japan are so small, kitchens often consist of...a sink and a hot plate :)

We don't really want to eat protein bars for 14 days haha, so I'd really love any suggestions on things to pack. Obviously, nuts/trail mix, the aforementioned protein bars, and even a loaf of Scharr's gluten free bread (which unlike other gf breads, doesn't require refrigeration) are already on my list. We should have access to grocery stores for things like produce. (But since celiac is so rare in Asian countries, the store will be unlikely to carry specialty gf items, like bread.) I will also probably pack some gf instant noodles.

Thank you for your suggestions!
posted by galaxypeachtea to Travel & Transportation around Japan (23 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Forgot to add: we do not eat meat (fish is ok) so things like beef jerky won't work for us.

Thanks again!
posted by galaxypeachtea at 11:58 AM on February 21, 2017

I've traveled in Japan with severe allergies (seafood.... so it's doable), and you need to resign yourself to some discomfort at some point and time. (in my case, using my epi-pens more times than I ever have in my life)

First, how concerned are you about rice? I know some folks worry about it not being pure/having some contamination, but in Japan, you should be able to get a bowl of clean rice at any establishment for a pittance, between that and miso soup (assuming no seafood allergy) you should be able to get a barebones meal anywhere you go. You should be able to get sashimi/sushi as well. I would be wary of tofu since it always seems to be served in a sauce that will probably make him less than happy.

My personal trick was to bring my own protein bars (one per day) and to stock up at convenience stores on onigiri (rice balls; if you think you can trust rice- I know some folks with celiac are leary of it) and lots of egg-type dishes such as tamagoyaki. I also would buy a bag of 'stir fry' vegetables, put salad dressing on them and eat them raw as a snack. You will probably still have trouble with potential cross contamination; soy sauce and bonito flakes are used as seasoning in pretty much everything.

Bring immodium, painkillers, and as many stomach remedies as you can, low level cross contamination really destroyed some of my happiness on my trips.

And as a side note, despite carrying multiple copies of an allergy card, to my dismay they really were disregarded/ignored in both Tokyo and Sapporo
posted by larthegreat at 12:39 PM on February 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

While I have not been to Japan, I have celiac and I have traveled. Staying in Airbnbs is smart. I pack:
-salt and pepper (so many places with kitchens don't have any!),
-my own nonstick pan
-washcloth and dish towel
-thin flexible plastic cutting board
-tamari single serve packets
-tortilla chips or crackers (crackers take up less space)
-lara bars
-extra ziploc bags for containing new foods I buy or preserving leftovers
-tea bags

I have also packed: my own oil and vinegar salad dressing (again, the kitchens rarely have oil or vinegar and who wants to buy a whole bottle of that for just a few days?)

My food strategy:
-bring all my breakfasts with me
-lunches: cheese, crackers and an apple ("snack meal") while out and about
-dinner back at home base

You may have to eat basic meals constructed from whole ingredients, like a veggie and egg scramble, fruit slices, etc. You could eat something like yogurt if you could read ingredients lists, but that doesn't sound like you read Japanese?

If you're checking a bag, consider also bringing condiments that make your food tasty:
-favorite hot sauce or salsa
-jar of peanut butter
-tuna packets
-small knife (most rental kitchen knives are terrible)

(Assuming all of the above are allowed into the country.)

Do bring whatever he finds comforting at home when he gets glutened.
posted by purple_bird at 1:48 PM on February 21, 2017

Oh! And pack a good bar of chocolate or some other treat. Everyone wants a treat on vacation right?
posted by purple_bird at 1:49 PM on February 21, 2017

Miso is incredibly not gluten free by default just in case anyone was wondering. Sushi is dodgy too since its made on one board and all the sauces contain gluten pretty much plus tempura etc. But I've had ok luck with it after explaining.

In general I found that food allergies were taken seriously in Japan so I'd phrase it as that. Also check out celiactravel dot com. That site usually has a collectiom of links for different countries with people's experiences and specific recommendations.
posted by fshgrl at 2:38 PM on February 21, 2017 [2 favorites]

(sorry about the miso soup idea. I know it was a no go for me, and constantly offered as a vegetarian option despite having been made with bonito or other fish flakes... obviously your allergy is not my allergy. )
posted by larthegreat at 3:03 PM on February 21, 2017

Legal Nomads is this woman's travel, food and law blog and she has celiac. Here's her Japan travel guide.
posted by leslies at 3:18 PM on February 21, 2017

I'm not entirely sure if miso paste can be considered gluten-free, since it frequently includes wheat, barley and rye.

Buckwheat noodles, called soba, should be gluten-free, as they are made from millet. Depending on the location, there are different broths served as part of soba noodles. All will incorporate some soy sauce; some will include a bonito broth as well.

Your best bet may be just making your own food. You can buy o-tsukuri at any supermarket.

If you're in Japan in late spring and in the summer, you could probably live off of katsuo tataki. I know I do. If not katsuo tataki, I have o-tsukuri (sashimi) literally every night, along with a salad of tomato, avocado and onions, with black bean vinegar. I have high blood pressure so I actually have to stay away from miso and soy sauce and so on, so I use yuzu and black bean vinegar for almost everything. I also eat a lot of mizuna.

I was pretty sick with undiagnosed high blood pressure, so I noticed at the time if I ate salty food. I found that avoiding salt was a way to lose weight amazingly fast in Japan. No processed foods (lots of salt), no cheese, no fast food. Eating out I generally just ate o-tsukuri, because yaki-zakana (something you can order) has a lot of salt.

I was also eating eggs and yogurt and stuff like that. Almost no convenience store food (too high in salt). I kind of wonder what I ate! Not much.

If you still want to have the experience of eating out, but want to do it gluten-free, you could always seek out shojin-ryori. It's Buddhist-style vegetarian food, and it's very good. There will be miso and soy sauce, but a lot of the time it's just deep-fried pumpkin and lotus root. Rice is served with traditional salted pickles, or ground sesame.

Hope this helps!
posted by My Dad at 4:52 PM on February 21, 2017

A word of caution re: Legal Nomads blog--last time I read her she was anything but cautious about gluten. I remember being confused how "successful" she seemed to be with eating out and then read a post of hers about how she doesn't always adhere to the diet (doing things like just removing the bread from a sandwich!). She gets sick a lot. That said, her notes about kanji and other sources seem useful.)
posted by purple_bird at 4:58 PM on February 21, 2017

Soba is another one that is rarely truly gluten free, btw. Unfortunately because its tasty.
posted by fshgrl at 5:56 PM on February 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

We don't really want to eat protein bars for 14 days haha, so I'd really love any suggestions on things to pack. Obviously, nuts/trail mix, the aforementioned protein bars, and even a loaf of Scharr's gluten free bread (which unlike other gf breads, doesn't require refrigeration) are already on my list. We should have access to grocery stores for things like produce. (But since celiac is so rare in Asian countries, the store will be unlikely to carry specialty gf items, like bread.) I will also probably pack some gf instant noodles.

If you intend to bring any food items with you, make sure that you can take them through Customs. Also make sure any medications you take are permitted. For example, all stimulants are prohibited, period. Bringing an Epipen requires a special certificate from the Ministry of Health. I had to pass on a project in Japan because I am allergic to shellfish and I take a stimulant for ADHD.

Whatever you do, don't fail to declare anything. The penalties can be severe.

Like most countries, there are many plant products that are prohibited. Here is a paragraph from the website of the Seattle Consulate-General of Japan regarding foods:

"Before they can be brought to Japan, meat and egg products, vegetables, fruits, grains, beans, legumes, nuts and other plant products must undergo an inspection in the country of origin that satisfies Japanese standards, irrespective of intended use or quantity. These items must also be presented for quarantine inspection upon arrival in Japan with an inspection certificate or package stamp issued by originating country’s government. For animal and plant products brought from the U.S., the U.S. Department of Agriculture is usually the agency responsible for inspecting animal and plant products for export, and providing export inspection stamps on packaging or issuing the appropriate export certificate. For more information about quarantine inspection procedures related to the personal import of food, please refer to this website for meat or other animal products:; or this website for vegetables, fruits or other plant products: For information about obtaining USDA inspection certificates, please see the following website:"

Watch a few episodes of "Border Patrol" on Netflix.
posted by Altomentis at 7:16 PM on February 21, 2017

The best way to avoid being searched at customs and immigration when entering in Japan is to remove piercings, cover up tattoos and dress conservatively (slacks and golf shirt for a man, covered legs and arms for a woman). That way the people who have exposed tattoos will attract attention, not you.

I say this because I know people who have brought in undeclared epipens and antihistamines before.
posted by My Dad at 7:44 PM on February 21, 2017

Buckwheat noodles, called soba, should be gluten-free, as they are made from millet.

Zuh? Aren't they made of buckwheat?

But it's uncommon for soba to be 100% buckwheat. That exists, of course (I've had it), but most soba noodles are more like 80% buckwheat and 20% regular wheat.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 9:06 PM on February 21, 2017 [2 favorites]

Sorry, I was getting buckwheat (I am aware it is not a grain) mixed up with "barnyard grass", a kind of millet that used to be a staple outside of the city before World War II (white rice was too expensive for most people, who worked as sharecroppers, to eat).

In Fukui, where I live, soba noodles are a local staple, and are 100% buckwheat. City food is a bit different (i.e., not as good) as food you will find in more rural places like Fukui.
posted by My Dad at 9:39 PM on February 21, 2017

My girlfriend, who's a celiac, and I traveled through Japan for three weeks last year. We stayed mostly in AirBnBs and made our own breakfast. But we did go to lots of restaurants for lunch and dinner, using an allergy card and google translate, and generally had good experiences. The staff were very friendly and accommodating.

Sashimi, which every sushi place will offer, and steak (Kobe!) should always be fine. Pretty much all places offer plain rice, plain tofu is also fine. Quite a few of the Onigiri from the 7-11s etc. work and are tasty, you can take a picture of the ingredient list with google translate and it does the work for you (get a pocket wifi to do this cheaply, we used Ninja Wifi).

What always or often won't work are most sauces, including soy sauce and teriyaki; miso; sushi because of the sushi rice (often made with, I think, barley vinegar); sobu noodles (often not 100% buckwheat).

There's a gluten free restaurant in Tokyo that we went to twice because she enjoyed it so much - Little Bird Cafe. It's not fancy, but it has e.g. gluten free ramen and is in an enjoyable neighborhood.

We also had the Kanji for wheat, soy sauce, etc. memorized to check for them on ingredient lists. And she liked the Legal Nomads blog on Japan.
posted by insouciant at 10:39 PM on February 21, 2017 [3 favorites]

Sorry, strike the Kobe, didn't see your comment on not eating meat. Also, for what it's worth, she wanted to order tamagoyaki twice and both restaurants said that they used flour to make it.
posted by insouciant at 10:49 PM on February 21, 2017

Tamagoyaki probably has soy sauce, so don't eat that.

I'm having a really hard time coming up with safe foods for you. I can't even remember if daifuku (rice flower sweets filled with bean paste) have wheat flour as well, and I have almost never seen warnings about cross-contamination on any food.

By the way, be careful with drinks. There is a tea challed mugi-cha, literally wheat tea, so don't just assume that you're being served green tea and drink it. It's also sold in bottles and says 麦茶.
posted by LoonyLovegood at 10:59 PM on February 21, 2017

I'm a vegetarian who's been to Japan. I did resign myself to the fact I was likely unknowingly going to consume some fish products.

Cooking for yourself is surprisingly difficult when you are essentially illiterate--there's an awful lot of stuff in the grocery store where you're just not quite sure what it is. And that'd be fine if you ate meat or weren't worried about gluten, but, when you are, suddenly everything feels risky. However, you can make a meal out of tofu and vegetables. (I did buy far too soft tofu (see illiterate!), but it wasn't the end of the world.)

I was travelling for a conference and another vegetarian took someone who read Japanese to a convenience store and had them point out all the vegetarian onigiri (some brands have pictures, but not all), so I learned about four kanji and ate a bunch of onigiri. No idea of the cross-contamination risk, though--it likely has the same issues as sushi rice insouciant mentioned. If you're willing to pick meat out of things, the convenience stores sold salads that almost invariably had meat (I never saw a vegetarian one), but I think there were some salads with shrimp instead of ham or whatever. I want to say there were hard-boiled eggs as well.
posted by hoyland at 4:41 AM on February 22, 2017

If you're looking for another safe restaurant, add the Ain Soph chain to your list. They have vegan and gluten free options.

Some chains like Kaldi also carry gluten free items because they have a lot of foreign products. In Tokyo, National Azabu and Nissin World may also have a few items just in case you run out or can't take the items through customs.

Also take note to write down any hospitals or clinics near you that have doctors that speak English.

Food wise, supermarkets have plain rice, and depending on the season, baked sweet potatoes may be available (just plain roasted, nothing added).
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 6:26 AM on February 22, 2017

Chirashi don is probably a good bet for a staple if you are going to eat out - it's basically just a bowl of sushi rice with a bunch of sashimi on top. Just ask for it without the tomago/Tamagoyaki (egg omelet) because it's (inexplicably) made with flour.
posted by urbanlenny at 10:42 AM on February 22, 2017

I came specifically to mention Little Bird Cafe in Tokyo, which I see mentioned above. A friend of mine is traveling there right now and has been very happy to find that place.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 2:00 PM on February 22, 2017

In Fukui, where I live, soba noodles are a local staple, and are 100% buckwheat.

Wow, that's very surprising. Most people strongly prefer a mix--the 100% buckwheat soba has a texture and mouthfeel that can definitely put one off.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 7:19 PM on February 22, 2017

Ain Soph was delicious, but definitely on the pricier side.

100% buckwheat noodles have a very strong and distinct taste that not everyone likes. (I hate it.) Plus you don't know if they're not prepared with other kinds of flours nearby.

Some convenience stores have precut veggies and fruit, but I cannot guarantee no cross-contamination.
posted by LoonyLovegood at 7:29 AM on February 23, 2017

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