Special diets are hard. And traveling abroad with any sort of dietary restriction—especially in a country that doesn’t speak English—can seem impossible. But it is doable! Having lived in Japan for over a month on a gluten-free diet, I am here to give you some tips on how to navigate Japan while meeting your dietary needs.
There are some people who avoid travel altogether because of food allergies or other dietary needs. My mom is one of them. She won’t even consider the possibility of traveling to Japan with me, because she has celiac disease and is worried about what she could eat. If you have concerns like she does, hopefully this will help you see that you can make it in Japan.
So here are my tips for how to survive in Japan.
1. Do your research.
This should be the first thing you do before traveling to any foreign country, just so you can have a heads up before you get there.
Whether you have something like celiac disease, a peanut allergy, or you choose to be vegetarian, chances are someone who has the same (or a similar) dietary restriction has already gone to Japan and written about it. The internet is a powerful tool, and it can help you a lot in this case.
This is super important if you have a rarer allergy or something that is not as common in Japan. When I lived there, I was sick and thought I had celiac disease. I asked the doctor if he could test for it, and he didn’t even know what it was. I explained it to him and all he said was, “If you have that, I have absolutely no idea what you can eat.” When I finally did get tested, they literally had to mail my blood to the U.S. because no hospital in Japan could do the test. It was that uncommon.
There are dietary needs in Japan that are pretty common. Lactose intolerance, egg allergies, even diabetes are probably pretty well known. But if you’re allergic to something like ginger, you’ll need to be a bit more careful.
If you research your specific needs, there are some other options you can find that you might not have considered. For example, when I was there I easily found gluten-free soy sauce in my local grocery store. It even had a big green label by it advertising it to people with wheat allergies. I also learned that soba noodles are made of buckwheat, and you can get 100% soba noodles that are completely gluten free. Poke around and learn as much as you can before you get there.
2. Cooking your own food is the best way to go…
…in my opinion. But you’ll need to learn some Japanese.
You know that people have good intentions, but sometimes they really don’t understand what you need. If you have a severe allergy or other health restriction, I completely believe that cooking your own meals is your safest bet. Even when you can speak the same language as your waiter, sometimes things get messed up, or there are misunderstandings.
When looking at places to stay in Japan, try to get a place that has some sort of kitchen facility you can use, even if it’s small (which it probably will be). This gives you so many possibilities!
First off, you’ll need to learn to read a little bit. You’re probably used to reading labels in the U.S., and Japan is also very good at listing all the ingredients in food items. So learn how to read what you can’t eat, or what you need to be careful with, to make sure it isn’t in the food you are buying.
To get you started, here are some basic characters for common allergies.
Milk – 牛乳 gyuunyuu
Eggs – 卵, 玉子 tamago (I’ve seen both kanji used, but the first seems more common)
Peanuts – ピーナッツ piinatsu
Tree Nuts – 胡桃 kurumi (walnut), アーモンド aamondo (almond), 松の実 matsu no mi (pine nut), ブラジルナッツ burajiru natsu (Brazil nut), ピーカン piikan (pecan)
Soy – 豆 mame (this just means bean, so you’ll need to look more into soy)
Wheat – 小麦 komugi
Barley – 大麦 oomugi
Rye – ライ麦 raimugi
Fish – 魚 sakana
Shellfish – 貝 kai
Consider these different foods when you are shopping:
· Rice – Rice is your best friend! Rice is a staple of Japanese food. And it’s pretty easy to get. If you’re there long term, look into buying a bag based on how long your stay. A $20 bag of rice can actually last one person quite a while. If you’re only there for a short time period, most stores sell single servings of rice you can just microwave. This is a great food for most special diets. If you are low carb or diabetic, however, there are still plenty of other options.
· Vegetables – Japanese vegetables are amazing, and very different from what we have in the U.S. The produce in Japan tends to be super fresh, and grocery stores can be very particular on making sure only the really nice looking carrots are out on display (if you want the rejects, there are some hidden grocery stores for that). Vegetables are good for almost every special diet, and a great low carb option for a meal. They also tend to be reasonably priced, as opposed to fruit. Take this chance abroad to try out a new vegetable and make it a little adventure as you try to figure out how to cook a daikon.
· Chicken and Pork – Protein is pretty important when cooking for yourself, and why not stick with something familiar? One thing I loved in Japan was that these meats were available in smaller portions that were perfect for dinner for one or two people. They also had different cuts that let you be a bit more creative in what you make. Man, do I miss being able to get thinly sliced pork belly without going to the deli counter. Beef is there too, of course, but it tends to be more expensive.
· Fish – Guys. Japan is an island. An island. The fish is absolutely amazing. You can buy any sort of fish you want in basically any grocery store (yes, even octopus), and it’s so fresh and so delicious. It’s also dirt cheap. If you want some salmon filets in the U.S. you better be looking at taking out a second mortgage on your home. But in Japan, it’s even cheaper than the chicken sometimes. If you’re going to be daring and get some strange sort of fish, just make sure you look up how to cook it. But please enjoy the seafood if you can.
· Tofu – Tofu is the redheaded stepchild of the protein world. And it absolutely should not be. If you have problems with soy, definitely stay away from it. But if you don’t, throw it into your diet immediately. If you’re worried about the texture, try all of them. There’s silky tofu that’s basically the consistency of pudding, and then it goes all the way to firm tofu which is certainly not pudding-like in any way (unless you make pudding very wrong). Dabble in tofu until you find what you like. If your worried about flavor, don’t be. Tofu is practically flavorless, and will pretty much taste like whatever you put it in. Tofu in miso soup? Tastes like miso. Tofu in soy sauce? Tastes like soy sauce. Tofu is one of the most versatile proteins you can get in Japan, and it’s great for people worried about their dietary restrictions. Also, it’s ridiculously cheap. Give it a whirl, and if you don’t like it, that’s your loss.
· Fruit – Okay, I’ll admit it. Fruit in Japan is so much better than it is in the U.S. It would be a great addition to any restricted diet or a normal diet for that matter. The only problem is the price. Like vegetables, grocery stores only like to put out the fruit that is the best looking. Unlike vegetables, they make the price match. It’s definitely good for a treat, and a lot of Japanese people incorporate fruits into their desserts. If you can find it cheap, you are better than me, because I never could. But it’s still a great option for people who want to add more to their homemade food.
These are just some general suggestions. Take some time in the grocery store to look at things that seem interesting. Read labels diligently, and don’t be afraid to ask one of the workers if you need help. With some basic Japanese, you can easily ask if the shrimp chips contain soy or where the gluten-free soy sauce might be. Grocery store people are really nice.
I know cooking while on vacation isn’t ideal, but it sure beats being sick. If you want to spend a whole day out exploring, make your food the night before and get a little bento box from the dollar store so you can have fun all day long.
3. If you have to eat out, you can.
But you’ll need to learn some Japanese. Or have a friend who speaks Japanese and totally understands your situation.
Just like restaurants in the U.S., restaurants in Japan are aware of food allergies or other dietary needs. And just like U.S. restaurants, it can really be hit or miss. Sometimes a restaurant will be very diligent in making sure there isn’t even the possibility of cross-contamination. And sometimes they’ll advise you not to eat there.
Luckily, even though some allergies are less common there, if you go to a place that is more geared towards foreigners, you might be able to find something. My friend found a restaurant right by Tokyo Tower with this sign out front.
“Gluten-free” is written in English (though the Japanese is advertising 100% soba noodles), so this is clearly meant for foreigners. If you’re in a bigger city like Tokyo, you may be lucky enough to find places like this.
It is much better if you or someone in your party can really explain the situation to the server. I personally don’t know if I would take my mother to a restaurant and really feel comfortable, but if you feel alright with it, go ahead. Japanese restaurants can have really good food, and eating out is such a fun part of traveling. For certain diets, such as vegetarian, low carb, or minor allergies, I think you would be totally fine in a restaurant setting. But if you have major concerns (like I know my mom would), I would still stick with making your own food.
Sometimes, that isn’t an option and you just have to grab food on the run. If that’s the case, and you are worried about a restaurant, try a conbini. You can get pre-made food there for decent prices (sometimes they even warm it up!), and you can read the label. Plus, conbini food is amazing.
4. You know yourself best.
Everything I’ve said is just based off my personal experience and the concerns I had in Japan. In the end, you know what is right for you. My mom can’t even be in the kitchen when we are cooking with wheat, but some gluten intolerant people can still manage a slice of pizza occasionally. Everyone is different.
Luckily for us, Japan is a developed country, and there are actually quite a few options for people with special diets. Hopefully, these suggestions help you see that your dietary needs shouldn’t have to restrict your travel, especially when going to a place that’s as amazing as Japan.
So get out there and have fun! Just make sure you take care of yourself.