Monday, April 23, 2018

Japan Series 1: Eating in Japan - Kids, Food Issues and Tips and Tricks

Classic ramen in Gion, Kyoto
The first thing to say about eating in Japan is this: for people who are neither fussy eaters (aka: kids) or food intolerant / allergic, Japan is a food paradise.

Prepared food is tasty, filling and ranges in price from the very economical (you can feasibly spend as little as $3 - $4 AUD on a hot cooked meal) to the very high end (there are some banquets that'll set you back $500 a pop, but I can't tell you what they are like as I didn't do one!)

Taiyaki - Soft pastries filled with red bean paste or cream custard
in Kyoto
We travelled with:
- 1 adult with expansive tastes and no food issues
- 1 adult with Coeliac Disease
- 1 teenager with expansive tastes and no food issues
- 1 teenager with more limited tastes and gluten intolerance
- 1 child with limited tastes but no allergy or intolerance issues

Because Japanese food (outside of the curries) tends not to be very spicy, we found that it was mostly palatable to the two kids with more restricted tastes, so that was helpful.

However, eating in Japan as a Coeliac is a huge challenge. Coeliac Disease is virtually unknown in Japan - unlike those of us descended from the Highlands of Scotland, Japanese people do not have the genetic mutation for it to a large extent - and gluten free food is frustratingly difficult to reliably source.
Leaf pastries on Miyajima Island

Almost everything has wheat or barley in it. Even things that look safe (like sashimi) are often marinaded in soy sauce, which is wheat-based, and cooking stocks also often have wheat in them. Eating from restaurants is a crapshoot and one that you will almost certainly lose at least once (I did!)


In the bigger cities, you may be able to say "gluten free" and have some understanding, but you are more likely to get a good result if you are specific about the ingredients you need to avoid. You need to specify not just wheat, but also no:

- flour
- barley
- soy sauce
- teriyaki sauce

The Japanese word for wheat is "komugi", while the Japanese word for barley is "omugi". Here are the characters you want to look out for if buying packaged food:

  •  むぎ wheat; barley (n)
  • 小麦 こむぎ wheat (n)
  • 小麦粉 こむぎこ wheat flour (n)
  • 麦芽 ばくが malt (n)
  • 大麦 おおむぎ barley (n)
However, this is not a dead cert either, as Japanese food labelling laws are not as strict as Australia's, and some additives may not be listed.


There are many types of restaurant and street food commonly available in Japanese cities and towns, but the main general ones we encountered were:

Gluten free ramen - a rare jewel
1. Ramen and Udon: Noodle soup dishes and dry noodle dishes were absolutely ubiquitous and these tend to be the kinds of meals you see a lot at smaller neighbourhood places as well as bigger restaurants. Typically, the meal comes in a broth with an egg, vegetables and one or more kinds of meat as well as the noodles. The most common meats are pork and chicken and sometimes some kind of white fish ... but that is because they are the most common meats *everywhere* in Japan, and by far the cheapest.

2. Bento Boxes: These are available everywhere, not just in restaurants. You can get them in konbini (see below), at train stations, in department stores - everywhere. They come with the usual assortment of things you might expect to find in a decent bento here - sashimi (usually only a tiny amount), seaweed, pickled veg, some kind of sushi roll, sometimes tofu, sometimes a bit of fried chicken.

Japanese BBQ style in Nagoya
3. Cook Your Own BBQ style restaurants: These are everywhere and they are very similar to the style that in Australia we most often call Korean BBQ. You get your own raw ingredients - either presented to you on a platter in higher end places, or you select them from a buffet in more local restaurants - and cook them yourself on a grill at the centre of the table.

If you are careful to avoid sauces of all kinds and any meat with a marinade, this can be a very good option for Coeliacs, as you can control the input to a large degree. The kids also enjoy it and the food is very tasty.

However, price-wise, this is not really a daily option, as a meal for 5 people at one of these places will set you back at least $80 and more typically $100 - $120. (Which is still not bad value, but more than most family travellers can spend on every single dinner!)

4. Sushi restaurants: There are many, many, many varieties of these, from really high-end places to hole-in-the-wall outlets.

Salmon and baked tater at Sizzlers
5. Western and other cuisine style restaurants and cafes: There are lots of chains that you will recognise in Japan. Maccers is everywhere, and it is exactly like every other Maccers you have ever been to. KFC is less ubiquitous, but it's there. Starbucks is like a kind of coffee virus, it has insinuated itself into every corner (even an artisan street in Kyoto, and a traditional handicraft market on Miyajima Island, much to our astonishment). Sizzlers is around. Wolfgang Puck is there. Bronco Billys (American steakhouse chain) is there. They even have Guzman Y Gomez in Tokyo.

We saw Indian restaurants, Chinese restaurants,
Mixed salad plate from Sizzlers
several Korean restaurants, and several American-themed outfits. There is a burger chain called Mos, which apparently does awesome burgers and has gluten free options BUT not suitable for Coeliacs as they use shared utensils and cooking surfaces (good for gluten intolerants like my daughter though, where contamination isn't really an issue).

Most of these places do the same kind of food they do in Australia, but the prep methods may not be the same. My first and worst glutening in Japan happened at the Wolfgang Puck in Harajuku, ordering something that should've been safe, and would've been in Melbourne.

Gluten free fried chicken at the Little Bird Cafe in Shibuya, Tokyo
My advice is that Western-style places are great for kids to give them a touch of the familiar every now and then, but should be treated with caution by Coeliacs. If you are going to eat at any, the safest bets are self-BBQ, steakhouses and Sizzlers, where you can get a plain steak or grilled salmon and then self select safe items from the salad bar. We had a lovely meal at a Sizzlers in Suidobashi in Tokyo with an old schoolfriend of mine, and it did not make me sick!


Basically, we found that food purchasing options came down to four main types. Types 1 and 2 are suitable for Coeliacs; Type 3 can be with adjustment; but Type 4 is absolutely no go for anyone with a gluten intolerance or Coeliac disease.

Savoury mince with egg (home cooked) (Kyoto)
Type 1: Buy raw ingredients and cook your own or eat raw 
If you have access to a kitchen or even a partial kitchen (ie if you are staying in an apartment rather than a hotel room), buying ingredients and cooking some of your own meals can be a great option when travelling with a family or working around food issues.

We were able to do this in every location except Tokyo, where our room in Shibuya was too small and basic to allow for cooking and there was very limited access to fresh food anyway.

Japanese supermarkets are not dissimilar on the whole to Australian supermarkets - fresh and cold food on the perimeter, packaged goods on the inside or a different floor in some cases, a separate section or floor for toiletries, cleaning and personal products.

Fruit plate in Tokyo
The kinds of foods available overlap considerably, but there are noticeable differences. The fish section is usually bigger than the meat section, and the kinds of veg available are not always the same as we see. Pork, chicken and beef are all obtainable, but beef is really expensive and you can only get thinly sliced varieties for quick frying.

One part of the seafood and fish section at a supermarket in Kyoto

Pork, chicken and white fish are all cheaper than they are in Australia; veggies are mostly around the same price. Some fruit is horrifically expensive (eg strawbs) but other fruit is well-priced - I mostly ate apples, bananas, mandarins and tinned peaches.

Rice is cheaper; most packaged goods are cheaper; eggs and dairy are about the same. Forget about lamb - you won't see it in a Japanese supermarket. I'm told you can get it from super-specialty shops for about a squillionty dollars if you really must.

Bento box
You can also find butchers, fruit & veg shops, and many, many bakeries in any of the marketing areas in the cities outside of Tokyo.

Cost-wise, to give an idea, we spent about 12,000Y ($145AUD or so) on the fixings for 5 family dinners and 6 family breakfasts while in
Eating from the salad bar in Kyoto Station!
Kyoto, which included 2 chicken-based meals, 2 pork-based meals and 1 beef meal. Breakfast was cereal, toast and eggs for the "normals", and fruit / eggs / white rice for me. That comes out as about $4 a head for the dinners, and while you can certainly find meals that cheap at some little restaurants, you can't find Coeliac-friendly ones in that price range!

Type 2: Konbini (convenience store) meals or snacks / Vending machine food and drinks
Konbini in Japan are ubiquitous in a way that it's hard to fully appreciate until you see it. There is literally one on every street corner, everywhere you go. (Well, granted, I did not go north). The main three chains are 7/11, Lawson's and FamilyMart. The 7/11s are particularly useful, as they also house international ATMs where you can extract cash from your Australian bank accounts or via Travelex cards if you have one.

The konbinis have a full array of meals to go and they are high quality foods on the whole - bento boxes, rice ball snacks of various kinds, heatable meals that they will heat for you if you ask. Konbini food is cheap-ish and quick and easy, and they also sell preheated fast food type stuff that can make an easy quick hunger-stopper for kids (eg chicken nuggets).

Konbini food
For Coeliacs, 90% of konbini food is risky, BUT Lawsons and FamilyMart both sell a line of rice balls that have no gluten. You can eat the plain salted rice balls, the rice balls with flaked salmon, and the rice balls with seaweed and sesame.

Type 3: Restaurant meals
Restaurants vary greatly in type, cost, accessibility and allergy-friendliness. Ironically (or perhaps not?) we had the best success with little neighbourhood places, and the least success with fancier places.

Our best experience of all was in Shibuya, Tokyo, where we went (twice!) to Tokyo's one and only fully gluten free restaurant - the Little Bird Cafe. The Little Bird does a mixture of Western and Japanese food and everything it serves is delicious and totally Coeliac-safe. I completely recommend it for both family eating and gluten free eating.

Our only really successful Japanese banquet style eating was at the ryokan (traditional Japanese hotel) in Yudanaka, where my food issues were well catered for and I got to have the full experience. If you can afford it, I would recommend at least one night in a good-quality ryokan, both for the cultural and the food experience - the kids adored it and it was such a treat for me to be able to safely try the full range of Japanese cuisine.

Gluten free gyoza at the Little Bird Cafe in Shibuya, Tokyo
In terms of sweets, Coeliacs are, on the whole, SOL. There is one shining, glorious exception in Kyoto - a gelato shop in the covered market near where we stayed, which sells delicious gluten free gelato. Because we were there in spring, I got to try sakura-flavoured gelato, and it literally made my entire day.

Banquet breakfast at the ryokan


Type 4: Street food
Many to most places, especially near markets and tourist attractions, have street vendors selling food, both hot and cold, sweet and savoury.

Sweet rice balls

Everything from octopus balls to sweet rice balls to pastry fish, and much more, is on offer. The kids really enjoyed having the chance to sample things as we walked around. Needless to say ... Coeliacs should not!

Spiced chicken on a stick at a food market in Hiroshima


Our experience was that, with certain notable exceptions (ie beef), fresh food was either similarly priced to Australia or else a bit cheaper. Cooked food in restaurants tended cheaper unless you ordered beef, at which time it became markedly more expensive. Konbini food was very reasonably priced for light meals, a bit pricier for packaged snacks. 

Gohan (rice) and tuna
Here are a few tips we picked up:

1. If you want to buy chocolate, go to the supermarket - konbini chocolate is about double the price.

2. If you want to buy packaged candy to take home as souvenirs, including weird flavours of Kit Kat, go to a Don Quijote. This is Japan's equivalent to our $2 Shops but much, much, MUCH bigger and more extensive. They have ALL the things. Including packaged candy!

Butterbeer and me!
3. If you want to go to noodle shops or smaller restaurants with other people and you are the only Coeliac, try this:

Step 1: Go with your travelling companions to most local cheap or mid priced restaurants. Self order ones are best.

Step 2: Order a large bowl of plain gohan (white rice). This is an option everywhere except fancy places.

Step 3: When your rice arrives, quietly open a tin of sea chicken (tuna) in oil and combine with rice. The brand I ate safely is Hagoromo.

Soy Sauce Shop
4. Do not assume that there will be many (or any) gluten free options at the big theme parks. We went to Universal Studios Japan in Osaka and all I was able to consume from the park was fruit I had brought in my bag, popcorn, and Butterbeer from the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. (It was nice though :-)

5. Take your own sauces from home! You will be able to buy things like salt, pepper, honey, oil etc easily in the supermarkets, but gluten free soy, chilli sauce, or even salad dressing is a huge challenge. There was an ENTIRE SHOP dedicated to soy sauce of hundreds of varieties on Miyajima Island, and not one of them was gluten free!


It is possible to eat well, relatively cheaply and have fun with food in Japan, even with food challenges, but you do need to work a bit for it. I was sometimes hungry in the days when I couldn't find lunchables easily, but I did not starve, and I enjoyed what I was able to eat all the more. 

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