If you’re gluten intolerant, you can still eat very well in Tokyo. You just have to do a little planning and take some precautions. Here is our complete guide to gluten-free Tokyo.
Sushi © mujitra
In a hurry? Scroll down for our restaurant picks and useful phrases. Otherwise, check out the following important background information. And, if you're going to Kyoto, check out our Gluten-Free Kyoto page.
Can You Eat Gluten-Free in Japan?
Although rice is the traditional staple of the Japanese diet, gluten is still present in a lot of Japanese food. The main problem is soy sauce, which is usually made with wheat. Soy sauce is used both in the preparation and consumption of a LOT of Japanese dishes, so take care! Luckily, gluten-free soy sauce (tamari) is available in Tokyo and we give the details of where to buy it below.
While traveling in Japan, keep in mind that few Japanese have heard of celiac disease or gluten intolerance. Compared with Westerners, very few Japanese suffer from this condition. Also remember that Japanese diners don’t usually ask a chef or a restaurant to modify their dishes. Indeed, most Japanese would consider it rude to make such requests. So do not be surprised if a restaurant refuses outright to accommodate your needs. There’s no point in getting angry: Just look for another restaurant that will (see some of our recommendations below).
Onigiri (rice ball) © tamaiyuya
Generally Safe, Gluten-Free Foods in Japan
- onigiri (rice balls) that don’t contain soy sauce
- mochi and mochi-based sweets
- yakitori flavored with salt rather than soy sauce-based sauces
- sushi prepared without soy sauce (so avoid unagi)
- sweet potatoes (common street snack)
- soba noodles if they are made with pure soba (buckwheat)
- seaweed that is not flavored with soy sauce
- harusame noodles made with rice, sweet potato etc
- yakiniku or Korean barbecue (but avoid soy sauce-based sauces)
Japanese sweets (yokan) © kankan
Japanese Foods with Gluten to Avoid
- yakitori prepared with soy sauce-based sauce
- udon noodles (made from wheat)
- ramen noodles (made from wheat)
- okonomiyaki (the batter and the sauce usually contain gluten)
- mugi-cha (barley tea)
- miso or miso soup made with miso that contains wheat (most does)
Gluten-Free: Where and What to Eat in Tokyo
- Convenience stores: Unlike the ones back home, Japanese convenience stores sell a wide variety of healthy, edible food. Onigiri (rice balls) made without soy sauce are a good choice for snacks and light meals. Some convenience stores also sell hard-boiled eggs, which make a good breakfast when combined with onigiri.
- Department store food floors: Almost all Tokyo department stores have basement food floors where you can choose from a wide selection of raw and prepared foods. Some good choices are the ready-made sushi assortments, the fruit and vegetables, and the Japanese sweets made with mocha and sweet beans.
- Automatic (conveyor belt) sushi restaurants: You’ll find automatic sushi restaurants in all the main centers of Tokyo. Most of the dishes are safe, but be careful of items like unagi (eel), which is coated with a sauce that contains soy sauce.
- Yakitori restaurants: Many yakitori restaurants will give you the option of having items prepared “shio yaki” (cooked with salt) rather than the standard sauce (which contains soy sauce). You can ask if this is possible. The question is: “Shio-yaki dekimasu ka?” Or, in Japanese: 塩焼き出来ますか。
- Vegetarian/vegan restaurants: Many Japanese restaurants are completely unfamiliar with the concept of gluten-free, but the staff at most vegetarian and vegan places will at least have heard of it. However, only about half will have gluten-free dishes on their menus. We list some good vegan/vegetarian restaurants below that offer gluten-free choices.
- Tofu restaurants: Tofu is generally a safe choice in Japan, but beware of tofu dishes that contain soy sauce. It helps to ask when you enter.
Tofu © puresugar
Recommended Gluten-Free Restaurants in Tokyo
These are some of our favorite gluten-free restaurants in Tokyo. Note that not all the dishes they serve are gluten free. But, the staff at these places understand gluten free and celiac disease and at least some of their menu items contain no gluten.
- Little Bird Glutenfree Café: A bit out of the way, near Yoyogi-koen Station on the Chiyoda subway line, this all gluten-free restaurant serves a wide menu of gluten-free dishes. The menu is in English and Japanese and has many Western dishes like pasta, as well as a few Japanese dishes traditionally made with wheat but re-engineered without any gluten whatsoever (for example: udon noodles). For many gluten-free travelers to Tokyo, this place becomes like a second home.
- Tokyo Shiba Tofuya Ukai: Down near Tokyo Tower and Hamamatsucho, this sublime tofu specialist will open your mind to what is possible with the humble bean curd. Try to get someone from your accommodation to call in advance to request a fully gluten-free meal.
- DevaDeva Café: This hip Indian-inspired vegetarian restaurant in the suburb of Kichijoji has several gluten-free options on its menu. It’s a bit of a hike to get there from central Tokyo, but it’s great if you plan on exploring this interesting area.
- Ukaitei: If you’re seeking a carnivorous and gluten-free meal, consider this teppanyaki specialist in Harajuku. It’s pricey but worth it for the sublime wagyu (Japanese beef) that they serve. Consider going at lunch to save some money. You’ll have to inform your server that you are gluten-free in order to keep soy sauce out of your dishes.
Useful Phrases and Celiac Warning Text
- I cannot eat food that contains gluten. So I cannot eat anything made with wheat, rye or barley. That means that I cannot eat soy sauce that contains wheat or miso that contains wheat.
- I have a serious disease called celiac disease, so that I cannot eat food that contains gluten. So I cannot eat anything made with wheat, rye or barley. That means that I cannot eat soy sauce that contains wheat or miso that contains wheat.
- Does this contain wheat?
- Does this contain barley?
- Does this contain soy sauce?
- Can you do shio-yaki (salt-flavored)?
Where To Buy Gluten-Free Soy Sauce in Tokyo
One great way to enjoy the real taste of Japanese food in Tokyo restaurants or back at your hotel is to carry your own bottle of gluten-free soy sauce (or, actually, tamari, which is similar).
Here are two places that usually carry gluten-free soy sauce or tamari:
Seijo Ishii Supermarket
This is on the west side of Tokyo Station in the Shinmarunouchi Building. Here’s how to get there:
Go out the Marunouchi side exits of Tokyo Station (these are on the west side of the station). Look for the Shinmarunouchi Building:
Shinmarunouchi Building - image © Chris Rowthorn
Go to the basement (B1) floor of the building via the escalator and look for Seijo Ishii Supermarket:
Seijo Ishii Supermarket - image © Chris Rowthorn
Look for the soy sauce section:
Soy Sauce Section - image © Chris Rowthorn
Find Denemon Tamari, which is labeled only in Japanese (see pic below). This is made with ONLY soybeans and salt, and is thus gluten-free. Note that this may be out of stock or they may be carrying another brand of gluten-free soy sauce or tamari. You might have to ask a staff member to help you find what you’re looking for. If necessary, show them the picture below.
Gluten-Free Soy Sauce - image © Chris Rowthorn
Natural Mart Market
This natural food store is located in Hiroo, which is within walking distance of Roppongi, and quite close to Hiroo Station on the Hibiya subway line. The operators of this store are very familiar with the issue of gluten intolerance and they usually stock at least one brand of gluten-free soy sauce or tamari.
Here’s a picture of the front of the shop:
Natural Mart in Hiroo - image © Chris Rowthorn
Tokyo Vacation Checklist
- For all the essentials in a brief overview, see my First Time In Tokyo guide
- Check Tokyo accommodation availability and pricing on Booking.com – usually you can reserve a room with no upfront payment. Pay when you check out. Free cancellations too
- Need tips on where to stay? See my one page guide Where To Stay In Tokyo
- You can buy a Japan SIM card online for collection on arrival at Tokyo Narita or Haneda airports. Or rent an unlimited data pocket wifi router
- See my comprehensive Packing List For Japan
- Compare airline flight prices and timings for the best Japan flight deals. Check my guides to arriving at Narita Airport and at Haneda Airport.
- If you're visiting more than one city, you might save money with a Japan Rail Pass – see if it's worth it for you
- A prepaid Suica card makes travelling around Tokyo much easier - here's how
- World Nomads offers simple and flexible travel insurance. Buy at home or while traveling and claim online from anywhere in the world