Gluten-Free Travel: Fast Food in Tokyo, Japan
So you're going to Japan. Maybe you're going on vacation. Maybe you're going for a job. Either way, you're going to be there for a while and you're not sure what you, as someone who can't eat gluten, can eat.
Japan is truly a land of convenience foods. So many people are perpetually in a hurry or have no other way to feed themselves that you can get a fairly decent meal in a hurry just about anywhere. From McDonald's to gyuudon (beef bowl), kaiten-zushi to convenience store bentos, there are all kinds of options everywhere for eating on the go.
And you, the gluten-intolerant, can't eat hardly any of them.
Japan is not big on allergies. Oh, they list allergens on foods. Sometimes. And most times you can go to a company website and see what contains wheat (most everything). But it seems that the prevailing thought is that babies have allergies and then grow out of them. Adults do not have allergies. So a lot of foods don't list allergens beyond maybe bolding the text of the major 7 or 8, and most allergy-friendly foods you find online are the size you might expect a baby would eat. (Tiny.) And add to that the fact that gluten isn't a "thing" in Japan. No one really knows what it is. Sometimes even if you explain what the heck you need, people won't understand. It's hard enough getting them to make a burger without mayo on it, much less trying to totally special order something (I never tried ordering without a bun because I knew it would cause absolute brain breakage).
So what exactly are your options? Let's take a look.
(Note: I'm only able to check if things contain wheat. Most stuff doesn't contain barley, but be aware that it could. Barley mixed with rice is definitely a thing, so if you see something that looks kind of like grains of oatmeal in your rice, don't eat it.)
Where You're Likely to Find Meals
Yoshinoya is the "big" beef bowl (gyuudon) chain in Japan. You'll recognize it easily with its bright orange signs. It actually has some overseas locations, but never assume that allergens are the same as they are back home.
Of course, Japanese foods often mean soy sauce. So a lot of the foods here are going to be no-nos right from the get go. Unfortunately Yoshinoya has very very little food for gluten free folks. You can have rice, miso soup, an egg (raw or half-boiled), and kimchi.
Conclusion: That's not exactly a set lunch there, but you might be able to hobble it together somehow with the tickets by doing a la carte.
Mos Burger is the McDonald's of Japan, and many people prefer its "wa-fuu" style to its American cousin. But does being more Japaneezy mean fewer food options for folks with gluten issues?
Well, for the kiddos there's a ketchup-flavored pork burger on a rice cake bun. But apart from that you're going to have a little trouble. The fries and chips are fried in the same fryers as other items, so you can eat those at your own risk. The green salad is safe, but the dressing is not. The drinks are all fine, and the issue with the frankfurter is that it's cooked on the same cookware as other items. For dessert, anything but the pie is okay, but be aware that like the frankfurter it's prepared on a shared space.
Conclusion: If you don't mind the risk of fryers or shared cooking space, then you might get a whole meal here. Otherwise, don't bother.
Matsuya is another one of those "beef bowl" restaurants where you purchase your food by buying a ticket and slurping your gyuu-meshi at a counter with a dozen other salarymen.
Of course, this is one of those cases where basically everything on the menu is full of wheat. Wheat wheat wheat. Soy sauce = wheat. Curry = wheat. But there is actually ONE MEAL that you can get and it will be fairly filling at nearly 1000 calories. It's the Gyuu Yaki Niku Teishoku 牛焼肉定食. It has grilled meat, rice, miso soup and a green salad (the French dressing--that's the white one--is okay). It's one of the more expensive meals, which means it's something like 600 yen. Be sure you don't get any other yaki niku teishoku, as they do contain wheat.
There are a few other menu items you can have, like the pork soup 豚汁 or grilled fish 焼魚, and you could feasibly build yourself a meal a la carte this way. Avoid the hamburger, sausage, and kimchi, as they all contain wheat.
Conclusion: You can either get a meal or build one, and for relatively cheap. Matsuyas are everywhere, and you could get your meal to-go if need be.
It's a little difficult to find a Subway in Japan. They exist and people certainly eat there, but I always find I have to poke around a bit to find one. Of course, just like in the US their main thing is sandwiches, but most sandwiches can also be purchased as a salad. Ta-da! They're much smaller than their US counterparts, and the staff are very meticulous in making them (and of course, you only get 2 little slices of olives unless your server is really generous), but they do the trick. Okay, maybe two of them does the trick.
The meats you may want to avoid are the ham, tandoori chicken, dry sausage and roast chicken. These all have a potential for being cross contaminated at the factory level. Definitely avoid the teriyaki chicken. The minestrone is okay. The potatoes are not. The drinks are fine. The desserts are not. Most of the sauces are okay, but not the wasabi dressing.
Conclusion: If you can get over the fact that it's a sandwich shop and there's bread EVERYWHERE, there are actually a lot of salad options, as well as a lot of dressing options. But it's slim on side items. (I would literally buy two Subway salads.)
It's pretty easy to find a place advertising cheap sushi at around 100-300 yen per plate. And it's not always awful (okay, 100 yen sushi is probably awful). And sushi is pretty gluten-friendly if you just avoid the soy sauce. So what can you eat?
First of all, avoid anything with sauce on it. I would say to avoid mayo as well (mayo sometimes contains wheat for ... some reason). Stick to straight-up fish on rice. Salmon and tuna are nice, as well as squid, octopus, and a few other fishies. Don't eat the egg, as it is usually flavored with soy sauce. If you see rolls, the ones with plain tuna or cucumber are fine, but I would stay away from much else. Wasabi is always iffy, but you can usually ask the chef in the middle of the restaurant to make you a plate without.
Conclusion: Sauces are a no-no, and if you're not sure what it is, don't eat it! Plain fish is probably safest. If you can ask the chef, ask the chef.
Yakitori is great. It's simple. It's meat. But is it gluten free? Well, that depends. This is one of those cases where you're going to want to ask the shop owner/cook what and how they're cooking things. Meat on a stick should be safe, but if it's marinated or brushed with any kind of sauce, suddenly it can be your worst nightmare. Make sure that the salt (shio) yakitori is being cooked with only salt (not a marinade) and that it's being cooked on a part of the grill dedicated to shio-only. The other option is usually tare (tah-ray) flavor, and that's where the gluten comes in.
You can get a lot of different parts of the chicken (and sometimes things that aren't chicken at all) at a yakitori place. Some options are skin, cartilage, and hearts. As long as they are shio-flavor, they should be fine.
Conclusion: A good option for meat-lovers, but use caution.
Places Where You Might Find Some Snacks, but Likely No Meals
These are everywhere. Sometimes there will be two or three within a block. And it's fun to eat at American chains to compare them to the American version. But what options does the golden arches provide in Japan?
Getting a burger without a bun is indeed an option, but making a special order might be a bigger problem than one would think. For some reason Japan does not like special orders. There's this idea that things come as a set for a reason. But you can always try.
Unlike in America, the fries and hash browns do not contain wheat. They are also not listed as sharing fryers with other items. (I lived on McDonald's fries for a while and believe me, they are tastier than in America.) You can also have a side salad without dressing or a sundae. For drinks there are a few restrictions. The cafe mocha and caramel latte (ice and hot) are NOT safe.
Conclusion: For a quick snack of ice cream and fries then McDonald's is a great choice. But man cannot live on ice cream and fries alone.
Avoid These Altogether
I once read that this is the oldest American fast food chain in Japan. I'm not sure if that's true—I think it is—but in any case, it's fairly ubiquitous as a result. But we know that the U.S. KFC is a gluten-free desert. How about Japan?
It's not much better. There are a few items that don't contain wheat, but they all come with a cross-contamination warning. These include the corn and fries and a few drinks. The frozen chocolate parfait does not have such a warning, so you can assume it's safe, but if I know parfaits in Japan I know they often contain cereal which may contain barley malt. Check before ordering that it does not contain cereal. I tried to look at the picture but couldn't tell what that stuff was on top. Be careful.
Conclusion: Don't go here.
No, seriously, don't even go to a ramen shop. There is nothing for you there.