Gluten-Free Travel: Convenience Stores in Japan
Convenience stores are all over the place in Japan. In Tokyo it's unusual if you don't live or work within a block of about sixty bajillion of them. Most of these stores are big chains (Lawson, Family Mart, AM/PM, Mini Stop, etc.) but there are a few smaller establishments as well.
Unlike convenience stores or gas stations in America, the "conbini" is a one-stop shop for just about everything you might need at 2 in the morning. You can get a meal, ice cream, a magazine, laundry detergent, batteries, fresh vegetables, milk, juice, eggs, ham, booze, porn, whatever you might need. And most of them are open 24 hours. They really are convenient. You can even pay your bills there. Or buy concert tickets. Or get stickers for throwing out your large garbage. There are ATMs. There are fax machines. Some of them even have dry cleaning services.
Whether you're in Japan for a short while or a long stay, you'll probably go to the convenience store. And sometimes you might even want to grab a bite to eat. But what should you eat if gluten is your enemy? What is safe? Here are some tips to eating gluten free at the Japanese convenience store!
First: Let's establish what we're looking for. 小麦 (wheat: komugi) 大麦 (barley: oomugi) If the food item lists allergens, komugi should appear if it contains wheat. But barley is trickier. If you're looking at bentos (lunch boxes), onigiri (rice balls) or just rice in general, watch out for 大麦.
Be wary also of 加工でんぷん. That's your modified food starch. It may come from a wheat source, and if it is then 小麦 will be listed as an allergen ... if the food product lists allergens at all.
Also check for 水飴, which is a common sweetener. This can be made from sweet potatoes or barley, and it may be listed as 麦水飴 if derived from barley. But don't count on it. Japanese ingredients labels are notoriously awful as far as being specific about ingredients.
Fried Items/Fast Food
Just about every Japanese convenience store has a selection of hot fast food type items. Usually these are things like fried chicken, french fries, and hot dogs on sticks. (If you don't have a gluten problem, I highly recommend the Famichiki after wringing it out with several paper towels.) Some of these foods might list allergens on the display and some might not. One should generally assume that all fried items might be prepared in the same fryer as other fried items, and if you wish to take that risk, take that risk.
I looked at the websites for four different convenience stores: Family Mart, Lawson, Mini Stop and 7-11. Assume that the "fried potatoes" at all stores are iffy due to the fryer issue. At 7-11 there are two types listed, and one is safe and one isn't. I wouldn't risk it in that case. Most stores have a frankfurter on a stick which should be safe, but in 7-11's case it's a regional issue. Some areas have wheat in the frank and some don't. I wouldn't risk it. You never know if a frank accidentally went to the wrong area.
Nikuman (a steamed bun filled with something) are delicious. They are also definitely not gluten free.
Mini Stop offers soft serve ice cream in a cup. It's not the best ever, but it does the job.
A bento is basically a meal with rice and one or more dishes to go with the rice. Sometimes it's nothing more than meat. Sometimes there's a meat, a vegetable, a plop of spaghetti and a fried piece of something. They vary and at convenience stores they change with the seasons.
It is rare to find a gluten free bento. Let me tell you. I found one once and only found it a few times. One time I thought I found one and it had barley in the rice (d'oh). Always check for barley in the rice. Sometimes you'll see it written as 麦飯 (mugi meshi). Even if the bento has no gluten anywhere in the meat/meal portion, the rice may still be unsafe.
Your best bet is usually going to be a bento that just has meat in it. Most of these contain sauce, but if you can find a sauce without soy sauce in it, you're set. If it's brown, avoid it. If it isn't brown, look at the ingredients list.
Or you can probably make your own little bento. There is usually packaged rice either in the curry/soup/shelf stable food area or in the refrigerated section, and there is usually some kind of baked salted fish in the refrigerated section as well. Fish + rice + some little side dish of potato salad (check for wheat in the mayo) or a green salad (usually okay but check the dressing and avoid any Japanese/Chinese flavor dressings) and you have your own bento easy-peasy. Without the box, unfortunately.
Onigiri and Maki
Okay, so the onigiri situation is annoying.
An onigiri is a rice ball. Sometimes it's wrapped in seaweed. Sometimes it just has a little seaweed around it. Sometimes it has none. And you would THINK that this would be safe. You would THINK that there is no way to put gluten in a piece of seaweed with rice and fish in it. You would also be wrong.
The first source is the meat in the filling. If the filling is any kind of marinated meat, it probably has soy sauce in it. The second is the mayo. Yes, a tuna mayo onigiri might have wheat in it. I've found that this really varies by store, but generally the only "safe" onigiri is a simple one with nothing but salmon in the middle. Either flaked salmon or a chunk of it. Always check the label to make sure, but salmon is the safest bet.
When it comes to the maki (seaweed rolled around rice and a filling) these are hit or miss. Because of the mayo situation, always check the label.
Ice Creams and Desserts
Obviously just about everything in the bakery/pastry section is going to be a no-no. You might be able to eat a few of the Japanese style sweets. Mochi is made from rice and an is beans, so mochi and an together is, while certainly an acquired taste, an option for you.
The ice cream should be fine, but pay attention to things like cones, wafers, cookies, and crispies. Cups of ice cream like Haagen Dazs are easy enough to navigate. Make sure to read the label of anything that even looks like it might contain rice puffs or cookies.
Most parfaits and desserts outside the frozen section contain cereal or cake. Exceptions are usually pudding or ... well, basically just pudding. There are a lot of custard puddings and sometimes cheese puddings. Rarely chocolate pudding. 杏仁豆腐 is another option (a sweet, almond flavor tofu). It's not bad. On rare occasions you'll find some kind of parfait made entirely of fluffy stuff (whatever that whip stuff is actually made from). Always check the label and really scrutinize it.
Snacks and Candy
Chips are going to be your biggest adversary here. A lot of chips contain wheat in the seasoning, and Pringles are, of course, full of wheat starch. Make sure your chips are actually potato or corn (sometimes they contain wheat as well) even if they're plain! This is important. As I recall, Calbee and Chip Star do offer plain safe potato chips. The caramel corn (not actually popcorn, but something that looks like Cheetos) with the funny faces on the bags is often gluten free, but do check the bag to make sure.
Candy is another area for concern. Plain chocolate is almost always going to be fine, as is hard candy. But there are a lot of chocolates with crispies in them, and those should be scrutinized for wheat and barley. Also watch out for cookies and corn flakes. And remember! M&Ms in Japan do (last I checked) contain wheat. Sad but true.
I recommend Meiji's chocolate covered nuts, Choco Flake (it should be safe), and Bake (it's baked chocolate).
Drinks are usually fine. Double check the label if you need to. Sports drinks, juices, and teas that I've had in the past have always been safe.
I feel like I should address this just because it's a feature of many convenience stores. Oden. It's kind of ... kind of ... stuff boiled in a broth. And you pick out the stuff you like. And it's weird stuff. Lots of konnyaku and eggs and things. Several of these items are technically gluten free, but I think the "fryer" rule applies here. It's all boiling in the same container. At the same time. For a long time. I'm personally willing to brave the Mini Stop fries, but I would never try navigating the oden pot.
There are lots of other things you can buy at the convenience store that you might get at the supermarket. Soup, curry packages, vegetables, and so on. Use your common sense. Vegetables are vegetables. Bananas are bananas. Of course they're safe. Curry is almost never safe unless it's Thai or Indian curry. Soup packets are usually not safe. Rice porridge is usually fine. Etc. But do always check labels where they're available. Something like spaghetti sauce should be GF and often contains wheat. So you really do have to spend a lot of time looking at labels. And with the way convenience stores switch around their merchandise to keep things fresh and new ... well ... you see why I left. I got tired of spending an hour or more at the market reading labels. :/
(Information about certain items was taken from the websites of the individual convenience stores. Some is just from my memory. I haven't lived in Japan for two years, so the GF status of Chip Star or Bake might have changed and I don't know it. You have been warned.)