Japanese food is a huge reason so many of our travelers visit Japan, but what if you have serious dietary restrictions or food allergies?
Many of our clients have important dietary requirements, such as travelers with celiac (coeliac) disease, vegetarians, vegans, and those who adhere to kosher and halal diets.
Is traveling around Japan with strict dietary needs feasible?
Japanese food is astoundingly varied and overwhelmingly healthy, particularly in comparison to most other countries’ cuisine.
But traveling through Japan with special dietary requirements is no easy feat.
The good news is that it’s definitely possible, so we’ve put together this introduction to visiting Japan for travelers with dietary restrictions.
We hope it helps you get more out of your trip to Japan!
Traveling Around Japan with Dietary Requirements
Apart from ingredients (and the fact that you probably don’t speak or read Japanese), one of the main challenges you will likely face as you travel around Japan is that dietary needs are simply not always catered to.
If you’re from the US or Australia, or another country where dietary restrictions are common, this may come as a surprise.
But it’s true: unfortunately, special dietary requirements – no matter how serious – cannot always be accommodated in Japan.
One of the main reasons for this is a relative lack of awareness when it comes to the topic of dietary restrictions.
In Japan, it is far less common for people to have or voice special dietary needs. This means that, in general, people have a more limited understanding of what – for example – eating gluten-free or vegan entails.
In cities like Los Angeles and Sydney, if you inform your server that you don’t eat gluten, chances are your message will come across loud and clear, and he or she will know what to do with this information.
But while consciousness about these types of dietary requirements has increased in recent years (particularly in cities like Tokyo and Kyoto), it’s still not always common knowledge.
Getting Your Point Across: Explaining Your Needs
So as you explore Japan, you may find yourself in the position of having to explain your dietary requirements more often, and in more detail, than you’re used to.
Just stating that you have celiac disease, or don’t consume animal products, likely won’t suffice. A greater degree of explanation is required to clearly convey specifically what you can and cannot eat or drink.
If you don’t speak Japanese, and your counterpart doesn’t speak your language, this can be a bit of a challenge, and it’s helpful to learn some key words and phrases to help you along the way.
Our Tiny Phrasebook (you can download the phrasebook here) includes useful general words and phrases, such as “I can’t eat ___” and “I’m allergic to ___“:
But for more specialized words and phrases particular to your specific dietary needs, you will likely need to supplement this with other resources.
For Celiac Travelers
If you have celiac disease, by far the best resource we’ve seen is The Essential Gluten Free Guide to Japan.
This also comes with an indispensable Japanese Gluten Free Card available for download.
For Vegetarian Travelers
For vegetarians, Shannon from A Little Adrift says:
“Japan is tricky as a vegetarian. The concept is not widely understood. I struggled to communicate the nuances (like no fish broth). You will need good translations and research ahead of time to suss out what you can eat.
- “Happy Cow has great vegetarian restaurant recommendations for cities across Japan
- Tokyo Vegetarian Guide has a list of dishes vegetarians can eat
- This article has good translations at the end
- This is a good general food primer guide
For all types of eaters, the convenience stores and 7-11s have fresh snacks and are very popular among locals and travelers alike.”
A very useful phrase for vegetarian travelers to learn is shojin ryori (traditional Buddhist food).
We’ve also included some great resources from around the Internet at the bottom of this article!
Key Japanese Ingredients: Dashi and Soy Sauce
The two most common Japanese ingredients that come up as potential issues for our travelers are dashi and soy sauce.
Dashi and soy sauce are ubiquitous in Japanese cuisine, and avoiding them requires special effort.
Dashi stock, which is made from kombu (kelp) and katsuobushi (bonito) fish flakes, is particularly problematic for vegans and strict vegetarians.
Even if you’ve never heard of dashi, chances are you’ve consumed it, as it’s found in countless Japanese dishes, including miso soup.
As for soy sauce, as travelers with celiac disease know all too well, most soy sauce contains wheat, and is thus off the table.
The Difficulty of Altering Menus
Because dashi and soy sauce are such fundamental ingredients in so much of Japanese cuisine, not all restaurants or ryokans (Japanese-style inns) are able to alter their menus to fully exclude them.
It’s true that some chefs may simply be unwilling to alter their menu or make special exceptions for individuals (this is true with certain chefs around the world, not only in Japan).
But the most common scenario is that dashi or soy sauce (or another “problem” ingredient) is simply an inextricable part of the menu or dish in question, and cannot be excluded or substituted for another.
Despite this, an increasing number of restaurants, izakayas, and ryokans are happy and willing to do their best to accommodate a variety of dietary needs.
Japanese Etiquette & Providing Advance Notice
Advance notice may not be possible if you’re grabbing a meal on the fly. But for special meals, and ryokan stays, it’s essential that you voice your dietary needs at the time of booking.
As explained in our article on sushi etiquette, “If you have any special dietary requests, you need to inform the sushi shop at the time of making reservations – not on the day of your meal.”
This rule applies not only to sushi, but also to other restaurants, izakayas, and ryokans.
Typically these establishments plan their menus in advance, with great care. By explaining your needs when you make the reservation, you are giving them the opportunity to try and accommodate your needs.
It’s true that there is a possibility your reservation may be declined, if the restaurant feels they can’t properly accommodate your request. On the other hand, failing to inform them would be extremely inconsiderate, and a major etiquette faux pas.
In addition to our tips above for travelers with celiac disease, here are some helpful links for travelers who eat vegetarian, vegan, kosher, and halal:
- Health Food, Vegetarian & Vegan Restaurants in Japan
- Vegetarian Dining in Japan
- How To Eat Like A Buddhist Monk
- Kyoto’s Best Vegetarian Restaurants
- How to Eat Kosher in Japan
- A list of kosher foods, and their Japanese names
- Halal Food in Japan (Basics for Muslim Travelers in Japan)
We hope this introduction to traveling around Japan with dietary requirements helps you prepare for, and better enjoy, your trip to Japan!