To Tokyo We Go
Eating gluten free in Tokyo, Japan certainly requires research and preparation, but with a little planning and the right expectations, you’ll enjoy tons of options and dishes you won’t find anywhere else.
Before traveling to Japan, I heard that eating gluten free here would present a constant challenge. I read cautionary tales about soy sauce hiding in most dishes, wheat noodles and breading appearing on a vast array of menus, and the impossibility of asking for substitutions in a country that prizes culinary arts so highly. While I found these observations to be largely true, they don’t tell the entire story of dining in Tokyo.
During a recent visit to Japan’s sprawling capital, I learned that this animated city hides unexpected surprises around every corner. From trendy rice-based sweets in a centuries-old entertainment district to a vegan version of the nation’s meatiest soup in a bustling train station to homey cafés serving gluten-free dishes with love, this metropolis never ceases to delight.
Get Lost at Tokyo Station
When you visit Japan’s capital city, you’ll inevitably pass through Tokyo Station at least once. This is one of the city’s major transit hubs for trains, subways and buses, but it’s far more than a place to catch a ride. Tokyo Station is also home to a mind-boggling number of food options, including a number of stalls along the famous Ramen Street.
While almost every bowl of ramen in Tokyo contains wheat noodles, soy sauce or both, you can find the elusive gluten-free version on Ramen Street. Head to Soranoiro, a freestyle noodle shop that specializes in innovative takes on this classic soup. Use the vending machine to order the vegan soba with gluten-free brown rice noodles, and add some extra veggies for just 100 yen (about 90 cents) extra.
Confirm your gluten-free order by telling the friendly staff that you have a wheat allergy. Taking this step ensures that they’ll cook your noodles separately and leave the gluten-containing toppings off your bowl. Then wait patiently until your piping hot bowl arrives, piled high with sweet potatoes, broccoli, cabbage and tomatoes carefully balanced atop the rich vegetable soup. Be sure to wear one of the complimentary bibs, or you’ll risk splattering soup on your shirt as you eagerly slurp the al dente rice noodles.
Soranoiro’s gluten-free ramen makes for an impressively hearty bowl of soup, and it’s sure to energize you to navigate the enormous Tokyo Station or explore the adjacent neighborhoods. From here, the high-end shops of Nihombashi or the neon lights and anime culture of Akihabara are only a few minutes’ walk away.
Experience Traditional Tokyo
Next, make your way to Asakusa and Ueno, longtime entertainment districts where traditional Tokyo still thrives. To fuel up for a fun afternoon, I recommend grabbing a quick bite. Try onigiri, a seaweed-wrapped rice ball that you can find from individual stands and in every single convenience store. The pickled plum rice balls are almost always gluten free and make for a nice sweet and savory snack.
If you’ve already worked off your ramen, enjoy a more substantial meal at the nearest CoCo Ichibanya. This ubiquitous curry shop serves plates of hot Japanese-style curry quickly, and the chain has a tasty allergen-free version. You don’t have to worry about cross-contamination here either, as the allergen-free curry comes in packets that you open and pour over the steamed rice yourself.
After a quick bite, head to the Tokyo National Museum, a large complex that’s home to several themed art and history museums. All are worthy of an hour or two, but if you’re short on time, I recommend a more focused visit. Peruse the collections at the Heiseikan, which features a comprehensive exhibit on Japanese art and artifacts that spans tens of thousands of years, and stroll through the Gallery of Horyuji Treasures, a hidden gallery with stunning exhibitions of masks, Buddhist statues and lacquer works.
Be sure to leave plenty of time to stop by Otaco, one of Tokyo’s very few dedicated gluten-free shops and a must for those with a sweet tooth. The owner makes the most beautifully delicate chiffon cakes, typically offering six or so varieties each day. Although the plain chiffon cake is the most popular, I like the slightly tart cheese cake and the pleasantly herby mugwort cake best. None of the varieties are overly sweet, so don’t hesitate to take a few slices to go.
Otaco’s owner explained to me that her love of rice flour’s lighter taste and finer texture inspired her to make these rice-based cakes. She doesn’t have any issues with gluten, but she committed to making her shop totally gluten free after observing the growing demand for these irresistible chiffon cakes. This mom-and-pop spot is popular and the cakes do sell out, so I recommend arriving early for the best variety.
With cakes in hand, cross the street and walk south toward Senso-ji. One of Tokyo’s best-known landmarks, this eye-catching Buddhist temple dates back to the 7th century and is still open to visitors today. After admiring the temple and pagodas, basking in the incense and passing through the impressive Thunder Gate, continue south down Nakamise, the bustling shopping street that anchors the heart of Asakusa. This is the perfect place to experience the traditional city scene, pick up a souvenir or two, and get lost in the lively alleys and arcades.
Immerse Yourself in Bustling Shibuya
After experiencing traditional Tokyo, it’s time to immerse yourself in high-energy, brightly lit Shibuya. As a gluten-free traveler, you can’t visit Tokyo without having at least one meal at Littlebird Café. This charming spot is tucked away in a quiet corner on the west side of Shinjuku, and it’s become a bit of a mecca for gluten-free visitors and locals alike.
Littlebird offers a range of Japanese specialties and several tasty takes on Western dishes, making it tough to choose just one main dish. Try the yakisoba, an indulgent fried noodle dish that’s sweet and salty all at once, with an extra punch of flavor from the bonito flakes and pickled ginger on top.
To complement the Japanese flavors, try the pesto pizza. The rice-based crust is amazingly light, and its ability to hold the pile of cheese and toppings without buckling is a true feat of engineering. Don’t leave without indulging in the matcha waffle with soft cream, a delicious East-meets-West dessert that’s definitely big enough to share.
Next, stretch your legs at Yoyogi Park, which is a few minutes’ walk east of Littlebird. Tokyo is home to a surprisingly vast array of green spaces and gardens, but Yoyogi is by far my favorite. In the early fall, huge old trees create canopies that shade the wide walkways and lead to hidden gardens and the majestic Meiji Shrine. In the late fall, the leaves turn bright yellow, orange and red, making this one of the city’s best spots to view the autumn foliage. No matter when you go, it’s the perfect place to catch your breath, especially in this busy district.
Ready for dessert? You’re in luck. Riz Labo Kitchen is nestled in nearby Omotesandō, a Shibuya neighborhood packed with upscale shops and designer boutiques. This cute shop serves just one thing: gluten-free pancakes unlike any you’ve had before. The Japanese-style, impossibly fluffy pancakes are best enjoyed for dessert rather than for breakfast.
These pancakes are much more filling than they look, so I recommend splitting an order. Try the plain pancakes with whipped cream and syrup or go for my pick, the matcha pancakes, which have a hint of that distinctively bitter green tea flavor tempered by sweet red beans and whipped cream. Keep an eye out for specials that highlight seasonal ingredients, too, as Riz Labo regularly offers delicious new flavors.
Step outside of Tokyo’s busy center
You’ll find the majority of Tokyo’s most popular attractions in Asakusa, Shibuya and a few other well-trafficked neighborhoods. However, there’s plenty to see, do and taste another metro stop or two away from these busy districts.
Just across the Sumida River, the Edo-Tokyo Museum offers a fascinating glimpse at several centuries of the city’s past and reveals how the world’s largest metropolis came to be. With its numerous artifacts, historical reconstructions and exhibits that illustrate the story of Tokyo past and present, this museum is worth at least a few hours, especially if you take advantage of the free tours.
South of the Edo-Tokyo Museum, I was thrilled to find Saotome-ke, a welcoming café whose incredibly friendly owners will make you feel right at home. This small spot specializes in okonomiyaki, a savory Japanese pancake that’s typically loaded with wheat flour. Here, however, the owners have embraced the lightness of rice flour, which they’ve found makes a tastier okonomiyaki that’s more pleasant to eat. Rather than using soy sauce to flavor the dish, they use Okinawan salt and herbs for a totally gluten-free meal.
No okonomiyaki is complete without a variety of toppings, and all of the options here are gluten free, so you can add as many as you like. I found cheese, a fried egg and a few chewy rice cakes to be the perfect combination, but the popular tomato sauce is delicious, too. I also recommend choosing a few plates of eggplant, asparagus or king oyster mushrooms, all grilled with butter and salt, for a complete meal.
Dining experiences like this, which seamlessly fuse traditional recipes with contemporary flavors, are a big part of what makes Tokyo such an enticing destination. I may not have found gluten-free dishes around every corner, but the unforgettable okonomiyaki, yakisoba, ramen and cakes already have me plotting another visit to experience even more of Tokyo’s mouthwatering treats.
Various locations in Tokyo
JP Building 3F, 1-1-20 Uehara
Shibuya, Tokyo 151-0064
3 Chome-5-1 Asakusa
Taito, Tokyo 111-0032
Riz Labo Kitchen
Omotesando Garden 1F,
Shibuya, Tokyo 150-0001
3 Chome-12-8 Botan
Koto, Tokyo 135-0046
Ramen Street No.1 Tokyo Station, 1-9-1 Marunouchi
Chiyoda, Tokyo 100-0005
Travel Editor Anna Sonnenberg is a food and travel writer who has journeyed around the world gluten free since being diagnosed with celiac in 2012.