If you’re gluten intolerant, you can still eat very well in Kyoto. It just takes a little caution and effort. Here is our complete guide to gluten-free Kyoto.
Sushi © Sunxez
In a hurry? Scroll down for restaurant picks and useful phrases. Otherwise, start with the following important background information. And, if you’re going to Tokyo, check out our Gluten-Free Tokyo page.
Can You Eat Gluten-Free in Japan?
Despite the fact that rice is the traditional staple of the Japanese diet, gluten is present in a lot of Japanese food. The main culprit 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 beware! Gluten-free soy sauce is available in Kyoto and we give the details of where to buy it below, so keep reading.
When traveling in Japan, you should remember that few Japanese have heard of celiac disease or gluten intolerance. Compared with Westerners, very few Japanese suffer from this condition. Also keep in mind that Japanese diners are very unlikely to ask a chef or a restaurant to modify their dishes. Indeed, most Japanese would consider it rude to do so. Therefore, do not be surprised if a restaurant refuses outright to accommodate your needs. Don’t get angry: Just look for another restaurant that will (see some of our recommendations below).
Onigiri (rice balls) © Philozopher
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 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)
Where and What to Eat in Kyoto
Unlike their counterparts back home, Japanese convenience stores sell a wide variety of good, edible food. Onigiri (rice balls) made without soy sauce are a good choice for snacks. Some convenience stores also sell hard-boiled eggs, which make a good breakfast when paired with onigiri.
Department store food floors:
Department stores like Daimaru and Takashimaya (both downtown) and Isetan (at Kyoto Station), have basement food floors where you can choose from a huge 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 sushi restaurants:
You’ll find automatic sushi restaurants (conveyor belt sushi) both downtown and at Kyoto Station. Most of the dishes are safe here, but be careful of items like unagi (eel), which is slathered with a sauce that contains soy sauce.
Most 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 easily ask if this is possible.
The question is: “Shio-yaki dekimasu ka?” Or, in Japanese: 塩焼き出来ますか。
While many Japanese restaurants are completely unfamiliar with the concept of gluten-free, 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 two good vegan/vegetarian restaurants below that offer gluten-free choices.
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 © Mission Control
Recommended Gluten-Free Restaurants in Kyoto
These are some of our favorite gluten-free restaurants in Kyoto. 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.
Choice: Located on Sanjo-dori Street, just a short walk across the river from downtown, this vegetarian/vegan restaurant is entirely gluten-free. The menu is in English and the staff is very well aware of the needs of gluten-free diners. Highly recommended!
Kushikura Honten: Located downtown, on the north side of Oike-dori Street and within walking distance of Nijo-jo Castle, this yakitori restaurant is able to serve most of their dishes as shio-yaki (salt flavored). Because gluten-free diners have been frequenting this place, the staff is usually aware of the concept of gluten-free.
Useful Japanese 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 Kyoto
One great way to enjoy the real taste of Japanese food in Kyoto restaurants or back at your lodgings is to carry your own bottle of gluten-free soy sauce (or, actually, tamari, which is similar).
Fujii Daimaru Department Store is the place to go (note: this is NOT the same as Daimaru Department Store). Fujii Daimaru is in the middle of downtown, on the south side of Shijo-dori Street, on the west side of Teramachi-dori Street.
Fujii Daimaru Department Store Exterior image © Chris Rowthorn
When you get there, go down to the basement food floor and look for the Natural House section.
Natural House Store – image © Chris Rowthorn
At the back of the store, you will find the soy sauce (shoyu) section.
Soy Sauce Section in Natural House image © Chris Rowthorn
Then, look for the product pictured below (or simply show this picture to a member of staff).
Gluten Free Soy Sauce image © Chris Rowthorn
Kyoto Vacation Checklist
- For all the essentials in a brief overview, see my First Time In Kyoto guide
- Check Kyoto accommodation availability 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 Kyoto
- See my comprehensive Packing List For Japan
- Buy a data-only SIM card online for collection when you arrive at Kansai International Airport (for Osaka and Kyoto) or Tokyo's Narita Airport. Or rent an unlimited data pocket wifi router.
- Compare Japan flight prices and timings to find the best deals
- If you're visiting more than one city, save a ton of money with a Japan Rail Pass - here's my explanation of why it's worth it
- A prepaid Icoca card makes travelling around Kyoto easy - here's how.
- Get travel insurance for Japan - we recommend World Nomads (and here's why)