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last-minute trip to Tokyo, avid eater with food allergies, need expert help!

My husband and I have booked a very last-minute trip to Tokyo, my first time. I've been reading the many, many great CH posts, but I'm left at a bit of a loss (and more than a little jealous).

Here's the catch: for medical reasons, I cannot have wheat (IgE-mediated allergy) or soy (migraines). Seriously.

Our hotel got us a reservation at Narisawa (Takazawa is on holiday and Ryugin is fully booked) and I have booked local guides for 2 days to help me hunt down the Tokyo delicacies I can eat, but I thought it could ask the CH experts for your advice.

Please note, I am a very adventurous and appreciative eater, and will pretty much each anything that won't kill me. High- or low-brow, doesn't matter.

I read through Shizuo Tsuji"s Japanese Cooking and came up with a very preliminary list of foods I can eat:

Konbu Dashi, probably the only broth I could have
Su-age Agemono
Kara-age Agemono, if cornstarch or kuzu are used instead of flour. Marinades could be a problem though.
Shabu-shabu, if we are able to avoid tofu and wheat gluten cakes
Tsukemono, I love pickles of any kind and, odd as it may sound, often use umeboshi vinegar in place of shoyu. No nukamiso-zuke though.
Fruit, especially if there are any local ones coming into season

Other ideas:
Satsuma-imo, are there still street vendors?
Onigiri, depending on the preparation
plain Mochi
Shira-gayu, okayu--actually, I may *really* need to know where to get this if I end up eating something I shouldn't have :)

(I can have sushi and sashimi as well, but there are so many great recs already, I think I'm covered)

Thoughts? Any suggestions, regardless of location or price, will be greatly appreciated.

Thanks in advance,

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  1. When you say you can't have soy, does that include shoyu (soy sauce)?

    If so, I would recommend skipping Japan entirely. Or renting an apartment so you can purchase groceries and cook your own food.

    Most Japanese restaurants (in my experience) are not particularly adept at helping diners avoid verboten foods (like when discovering a diner was a vegetarian, one cook served her fried rice instead of the tonkatsu everyone else was having--the fried rice was made with bacon). You can tell them you're allergic to/avoiding a particular food, but that doesn't mean they'll make a thorough attempt to avoid using those foods in your meal.

    Another option might be to stick with high-end non-Japanese restaurants. They might be more amenable to altering dishes to suit your allergies.

    5 Replies
    1. re: prasantrin

      Oh dear, skipping Japan entirely is not an option. The allergy would include shoyu, for both wheat and gluten.

      Thanks for the warning though. The high end restos, even Japanese, have been very accommodating, at least at reservation time. We'll see how it goes.

      I can't eat top-bill for 7 days though. Hopefully my local guides will help with some creative options.

      1. re: spotcleanfood

        i think there are plenty of choices. if you are worried about the sauce on things, just take it with salt, as in yakiniku and yakitori and of course you can have nice japanese branded beef in all sorts of style (steak, yakiniku, shabushabu, teppanyaki). i can't imagine eating sashimi or sushi without the soy sauce though, but u're probably used to it anyways. you can check ingredients of the japanese vinegar and see if ur ok, some raw fish goes quite well with that. kanidouraku could be another choice too. though it's only a chain restaurant, they serve different types of crabs in all sorts of style, and you can probably eat many of those. i personally find it quite good.

        1. re: japanesefoodlover

          Thank you! I only just learned that you can get yakitori shio, and I was kindly given a bottle of shiitake shoyu for sushi. I'll have to look for kanidouraku--I love crab :) in the meantime, I'm picking up ume onigiri, candied kobu, and lots of gorgeous fruit for snacks.

          1. re: spotcleanfood

            Just don’t go alone to the recommendations that follows. Allergen in food have to be traced, actually, some Japanese speaking is necessary... Still, you can have a yakitori dinner at Yakitori Banchou, in the Shin Marunouchi Bldg 5Floor. The menu is half French, so the salad is just vinaigrette, there is good ‘tabasaki shio yaki(salt roast)’, and their yaki onigiri are possible to request with just salt and butter. Just avoid mince meat.
            And you will be able to eat the ‘himono’, in Ginza there is a house with a variety of roast fish one day dry fish that is stunning. If you don’t spread soy sauce on it, it will be allright. Their tuskemono are ‘takanazuke’, but I am not 100% sure they don’t use soy on their marinated sauce.
            These places referenced above are casual places, but cheap !
            Good prepared sushi(=Edomae sushi) brush their neta with sauce (nikiri, tsume) based on soy sauce, but not all pieces ... so you just need to specify them not to brush sauce on them !!    

            1. re: Ninisix

              Thanks, Ninisix! I needed a yakitori place for Friday night :)

    2. if you don't speak japanese (and even if you do), beware! food allergies/restrictions are generally pretty poorly understood in the land of the rising sun. any soup, stock, broth, sauce, etc is HIGHLY LIKELY to contain some element of something soy- or gluten-containing. that said... if you were to print this off it might help somewhat. it's still no guarantee though. (apologies to people here who speak better japanese than i do.):




      hope this helps. as i said, it's NO GUARANTEE, and someone else here quite likely speaks much better japanese than i do and may have a better way of saying/writing what you need to communicate...

      9 Replies
      1. re: chartreauxx

        Thank you, chartreauxx! I appreciate any help :)

        1. re: chartreauxx

          I don't think it's appropriate to tell the restaurant in print or verbally that you are going to become ill if you eat soy products. After years of these type of allergy help requests here, my advice is rather than throwing down a card with a lengthy explanation, is to know in advance what you want to order or be able to ask specifically if a dish contains what you are allergic to. Japanese have and understand allergies like anyone else.

          1. re: Silverjay

            please don't slam me for being inappropriate, silverjay. i have seen things go all kinds of directions, and was simply trying (with a bunch of disclaimers included) to help out. i wasn't trying to be inappropriate, rude, offensive, or anything else, and i'm so sorry if it came across that way.

            1. re: chartreauxx

              Just sharing my opinion of your suggestion, not you the person. I'm behind Robb's thoughts on this now, even though in the past I too have offered similar translated disclaimers.

              1. re: Silverjay

                i only meant it as a suggestion should spotcleanfood decide s/he wanted to go for it. i'm more or less in robb s/prasantin's camp as a rule. even when i have been in hospital in japan, i've had doctor-mandated dietary orders (issued by a japanese doctor working in the hospital where i was...) fail to "come across" in execution. :-)

                sho ga nai, as we say...

                1. re: chartreauxx

                  Handing a note to what may very likely be a twenty-year-old "baito" hall staff at a restaurant, with a list of what you're allergic to and a disclaimer that you will be sick if you eat it, is something that should be roundly discouraged.

                  1. re: Silverjay

                    i'm going to infer that what you're driving at is that such a method is, best case, likely to be both fairly ineffective and fairly distressing for the proprietor/server. i guess i could have made that clearer in my original post. sorry about that...

          2. re: chartreauxx

            "No guarantee" is rather an understatement.

            I hate to jump in and be all negative, but every time someone asks for advice about coping with food allergies in Japan, someone else helpfully suggests bringing in a little card written in Japanese that explains what your food allergies are.

            As I've said before, this card might be helpful when you get to the emergency room, but it won't be much use in an ordinary restaurant (as opposed to a restaurant in an international hotel or a very high-end restaurant). There simply isn't the same culture of dealing with customer food allergies or food preferences (no meat, no fish, etc.), as prasantrin said earlier in this thread.

            On a more positive note, Tokyo has many wonderful, world-class Italian, French and Spanish restaurants where it might be a lot easier to figure out how to eat safely.

            1. re: Robb S

              fairly inclined to agree, overall.

          3. My sincere gratitude to all for the advice, and the lively debate. When I googled "food allergy Tokyo" I got 3 pages of Disney with a few Denny's in between. I agree that you cannot walk into any resto and throw down an allergy card. However, it has been extremely helpful to have specific suggestions in combination with a communication tool. For example, I had shabu-shabu and having some Japanese helped me explain that I was not being rude by refusing the shoyu-ponzu and goma sauces. Instead I had daikon with hot pepper, garlic oil, and salt--and it was awesome.

            1. The only other advice I have for you is to bring an epi-pen (more than one) if you use one, as well as a good supply of antihistamines if you use them. And whatever migraine medication you usually use. Because I have a very very strong suspicion you will need any or all of the above more than once during your trip.

              (Not trying to be a negative nelly, but when I lived in Japan, every single person I knew with severe food allergies had at least one bad reaction while visiting/living there. Sure, I may only have known 10-ish people there with severe food allergies, but 100% of them had at least 1 bad reaction due to their allergies.)

              1 Reply
              1. re: prasantrin

                Thank you, prasantrin. Not negative nelly--sound advice for certain. I don't require an epi-pen fortunately, but I did bring a good supply of anti-spasm medication which has indeed been useful.

              2. Back from Tokyo. Generally a success, considering my limitations. My local guides were awesome. Even though they're not food experts per se, they went out of their way to help. If anyone is interested:

                Rie from The Backstreet Guides, www.thebackstreetguides.com
                Yasuko M. from Tours by Locals, www.ToursByLocals.com

                Most awesome, and most unexpected, was that I was able to book Shinji Nohara at the very last minute. He has been mentioned on the boards before, and I would describe the experience as *superlative*. Plus, he's a really nice guy with a curator's eye for Japanese culture. If you love food, he is the best. www.tokyofixer.com

                So, the highlights:

                With my local guides:
                chazuke at Kiname: The staff was incredibly helpful, discussing the menu in great detail. And 2 80+ grannies joined in the conversation--it turned out one had severe food allergies as a child. The chazuke, with its array of condiments, was alternately comforting and surprising. I'm definitely going to try to recreate this at home.

                kaiseki-ryōri at Nada-man: The chef and my guide were very conscientious with the entire menu, providing printed notes with every course. My guide sometimes found the allergy-free substitutions surprising but not unpleasant. The highlight was the yakimono course which the chef slow simmered on a piece of kobu ahead of time in place of shoyu.

                fruit at Takano: They happened to have some slightly blemished fruit on sale at a deep discount. Possibly the best peach I've ever had.

                With Shinji:
                Sushi Ichi: I think Shinji might have chosen this with a wink to the fact that I live in Singapore. Nonetheless, the food was outstanding, each presentation perfect in its own way. We had a great view of the chef's knife skills and plenty of opportunity to discuss the finer points of sushi and sashimi, as well as seasonal produce (including a raw, young eggplant that tasted like the essence of fresh fig). The chef also very kindly used the amaranth-based "shoyu" Shinji had brought for me.

                Shima: First, that copper bincho oven belongs in a museum. Second, my 6oz sirloin was by far the best steak I have ever had. Third, Chef Oshima and his wife are so charming, I was tempted to ask them to adopt me. Absolute highpoint of my trip.

                On my own:
                a511: This restaurant takes it's kobe very seriously. The steak was very good, and suffered only in comparison to the masterpiece at Shima. I highly recommend the beef sushi--the chuck cut tasted like the beef stew my mom would make for me as a kid when I had a cold. Also, we walked in without reservations and they were totally accommodating.

                yakitori at Hayashi: highly entertaining if you're up for something tourist-y. (Unfortunately, I didn't make it to Yakitori Banchou because CH was down for maintenance and I didn't have the foresight to write it down.) I wouldn't say it is safe-for-celiacs with the cross-contamination on the grill, but the ingredients were fresh and the presentation was lovely. Plus the staff, at least that night, was entirely older women so it did have the feeling of going to gran's for Sunday supper.

                Les Créations de Narisawa: I must say that the chef was working within my food limitations, for which I am grateful. I also appreciated the effort to present a Japan terroir, but overall the meal seemed inconsistent. High-point: I would bathe in the chicken-pork broth if I could. Mid-point: a capsicum brunoise overpowered an otherwise beautifully presented uni. Low-point: the oyster. It was the Summer menu, so I'm curious how the other seasons would compare, but not before trying to get into some of the other highly recommended restaurants first.

                So really a great first trip to Japan overall. It was not perfect, allergy-wise. I did have one forced down day, even with medications (think John Hurt in Alien, and the hotel was compensated accordingly). I can't say it was one specific trigger, more of a cumulative effect and taking some chances I probably shouldn't have. But I'll know better next time and have some recs for other eaters like me.

                Thanks again for everyone's advice. I know I dropped in out of the blue. Thanks for taking it seriously and sharing what you could.

                3 Replies
                1. re: spotcleanfood

                  I am glad you enjoyed your trip and had fun !! Indeed, I know sushi Ichi, and have recommended it also 4-5 times for their affordable lunch at 3000 yens ..

                  1. re: Ninisix

                    Thanks! We didn't have the 3000 yen version, but I'll definitely do it if I get to go again.

                  2. re: spotcleanfood

                    Really great to read that you had such a successful trip and were able to find some great guides and great restaurants to accommodate you so well. :-)