It's taken a while, but we have finally figured out our "system" here at home. Traveling, though, has been a different story. We originally transferred to Japan so we would be able to travel, experience cultures, and see the world. These were easy to accomplish pre-celiac, but they have become incredibly difficult now. When we travel these days, 2/3 of our baggage contains food in case we can't find restaurants that will serve me (this has happened - while it's frustrating, I'd rather they tell me up front they can't serve me than to serve me food that will make me sick).
On our first trip to Tokyo, I really enjoyed the city but didn't plan to visit again. It was too big, and there were too many people. We added other Japanese cities to our list of places to visit, not envisioning a return to Tokyo in the near future.
Then, celiac happened.
Our first post-diagnosis visit to Tokyo was very different than our previous time. Ben's parents were coming to visit and we had plans to join them in Tokyo for a week before traveling with them back up to Aomori. This trip, I had to research EVERYTHING ahead of time. Our schedules and destinations revolved around the few "safe" restaurants I had researched. The time leading up to our departure was full of anxiety, as there were not many resources and blogs out there to help. Those that did exist gave conflicting information. (Examples include whether plain combini onigiri or senbei are always safe bets... FYI, they're not.) Looking back, though, our trip wasn't half bad! We found a few restaurants that were able to accommodate my dietary restrictions, and even one that specifically had fluent English-speakers to help in situations like mine. The city has become one of my "safe places" and we are always excited to travel there now. We have since visited Tokyo multiple times, and continue to go back to our tried-and-true favorite places.
Sadly, some of these restaurants are no longer open. A few are, though, and I wanted to make sure to write about them in case this information can help anyone traveling to Tokyo with celiac disease or gluten intolerance. I am extremely sensitive to cross contamination, and have never gotten sick at the following restaurants.
The first restaurant I'd highly recommend is Gonpachi. I have visited several locations of this Tokyo restaurant, and haven't gotten sick at any of them, but my favorite is the one in Nishi Azabu. I have written about this place before, but didn't really go into much detail about their allergy protocols. I was a baby celiac at that point, and I've learned that I was doing so much incorrectly at that point. I have, however, been back to this restaurant several times since, and have still had wonderful experiences every time.
While Gonpachi is an izakaya style restaurant, they use very good quality meats and vegetables in their cooking. Their noodles (which aren't gluten free) are made by hand each day, and they try to source from local farms. I won't eat at most izakaya style restaurants, but this one is my exception because of these reasons. Another reason is that Gonpachi Nishi Azabu has an "allergy specialist" to help people like me figure out what they can eat safely.
At the time of the writing of this blog, Gonapchi Nishi Azabu's allergy specialist is named Teresa. She is fabulous to work with and we always check before heading to Tokyo to ensure she will be working when we visit. Teresa speaks English and is well-versed in finding foods that are safe for those with allergies. She is willing to go back and forth between the customer and the chefs to ensure that the correct ingredients and protocols are taken to keep someone from getting contaminated.
If you go, make sure you ask her to remind the cooking staff to clean the surfaces before cooking your food.
Here are a few of my favorite things off the menu:
- Asparagus wrapped in bacon. This is quintessential izakaya food if you eat pork. So delicious!
- Rice bowl. Gonpachi has a few rice bowls, but none of them (as they are on the menu) are safe for someone who is very sensitive. They will, however, make one for you that is, as long as you let them know exactly what you need! I get a modified "takana meshi" - without the pickled mustard leaves and with an addition of grilled chicken and fresh avocado. They bring out all the seaweed and spices separately, so I can see exactly what will go into my bowl before it's done. I mix it up and add my safe soy sauce myself, and it's delicious!
- Gyutan. I love beef tongue when it's done right, and it's definitely done right here. I ask for the gyutan without the sesame oil, as I have not been able to confirm that it's safe. I just use my safe soy sauce for dipping instead.
- Chicken on a skewer. I'm not sure that this one is on the menu by itself, but they've never had an issue with making it for me. I love yakitori and rarely get to order it, because it's so difficult to find restaurants with safe cooking practices in terms of cross contamination! I order it shiodake (with salt only) and then use my soy sauce.
- Yuzu Lime Iced Tea. I look forward to coming to Gonpachi for the yuzu tea more than anything else, especially in the summer. It's so delicious! The first post-celiac time we visited Gonpachi, I was very nervous about trying this again. Even with my corn allergy on top of everything, I did not get sick at all.
All in all, Gonpachi is definitely worth a visit!
My other favorite restaurant in Tokyo is Moti. This is an Indian restaurant near Roppongi Station. The owner speaks some English and while he doesn't know much about gluten or celiac, he is very willing to go over all ingredients with you. I can't say I've branched out as far as the menu goes, because the butter chicken curry is so good that I get it every time.
We have visited every six months or so, and the owners always remember us when we walk in. Just make sure you check every ingredient and let the owners know what you're avoiding so they can check it. Also, ask for rice instead of the naan and you'll be good to go. They have offered sticky rice in the past, so you will need to make sure you opt for plain rice (the sticky rice is not safe).
I hope this is able to help you as you navigate your way through Tokyo! Let me know if you have any great gluten free experiences at either of these (or any other) restaurants in Tokyo!