June in Japan brings rainy weather and the most obvious gluten-free option. RICE.

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In Japan, June is known for rice planting just before the onset of tsuyu or rainy season

Japanese rice is gluten-free
Rice seedlings waiting to be planted

If you visit Japan in June you can start to see the iconic green rice paddies popping up across the countryside. Just before rainy season or tsuyu (梅雨), most farmers will plant their rice and let nature do the watering for a month. After tsuyu the hot Japanese summer helps the rice to grow until it is time to harvest in the fall.

My mother-in-law and I ready for rice planting

I’ve taken part in rice planting with my in-laws who grow enough rice on two small plots to feed about 15 family members for the year. One of my favorite aspects of the rice planting is the coordination. In smaller towns, the water is dammed from the mountains and then released gradually downhill as each farm fills their paddies.

This means that we don’t always know exactly when the water will come or when we can plant. It all depends when the water makes it down to us. But when it is time, we all work together.

The push planter has to be held upright and pushed in a straight line in knee-deep mud.

My in-laws used to grow their rice from seeds, but nowadays they buy the seedlings from a company that delivers them in large sheets like sod. These sheets are put on the push planter to be inserted into (hopefully) straight lines through the mud.

We then go through and plant the edges, corners, and gaps by hand. When the planting is done, our family checks on the progress all summer and into fall.

Snow melt from Mt. Fuji (background) is the main water source that fills the paddy

Rice in Japan is then harvested in the fall and still makes up a large portion of people’s diet. Rice is filling, fat-free, versatile and GLUTEN-FREE. If you like to eat rice and can do some cooking while in Japan, life will be much easier.


Rice planting in June also reminds me of a common myth.

If rice is gf, and if rice is everywhere in Japan, then it MUST BE easy to be gf.

NOT.

Rice balls can be gluten-free in Japan
A gluten-free rice ball on the shinkansen

One HUGE misconception about living in Japan is that it must be easy to be gf, well, because RICE.

But the truth of the matter is, though rice is widely available and served in most restaurants, unless you’re willing to eat primarily plain white rice, you will have a hard time in Japanese restaurants. Because:

  • Japanese soy sauce has wheat=no sauces on rice
  • Curry and rice often has wheat
  • Sushi rice is sometimes made with malt vinegar
  • Rice-based sweets can also include barley sweetener, mizuame
  • Even rice flour breads are often blended with wheat

BUT THERE IS HOPE!

Natto and rice are a Japanese household staple AND are naturally gluten-free!

There are plenty of rice products that are gluten free, and you can find them with a little patience and google translate mastery. Use the google translate camera function to check labels on packaged foods.

Some of the following can be gluten free:

  • Rice balls
  • Natto (without the sauce packets) and rice
  • Mochi and other traditional sweets
  • Senbei or Japanese rice crackers
  • Rice flour breads
  • Sake (especially pure Junmai sake)
  • Microwaveable rice packs

When visiting restaurants don’t forget to use an allergy card to let staff know about your preferences. Though it may be a lot of work, Japanese cuisine (especially RICE) is worth the extra effort!


Have you tried rice planting in Japan? Do you have any tips or ideas for eating gluten-free in Japan? Let us know in the comments!

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