Furuzamami Beach, Kerama Islands, Okinawa

Gluten-Free Beach Bumming in Japan

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Happy Marine Day! (AKA—”maybe skip the beach this weekend”)

Rainy season is finally “coming to a close”—I write this as I look out my window at drizzle and a thick gray cloud cover—just in time for Marine Day, a national holiday that creates a 3-day weekend. 

This year, Marine Day falls on July 15th. This weekend, many families go to the beach, so expect beaches to be crowded, seaside hotels to be booked up, and trains to be busier than usual.

If you’re planning to go to any specific gluten-free restaurants this weekend, anywhere in Japan, make sure to check their Instagram or Facebook page as some might have special holiday hours/closures. 

Getting off the Beaten Beach

My happy place is the ocean, so I am always trying to find the best Japanese beaches; the more isolated the spot and the clearer the water, the better. 

Crystal Clear Okinawa Water, Zamami
The water in Okinawa is so clear. #nofilter

Of course it is scary getting off the beaten path with eating restrictions; it is not impossible, but it will be a much more pleasant journey if you are prepared. 

Shirahama Beach, Wakayama

Wherever you roam gluten free in Japan, I strongly recommend bringing some snacks. I always have something in my purse just in case, even in Tokyo. I recommend Seijo Ishii, Natural Lawson, or Kaldi for finding gluten-free snacks. 

Small islands are likely to have very limited ingredients as most will be brought over from the mainland, so some restaurants will not be able (or willing) to adapt the menu.

Before you hop on that ferry to the remote place, stock up more than you think you need. Also, if you are not conversational in Japanese, you will likely need an allergy card

Tuna Bowl, Tokashiki, Okinawa

Where Can You Eat? 

Many seaside places will not have as many eating options as the big cities and finding a 100% gluten free option is not always possible. Check our map before you go as we keep adding new places all the time. Depending on the place and how remote it is, options will vary widely, but here are some general tips based on my own island-hopping survival tactics:

  • Most seafood restaurants will be able to provide a sashimi plate. A raw fish bowl or sushi might also be ok, but you will want to check that the vinegar they use does not contain any gluten. If a seafood restaurant seems unwilling or unable to accommodate you, you might ask them if they have sashimi. If this is the first time a restaurant has seen a GF card, they might feel flustered and unsure of what to serve you. (Of course, bring your own GF soy sauce!)
  • Izakayas (Japanese pubs) are common even in remote places because that is where the locals go to have a beer and gossip. Yakitori (meat skewers) seasoned with salt or edamame (boiled soy beans) could be safe bets. Usually I can always find at least one plate I can eat at an izakaya even if it’s not my favorite food. 
Okinawan sea grape and sashimi salad.
  • Seek the Indian or Nepalese restaurants, especially if you’re vegan or vegetarian. Most authentic curry restaurants will be able to serve you GF curry and rice. Beware that most Japanese curry contains a lot of wheat and is not safe, so “Indian” curry restaurants run by Japanese people are less likely to be safe. Note that this option likely won’t be available if you are on a remote island.
Lala Zorba in Okinawa serves vegan, GF curry.
  • Seek the vegetarian/vegan-accommodating or organic/natural restaurants. These restaurants will often have homemade sauces and know a lot more about their ingredients than the average shop. Note that this option also might not be available in more remote places, but it is worth trying. 

Where Are the Best Beaches?

Even on an average summer weekend, most of the beaches close to the big cities are crowded, and many do not have clear water or exceptional views.

Crowded Shirahama Beach, Summer, Wakayama

However, if you can take the time to go to a more remote area, you will find gorgeous coasts

Okinawa is a wonderful place to swim even when mainland Japan is too cold. Okinawa is an island group, some with bigger cities, some extremely isolated, so gluten-free experiences will vary vastly depending where you are. 

Naha doesn’t really have beaches, but it might be your transit point. It has a few GF-friendly places, listed on our map. On other parts of Okinawa island there are many gluten-free and vegan spots, but you will likely need to rent a car to access many of these places easily. 

Throughout Okinawa, there are delicious tropical fruits and good seafood. Yakiniku (BBQ meat) is exceptional in Okinawa because it features locally-raised, delicious meat. Agu, a type of pig, is an Okinawan specialty. Be sure to ask for your meat without soy sauce or mysterious seasonings.

Another small island group is the Izu Islands, which are technically considered part of Tokyo. There are nice swimming beaches, hikes, and outdoor hot springs. Take a slow ferry or a fast boat there, but book in advance online since the boats fill up quickly. Expect extremely limited provisions on these islands. I have always found something to eat, but I mostly cooked at my own campsite.

Izu Peninsula has a retro charm with its crumbling bubble-era hotels and pretty beaches. It is possible to drive or take the train there from Tokyo. Many people will prefer to have a car if exploring these areas, and many more gluten-free options will open up for you. If not, follow the tips above and you will probably find something edible.

What would you still like to know?

How has beach-hopping in Japan been for you? What do you wish you knew in advance? What incredibly obvious critical piece of information have I left out? Let us know in the comments!

Festival, Izu Peninsula
Festival on the Izu Peninsula.

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