I think everyone remembers that first moment they stumble into a Japanese convenience store, known as a conbini: neatly plastic-wrapped items in a sea of characters you can’t read in an aura of bright light bulbs. It’s exciting, it’s befuddling, but when you have special dietary needs it can be downright frustrating.
If you haven’t already read Part 1, you can find it here. Part 1 gives basic guidelines for snacking in Japan, ingredients to look out for, places to buy certified GF snacks, etc. But if you want the gist: almost nothing I’m going to talk about here is certified gluten-free, so please only eat these things once you understand the risk involved and make a decision about your own comfort level.
7-11 has the most branches all over Japan, so we decided to focus on their snacks. That said, most of the these things (or similar products) can be found at their rival convenience stores: Family Mart, Lawson Station, MiniStop, etc.
Here are some recommended GF-friendly items:
Soy Joy Bars
These are inconsistently marked gluten-free, often on the box, but not on the individual wrappers themselves. As always, with all these products, it’s always safest to double check using the Google translate camera function and/or looking for allergen symbols, but they should generally be safe.
These are boiled with salt and can be great emergency breakfasts. They’re found in the refrigerated section of the shop. Do be slightly cautious that you get the ゆでたまご (Yudetamago) because sometimes there are single-serving raw eggs to pour over other refrigerated dishes. I made that mistake once and end up cracking it all over myself at the office! Of course if you’re open to eating raw eggs, these can also be a good breakfast over rice.
Edamame, boiled soy beans, can be found in the refrigerated, not frozen, section and are a great option for vegans.
Onigiri (AKA “rice balls”)
Be especially careful with rice balls, here and at every convenience store, because sometimes similar items contain wheat and others don’t. The safest way is to check the label each time. Generally speaking the one pictured below from 7-11 seems to be safe, and many celiacs report eating them without any reaction. The plum rice balls or the ones with sweet beans and sesame seeds on top are also usually safe.
At the time of my last visit to 7-11 there was a “salted rice ball” that was wheat-free, but it included vinegar, which can sometimes contain gluten. Also, MiniStop’s salmon rice ball contains wheat according the label. Therefore, we recommend that you exercise caution when choosing rice balls and confirm the ingredients as carefully as possible.
These are really sweet, and not going to be to everyone’s liking, but they make a great dessert or can curb sweet tooth cravings. Like others on this list, not certified gluten-free, but the only ingredient is chestnuts.
I tend to stick to plain yogurt as the more mysterious ingredients that are included, the more weary I am that a gluten-filled syrup might have been added. I have had no reaction from “Bulgaria.” Note that this yogurt is only mildly sweetened or unsweetened, depending on the package, so some people might like to add honey, nuts, or fruit to give it flavor. Convenience stores will sometimes have chopped pineapple, which is good if you don’t have a kitchen. I usually get my fruit from small fruit shops as you will get more for your money. (More on fruit below.)
Many chocolate bars contain mizuame, which as I said in Part 1 is a controversial item. It’s very hard to know if mizuame is GF or not, although many people report no reaction. Best to stick to chocolates that don’t contain it. Many of the simple chocolate or dark chocolate bars are safe, but check the label to be extra safe. We recommend places like Seijo Ishii or Kaldi for chocolate labeled GF.
Calbee Salted Potato Sticks
These sticks don’t contain wheat like many Japanese snacks do; even Japanese Doritos have soy sauce in them! Make sure to get the green package as some of the other flavors could contain gluten.
Haagen-Dazs Ice Cream
Many of the Haagen-Dazs flavors are safe, but of course use common sense and veer away from the flavors containing cookies or something else suspicious. Many of the other ice creams and ice pops in Japan contain mizuame, and are thus, suspicious.
Instant Rice Packs
These rice packs can easily be prepared and mixed with other ingredients. If you have a Seiyu or Kaldi Coffee Farm near your accommodation, and have access to a stovetop/microwave, some of their instant curries are GF-friendly. Use Google translate app to check the allergens.
Natto (without the sauce!)
Natto, fermented soybeans, are definitely a love-it-or-hate-it food, and not just for foreigners. Many Japanese people cannot stand the taste. We both enjoy it, and it is definitely a healthy and cheap food. Just avoid the sauce that comes with it and use your own GF soy sauce or salt.
Steamed Bean Packs
These little plastic packs of steamed beans are usually fine, but don’t have much flavor. If you got some shredded cabbage and some balsamic vinegar/olive oil, some canned tuna, and boiled eggs you could make a little impromptu salad with these. A couple of the basic salads are fine at 7-11, but the dressings are almost always not. Also, beware that some “healthy” salads will add barley, which won’t be clearly marked as an allergen on the label. One of the potato salads at 7-11 does not contain wheat, but it does contain vinegar, which makes it questionable.
Some of the salmon fillets are ok, but others aren’t, so proceed with caution. Many of the chicken fillets mysteriously contain wheat. Most sliced ham will also contain mizuame, sometimes as the #1 ingredient, making them questionable. Natural food stores or Kaldi’s refrigerated section are better places to look for meat without mizuame.
Hojicha, Ocha, and Coffee
In general, people should be cautious about teas as mugicha, barley tea, is a really popular refreshments and what is often served at restaurants in place of ice water. Hojicha and Ocha are both fine and can be found at convenience stores; they are both unsweetened. In the colder months, you will notice that there is a hot bottled section in addition to the cold bottled beverages. You can also order a cup of coffee from the cash register and make it at the machine.
GF “Beer” and Chu-his
If you’re craving a beer, Nodogoshi Nama is available at all convenience stores, including 7-11. It’s technically not beer, but it tastes pretty similar. Also, it’s not certified GF, so there might be some CC. I like to mix these with a lemon soda during the summer for a light refreshment. Many chu-his are also not certified GF, but also lots of people comment that they drink them without reactions, so you will have to decide on your comfort level. My biggest complaint about many of them is the artificial sweeteners and flavorings that get added, some of which give me a headache. For more on alcoholic beverages in general, check out our post on drinking in Japan. PS we know we still owe you Part 2: should be out soon!
What is NOT available at 7-11
GF bread, GF soy sauce, clearly-labeled GF snacks, desserts, dinners, pastas, etc. Pretty much everything will be at your own risk. You will be able to find some very basic stuff that you will likely just know is GF, like cans of tuna, but do not expect to find things that cater to GF diets. 98% or more of what you see in the convenience store won’t be GF, or at least will be questionable. That’s why we so strongly recommend bringing snacks from home just in case.
Healthy Snacking: Beyond 7-11
For some reason there seems to be this stereotype that fruit is ridiculously expensive in Japan. I admit that as a Californian I was taken aback by the prices of fruit, but that was because I stepped into a department store fruit section and saw a melon marked $50. These outlandish prices do exist.
However, in most traditional Japanese neighborhoods there are small shopping streets called shotengai that often have wonderful fruit and veggie shops. Some even have discounted items, and each season you visit can try a different selection of Japanese fruit you might not find in your home country. The prices will still likely be more than what you’re used to, but not out of your budget. If you’re going to be based somewhere for a week, but don’t have a kitchen, it might even be worth it to buy a small cutting board and knife at the 100 yen shop.
7-11 will at least have a bag of bananas available, and that’s gotten me through some hangry times when all else failed.
Part Three: the lowdown on Other Convenience Store Items
As we approach cherry blossom season, many of you might be looking for snacks to bring on your picnics (hanami). Most of the foods and drinks we’ve talked about here are available just about everywhere, but some convenience stores have some unique products. Next post will focus on some of our favorite products from other convenience stores.
You might have noticed that a lot of cherry blossom festivals are being canceled this year due to coronavirus, so we recommend double-checking event information as the dates approach. Likely, many of the food stands will be closed this year, partly for this reason. Don’t worry, you won’t miss much since most of it’s not GF-friendly anyway.
Also, we imagine that many people will still be out enjoying the cherry blossoms despite the government warnings, so make your best judgment and stay safe.
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