Gluten Free Tours Japan is a company that specializes in helping people with celiac disease or gluten intolerance travel in Japan. I have celiac disease and used their services for one week of my month-long trip to Japan.
This article is an honest review of Gluten Free Tours Japan, plus an explanation of how their services actually work.
I know that before my own trip to Japan, I was really confused on what their “culinary support” services would look like in real-time, and my hope is that I can explain that to you!
Just a note that I paid for Gluten Free Tours Japan with my own hard-earned money just like any other customer. You can trust that everything I’m about to share is completely honest!
Gluten Free Tours Japan: What is It?
As I mentioned, Gluten Free Tours Japan is a small travel agency that focuses on gluten free travel in Japan.
The company is based in Australia, and run by an Australian-Japanese couple.
Meaghan is Australian, but has lived in Japan. As a vegetarian and gluten intolerant, she discovered first-hand the challenges of being gluten free in Japan. Meaghan manages client booking and communication.
Hiroshi is Japanese, and has experience as a chef. Due to his deep knowledge of Japanese restaurants and food, as well as his fluency in Japanese, he manages everything related to calling restaurants and hotels, reading labels and menus, and similar.
How Does Gluten Free Tours Japan Work?
If you’re anything like me, you’ve heard of Gluten Free Tours Japan before as this elusive entity that could somehow help you survive being gluten free in Japan… but you have no clue how that actually works.
Let me explain.
Gluten Free Tours Japan has two primary services: tours and culinary support.
You can book a tour of Japan through Gluten Free Tours Japan; this offering is most similar to traditional travel agents, and didn’t really appeal to me as someone who likes to have control over and book my own travels.
However, if you are looking for that extra help and you have the budget, you can book a tour.
Tours are either group tours (dates listed on their website – they offer a few per year), custom itineraries, or self-guided.
No, Meaghan and Hiroshi are not present during these tours, but the tours do include their culinary support. I will explain what that means below!
Culinary support services is the core of Gluten Free Tours Japan. This is what we booked.
But what does “culinary support” actually look like? How could someone find me safe gluten free food if they weren’t actually there? I had so many questions.
Here’s a brief outline of how the culinary support package worked.
1. Book Your Own Itinerary
With a culinary support package, you have to book your own trip.
I did get Meaghan’s recommendation for a celiac-safe ryokan that they worked with, but other than that we booked our own itinerary.
2. WhatsApp Group
Then, during our actual trip, Dan and I had a group chat on WhatsApp with Meaghan and Hiroshi.
We used that chat to tell them our plan for the day, discuss restaurants, send photos of ingredient labels, make food orders, etc.
Note: This does mean you will need access to cell service while in Japan. We used a Japanese SIM card we bought at the Tokyo airport. Another option is a travel wifi device; my recommended one is SIMO Solis Lite Travel Wifi.
3. Hiroshi Phone Calls
When we arrived at a restaurant, Hiroshi (who has a Japanese phone number) called the restaurant’s landline and spoke to them in Japanese about my gluten free needs.
He would then text me which dishes were safe, and help me order my food.
4. Photo Confirmation
Before eating, I would send Hiroshi a photo of my meal and he would tell me if it looked safe or not (this saved me once when he spotted a pickle garnish that the chef hadn’t told him about, and when he called back it turned out it wasn’t gluten free!).
I share more below about how the culinary support worked during our week in Hakone, Nara, Osaka, and Kyoto.
How is Gluten Free Tours Japan Different From Restaurant Lists?
It’s actually quite different and I will explain why.
Gluten Free Restaurant Lists Are Just a Starting Point
A list of gluten free restaurants is a great starting point, but it’s just that: a starting point.
Restaurants change management, staff, and menus all the time. You have to do research on whether the restaurant still has a gluten free menu, and then when you arrive you have to deal with the language barrier.
A translation card is a great help, but it doesn’t prevent all miscommunications nor allow you to fluently ask follow-up questions.
Gluten Free Tours Japan Does the Hard Work For You
Gluten Free Tours Japan, on the other hand, provides on-the-ground support.
They do the work of finding gluten free restaurants for you (and they know about more restaurants than you can easily find on the internet).
More importantly, in my opinion, they also do the hard work of communicating with restaurant staff on your behalf – in fluent Japanese. You don’t have to stress with a translation card, Google Translate, nor the possibility that you could be misunderstood, because you have Hiroshi doing the talking on your behalf.
An additional benefit is that Hiroshi and Meaghan can contact the restaurant by phone ahead of time and let you know if it’s even worth going there or not, saving you time you might have lost getting turned away from a restaurant that no longer serves gluten free food.
TL;DR: They Are Both Valuable
Look, I’m a gluten free travel blogger so I am never going to tell you that gluten free restaurant lists are useless.
I believe they’re an incredible resource for planning your trip and getting inspired about the gluten free food possibilities. But I also believe they have their limitations. They’re only useful if you’re willing to put in extra work.
Gluten Free Tours Japan goes beyond those limitations in a way that a list on the internet could never.
Each has their own place. They don’t serve the same purpose and are not mutually exclusive.
Cost And How to Book
Updated prices for Gluten Free Tours Japan’s services are listed on their website.
When we visited, the cost of a week of culinary support was $990 AUD, which is about $660 USD. I paid via Wise international transfer (low fee, I’ve used them for years! You can use my link for a fee-free transfer).
That is about $94 USD per day, for Meaghan and Hiroshi’s help finding and ordering gluten free food. I will tell you further down this article if I think that was worth it!
Organized or self-guided tours are much more expensive, naturally, because they include accommodation and transport. Prices are listed on their website.
Email them at [email protected] to book, and tell them Sarah from Endless Distances referred you!
Our Experience With Gluten Free Tours Japan: Honest Review
We booked them for only one week out of our month in Japan, but I made a strategic choice to use their services when we were in more remote areas (namely, Hakone and Nara) where I’d need more help. This is how our week with them went down!
Days 1-3: Hakone
We spent our first couple days using Gluten Free Tours Japan’s services in Hakone.
On our first day, Hiroshi helped me find some gluten free snacks at a 7-11 for our train journey.
Then he and Meaghan pulled a feat of finding me a celiac safe sashimi bowl (with gluten free soy sauce!). We were doing the Hakone Loop and in a pretty remote location, but somehow they found this place right at lunch time. It was perfect, simple, delicious, and one of my most memorable meals.
Of course, they also helped us book an incredible ryokan with a private onsen.
The ryokan stay included an elaborate shabu shabu (hot pot) dinner. In order for my meal to be gluten free, there were SO many modifications. I honestly never could have managed this on my own and I was really grateful to have their help.
Hiroshi also saved me when they refilled our hot pot with broth… I got a nervous feeling so I asked him to call and double check for me that the new broth was still gluten free. It turns out it WAS NOT GLUTEN FREE!
Thank goodness for my gluten spidey senses and thank goodness for Hiroshi talking to them! We promptly got a new pot, utensils, and gluten free broth and everything was okay.
The next morning, we had an elaborate breakfast at our ryokan. Such a fun experience!
Meaghan and Hiroshi also helped me order gluten free mochi at an ancient tea house in Hakone that I really wanted to visit (this is where Hiroshi saved me from the gluten-y pickles!), as well as find a wonderful yakiniku restaurant for dinner on our second night.
Days 3-4: Osaka
After Hakone, we headed to Osaka for one night. Osaka is a big city and I’d done a lot of research on gluten free restaurants in Osaka. Dan and I were coming back to Osaka at the end of our trip, so in order to maximize our time with Gluten Free Tours Japan I set them the annoying challenge of finding me some under-the-radar restaurants.
Well, they definitely hit it out of the park with a 100% gluten free cafe that served celiac-safe omurice and cheesecake. Complete with the NICEST owner and cutest dog!
You won’t find this cafe listed on any blog posts or apps… it’s a true secret and both Dan and I just loved it.
They also helped us explore Kuromon Ichiba Market, which is the big food market in Osaka. Hiroshi called me on WhatsApp and then I passed my phone over to the food stall owners.
It was sooo funny seeing their reaction to having someone on my phone speak fluent Japanese to them, haha. And it worked really well – I had some delicious food!
For dinner, we had some high hopes but unfortunately Dan got an upset stomach, so at the last minute we had to change plans. Meaghan and Hiroshi just rolled with it despite them already having put in time researching our original dinner plans.
They helped me get takeout tacos, and took all the stress out of it by calling ahead for me.
Days 4-6: Nara
After Osaka, we spent two night in Nara. Honestly, Nara was the biggest struggle of anywhere we went in Japan, even with the help of Gluten Free Tours Japan.
Saying that, it would have been way more difficult without them and in hindsight I wish we’d just stayed here one night. (Although our hotel was awesome – Onyado Nono Hot Springs Hotel for anyone curious!).
My highlights in Nara were Meaghan and Hiroshi helping me get safe mochi from the traditional mochi pounder, a safe afternoon snack of tea and warabi mochi at a quaint tea house, and also helping us navigate which sakes were gluten free at a special sake-tasting. (When I list those all out, Nara doesn’t seem so bad, does it?).
Dinner was more of a struggle, and both nights we unfortunately had our plans fall through thanks to restaurants changing their gluten free status, unexpectedly closing, or not being safe.
I think it’s important to remember that Gluten Free Tours Japan is incredibly helpful, but they are not miracle workers so you shouldn’t have unrealistic expectations of them. The truth is that travel with celiac disease is tough and not every day is going to be amazing!
Saying that, on our first night they did manage to find us celiac safe gluten free pasta at the last minute, and they even called the restaurant who stayed open late for us!
Days 6-9: Kyoto
You are probably wondering why this says “days 6-9” when we’d only booked one week with Gluten Free Tours Japan. Well, Meaghan and Hiroshi felt bad about how things went down in Nara and they offered us two extra days free of charge.
Honestly, we did not expect that whatsoever (sometimes it’s just hard to be celiac and that wasn’t their fault) and it was really, really kind of them.
We had not originally planned to use their services in Kyoto because, being a larger city, there are more gluten free restaurants there. We tried not to take advantage of their generosity in Kyoto and had already reserved some meals ourselves.
However, I definitely took them up on their help for a wonderful lunch in Arashiyama where we had a full set menu including gluten free tempura!! I’d actually found this restaurant in my own research, but had no clue if the tempura was celiac safe nor how to make a reservation. I’d figured we just wouldn’t be able to eat there and I was sad!
Thanks to having Meaghan and Hiroshi’s help, though, they were able to make us a reservation and confirm that the tempura was okay for me to eat! It ended up being an incredibly delicious meal.
This is a good example of how a list of gluten free restaurants is just a starting point, and not a replacement for their services.
While in Kyoto, Meaghan and Hiroshi also found us gluten free Japanese curry, and gluten free sushi.
Both of those restaurants don’t show up in any searches of gluten free restaurants in Kyoto, and are true hidden gems.
Benefits of Using Gluten Free Tours Japan
Now, let’s talk about my thoughts on Gluten Free Tours Japan and whether it’s worth it.
Let me start out by saying that I have had celiac disease for 13 years. That means for 13 years I have been in charge of finding safe GF food, by myself. Sure, Dan is a great support to me, but ultimately it is my burden to bear and my responsibility.
My week with Gluten Free Tours Japan was the first time in 13 years that I was not the #1 person communicating to restaurants about my gluten free needs. It was, honestly, kind of an emotional experience. I think that I didn’t even realize the extent of the burden of being gluten free, until it was lifted for me.
Sure, I was still being careful and keeping an eagle eye out for possible gluten, and occasionally researching restaurants, because that’s life as a celiac, but 90% of the burden was gone.
That is the #1 benefit of Gluten Free Tours Japan, in my opinion. Every celiac deserves to experience that. Below are more benefits to using Gluten Free Tours Japan.
Take a True Vacation
If you’ve read my gluten free Japan guide, then you know that it’s hard work to be gluten free in Japan. It’s definitely possible, but there is a lot to learn and keep track of.
It is understandable, then, that you may not want to “work hard” during what is supposed to be a vacation! With Gluten Free Tours Japan, you can actually feel like you’re taking a vacation.
Yes, I was on vacation in Japan, but for the first time in 13 years it felt like I also got a vacation from being celiac!
Meaghan and Hiroshi save you a ton of time researching restaurants.
I noticed that they tried hard to find us restaurants that were conveniently located to where we planned to be around mealtimes.
Communication with Restaurants
Of course, one of the biggest benefits is that Hiroshi speaks fluent Japanese and has a Japanese phone number. He spoke to all restaurants on my behalf, fluently explaining celiac disease, cross contact, and my gluten free needs.
Beyond the benefit of being confident I was getting safe gluten free food, it was also funny to see the reactions of the food service workers.
Suddenly, they’d become way more interested in us and ask about our “Japanese friend” haha.
Hiroshi is able to make restaurant reservations on your behalf, which is very useful because quite a few Japanese restaurants only take reservations on the phone and only speak Japanese.
Meaghan and Hiroshi know about a number of under-the-radar gluten free restaurants (or restaurants that can accommodate celiacs) that you won’t find listed on travel blogs or in Facebook groups.
This opens up more authentic-feeling restaurants, rather than those that only cater to Western tourists.
One of my favorite meals with Hiroshi and Meaghan’s help was a small restaurant in Hakone that served us a gluten free sashimi bowl. Eating here was effortless with their help. And without them, I can guarantee I wouldn’t have eaten lunch that day!
Finally, an underrated benefit of Gluten Free Tours Japan is the interaction with Meaghan and Hiroshi!
They are always there on WhatsApp. Dan and I would talk about them so much (“send this photo to Hiroshi” “Meaghan just said this” “There goes the phone ringing… it must be Hiroshi” “Hiroshi says it’s safe!!”) that it almost felt like they were there with us.
It was really special to travel Japan and feel like I had a back up squad who totally understood the ups and downs of being gluten free, without me having to explain that. I am so grateful that I got to “meet” them!
Drawbacks of Using Gluten Free Tours Japan
Because this is an honest review, here are some drawbacks to consider when you’re booking Gluten Free Tours Japan.
The most obvious drawback to using Gluten Free Tours Japan’s services versus not using them, is that it costs money!
Whether you actually consider this a drawback or not is personal and based on your own budget.
In my opinion, the value of their services changes based on where you are and how difficult it is to find safe gluten free food. It’s useful to take this into consideration if you’re only booking their services for part of your Japan itinerary, like we did.
As a sensitive celiac on a mid-range budget in Japan, I definitely thought their services were worth the cost for the locations we were in.
This isn’t technically a drawback of using their services, but rather a consideration. Gluten Free Tours Japan is a very small company and can sell out during busy times of year.
Contact them as far in advance as possible to ensure they have availability, so you aren’t disappointed!
Again, this isn’t really a drawback but more an area for improvement.
I think that before the services started, it would have been nice to get some kind of introductory document with information on being gluten free in Japan, how their services worked and what to expect, and a list of likely-GF conbini food (to save time sending photos). None of that is mandatory of course but it would have been a nice touch.
Who I Recommend Gluten Free Tours Japan Services For
Now that you’ve read my Gluten Free Tours Japan review, let’s talk about who their services are best suited for, in my opinion.
There are some people who will, without a doubt, benefit from Gluten Free Tours Japan, and perhaps shouldn’t even consider visiting Japan without them:
- Newly diagnosed celiacs (<5 years)
- People who haven’t done much international travel with celiac
- Families with gluten free children
- Mixed groups where one or more people are gluten free and others eat gluten
- People who want the most stress free trip possible, and have the budget
I also think you need to consider your actual itinerary. Even the most experienced celiacs, like myself, can still really benefit from Gluten Free Tours Japan’s help depending on where you’re visiting.
Japan itineraries that will benefit from Gluten Free Tours Japan’s help include:
- Fast-paced itineraries (ie, not much time to search for food on your own)
- Travel outside major cities (Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka)
- Any days spent in remote or countryside areas
- Accommodation involving food, like a ryokan or temple stay
- Hiking or pilgrimages
- Foodie-focused itineraries
Would I Use Gluten Free Tours Japan Again?
The short answer is yes, I would book Gluten Free Tours Japan’s services again.
However, personally, on a return visit I would only book them for travel in Japan outside the major cities.
Saying that, I have had celiac disease for 13 years, and during that time I’ve visited 50+ countries. I am a full-time gluten free travel blogger! My point is that I have a LOT of experience with gluten free travel, so my opinion cannot be generalized to the majority of gluten free travelers.
PLEASE don’t take this as me saying YOU shouldn’t book their services in Tokyo, Kyoto, or Osaka. This is purely my personal opinion for my own unique circumstances.
It’s only been a couple months since I was in Japan, but I seriously dream of returning to Japan and exploring more of the countryside and remote areas.
There is a 100% chance that I will book Gluten Free Tours Japan’s services when the time comes for that! Honestly, it is hard for me to even imagine visiting remote areas of Japan without their help.
I hope that this honest review of Gluten Free Tours Japan has answered some of your questions, and given you insight into what a day using their services actually looks like.
If you have questions about my experience, leave me a comment below.
If you’d like to book their services, shoot them an email at [email protected] and tell them Sarah from Endless Distances referred you!