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Thoughts from my travel in Japan - credit cards, food allergies and more

I’m actually still in Japan but we’ve wrapped up most of our travel and so I thought I’d weigh in on the Japan questions that come up here often. As ever, for more detailed information, look at my bio on this site - there’s a link to my way-more-detailed blog.

Credit cards - taken almost everywhere, even for small purchases. The only exception is a store here and there and then the little food stands that are right at the tracks in the train stations.

English spoken - this was my biggest surprise. People who weighed in on this site and elsewhere indicated that there is plenty of English spoken and I have not found that to be true. Even desk staff at the hotels has often only spoken a minimum of English. It’s all worked out but it’s definitely made the traveling a little harder - and we were on a tour for the bulk of our travels so it didn’t matter that much. I feel like it would have been more difficult traveling around on our own. Lots of people chimed in with “You don’t need a tour” and I’m extremely glad we were on a tour.

Food allergies - this has been rough. Japan is definitely a society where asking for “special” treatment seems to be an insult and it seems like food requests qualify as special treatment. I think completely gluten free here would be difficult. My tour even booked me as gluten free and there were plenty of times I was served gluten or where I could not tell for certain. When we ate our meals on our own, without the tour, there was absolutely no way I could figure out what I was eating. And Japan does not dual-label any food items. I could not see the ingredients in any grocery items. I had planned to use my Google translate to scan labels but it was so slow and burdensome that I gave up. I have eaten A LOT of candy on this trip;)

Thoughts in general - Japan is gorgeous! I was not expecting to like Tokyo but I did! Even though Tokyo and Kyoto are vast and crowded, everyone is so orderly and polite - it’s awesome. The countryside is my favorite. Don’t leave out smaller towns if you’re planning a trip. Kanazawa was my favorite spot in our travels. About 88,000 people, charming architecture, strolling lanes and so green.

Posted by
122 posts

Glad you enjoyed Japan. My daughter has taught in Tokyo for several years so I have been a few times. I saw many memorable places via my train pass. I did not take a tour but instead stayed in Japanese inns and used train+ bus. On my 1st visit English signage was limited but I got by with gestures and a smile and a sense of adventure. Best of all as a solo travel ( while my daughter was busy teaching English) I felt totally safe on the trains/ i n Tokyo and especially in smaller cities.I did not have your GF concerns so I can understand why that was difficult. I think there are apps to help decipher menu terms but I have never needed them. I ate at Izakias and from the family grocery store all on a budget...oh yes Indian buffet worked well.Hope you are able to make a return visit and discover more places.

Posted by
13478 posts

Valerie, great that you enjoyed your trip in spite of some challenges! I'm a bit surprised that you were told that there was "plenty of English spoken" as comments on many travel sites I belong to say otherwise. That had to exacerbate the problem with communicating your food allergy.

I don't think a lot of Asia is nearly as familiar with gluten allergies as Europe or some other parts of the world whereas lactose allergies are more common.

Posted by
1214 posts

I have young relatives who've gone to Japan and loved it. Maybe not Tokyo but the temples and countryside are gorgeous and the people are very polite but stare sometimes at foreigners. They also had a problem with, oddly enough, vegetarian food in some places as more people eat meat and I'm guessing being a vegan isn't like in Western Europe.

They loved the clean bathrooms and sent a dozen pictures/videos of the toilets and buttons. Finally, they loved the fact that you can get to the countryside by public transport. Glad you had a good time.

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2133 posts

Food: So key for me was that it’s fine if I eat gluten - I was just avoiding it for a stupid medical reason too personal for this site:) But if I was celiac? It would be hard here. The one thing they mastered at my meals was the gluten free soy sauce but there was just so much other stuff that seemed to have gluten or seemed like it might have gluten. But I do have a couple of true, serious food allergies and working around those was harder and those were mostly what led to my candy meals. I got by on a lot of rice and ice cream too.

Toilets: Best toilets of my life. I love them. The most elaborate, luxurious contraptions I’ve encountered. The joy of a heated toilet seat:)

Trains: They feel about like the trains in Europe. They run timely and are totally overheated inside (not that it mattered, as I was totally overheated just traipsing around in general). The train stations are vast, and I think by using the word “vast”, I’m not actually doing them justice. Shinjuku station in Tokyo was really just an opportunity to get incredibly lost. Using GPS to find the station worked. Using GPS to find the right area of the station was useless. We used a backup plan - stop someone who looks American and hope they have more information than we do.

Posted by
2018 posts

Hi Valerie. I followed your Japanese adventure on your blog and enjoyed every word. You write with such humor and your descriptions are so vivid, I almost felt as if I was right there with you! I can relate to the food part. No allergies but if it's wiggly, squishy or the least bit 'slimy' (like the dreaded eggplant...), it's not for me! I am happy your enjoyed you visit and thanks for posting here, too.

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2133 posts

@Maria - I used to travel with allergy cards and translation stuff for my true troubling allergy - corn. But I’ve even given that up now. With some Zyrtec, Benadryl and my EpiPens, I muddle through. My hardest food challenge in Japan has simply been that I am a picky eater in a culture full of VERY different food offerings:)

Posted by
3789 posts

I removed my post, as I see your first entry shows you know whst you are doing. Cliff bars, indeed. Picky eater, well, that I don't understand 😉 I realize I have read your other blogs most recently Greece. Back to the 'toilets I have seen and loved in Japan' blog....

Posted by
7686 posts

We had a great trip to Japan recently and agree with many of your comments. We also were surprised by how little English was spoken even in hotels at the front desks. Google Translate was a life saver, type in the English words and it translated to Japanese characters.
Also loved Kanazawa but Takayama was a big favorite. I am happiest in cities and Tokyo was fabulous. I love Japanese food so was happy eating all of it. Scary about the lack of gluten free as I have family with celiac disease.
I can’t wait to return, mostly for the food!

Posted by
12882 posts


Thanks very much for an informative, interesting and reveal report. I had hear likewise in regards to English when Tokyo and Beijing or Shanghai are compared, as to which offers more English signs, etc, The answer is not Tokyo. I agree the tour option is best.

Since you're on the west coast, I would assume you've been to Little Tokyo in LA and Japan Town in SF and elsewhere on the food offerings, etc.