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Me and my wife are planning to travel to Japan next September 2014. Unfortunately my wife has a big problem with shrimp: she is extremely allergic to it (even the food fried with the same oil that was used to fry shrimp could create a big problem for her). I know that we will find a lot of different foods over there, including McDonald's and conventional occidental food, but certainly we will try authentic Japanese food (besides everything, my wife loves it).

What precautions should we take? Are there any Japanese food that are mixed with shrimp that we wouldn't (and should) know of? Are food allergies a common issue in Japan, and people are used to deal with it?

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You should probably try to not eat shrimp. That's a pretty good precaution. (sorry, couldn't help myself) –  Doc Apr 23 '14 at 19:04

3 Answers 3

up vote 21 down vote accepted

Seafood allergies are a big issue in Japan, vegetarianism is often hard to deal with, a strong allergy to shrimp will cause problems unless you know what not to eat and are prepared to tell the waiter your needs in Japanese. If you rely on English skills only and do not avoid special types of food, you will have a problem, guaranteed.

My first recommendation would be to for sure avoid deep fried food such as Tempura, Kushikatsu amd Tonkatsu. Those are all fried in the same oil as other customers food and therefore for sure mixed with shrimp.

Secondly, as long as you go for other food types you might be fine most of the time provided that you prepare a paper for the waiter in Japanese that makes them aware of the issue and thus stay safe of ordering something that contains a sauce or soup made of shrimp. You better also get a proper understanding what causes the allergy so that you know if it's only shrimp or also crabs or other types of shellfish. Shellfish varieties in Japan are numerous and you want to avoid a misunderstanding. Then you will be ok and enjoy a huge variety of Japanese food. Be aware that in many cases waiters do not know too much about the food they are serving and have to check with the cook about the ingredients of what they serve, so you better have something on the paper that says "Please check with the cook that... ".

Last but not least there is the probably most important warning: The Japanese healthcare system is suffering from a slew of litigation cases which causes many hospitals and clinics to refuse emergency cases. A friend of mine had to be brought to 6 (!) different clinics in Tokyo with a bust appendix until he was accepted. So if the consequences of the allergy are life-threatening, you better ask your doctor at home if you can get any emergency treatment injection or pills to stop or delay the effects of the allergy until you can get accepted in a hospital and get proper treatment. Otherwise you might face dire consequences.

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My wife is also allergic to seafood and found the last time we went a pain due to dashi (literally stock, but for the most part fish / seafood stock) finding its way into a whole load of unexpected places. My Japanese isn’t awful but I don’t trust myself to be able to explain this properly to a waiter/waitress.

This time we’re taking explanatory flash cards with us. You can buy these commercially (e.g. http://www.selectwisely.com/catalog/Seafood_Fish_and_Shellfish_Allergies ) but there are also free printable versions (e.g. http://www.justhungry.com/japan-dining-out-cards ). It’s easy to print and customise these to exactly what you need.

Post visit edit

I forgot to update with the results of these cards. A few places were 🙅: nothing on the menu was OK or they weren’t happy to guarantee it. A couple had no problem with anything on the menu. More usually though the waiter/waitress was happy to point out anything that was definitely edible, and on one occasion the waitress went to the kitchen and got a written list from the chef of items he vouched for as being OK. A+++ would use cards again.

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I went to Japan on Feb. 2014, I am allergic to shellfish. I did a lot of research. First thing, it is illegal to bring an epi-pen to Japan and almost impossible to get a special permit to get them in the country. I got the printed card and also a pandora charm that said I was allergic to shellfish. I carried with me Benadryl everywhere. Server at restaurants and even at McDonals will go a mile extra to make sure you don’t eat anything that is not safe for you. I learn how to say in Japanese that I have an allergy and I could die besides carrying and showing them the card so they took it pretty seriously.

I starve some times because most places will not have anything safe to eat. McDonalds cook its shrimp burgers near the regular ones, so the only safe thing on the menu are their french fries. At the Japanese burger chain MOS you can have burgers but not french fries as they fry shrimp on the same oil. Vegetarian food is your best bet! Curry houses are fine, and any Japanese zen Shojin ryori cuisine should be safe. Be careful with desserts I love dango but you should not eat the salty/soy ones as they can contain dashi (dashi has always seafood), the sweet flavors are fine. Beware of steak houses, I had a reaction after having lunch at one (I could controlled it with 2 Benadryl) they cook the meat and shellfish in the same surfaces and even if you ask them to be extra careful as my guide did, it just didn’t worked. Foods you should not eat are: miso soup,fried food, okonomiyaki, about street foods (yakitori can have shellfish on the sauce, little round things some times are baby octopus which I am sure taste delicious.)

Go to a convenience store or a supermarket and get basic sandwich meat, cheese and regular bread (don’t get fancy with ingredients you don’t know it can cost you) and prepare some sandwiches to take with you in case you can’t find anything to eat. I mostly survive with dessert, sake and beer. I am planning to go this year again and I am glad now I know I should try to look for vegetarian restaurants instead of trying to find something to eat and being frustrated because I can’t have anything. Also planing to bring some of those lunch tuna snacks and other stuff to make sure I am not eating dessert for dinner.That said, people in Japan are super polite and accommodating. I really love Japan and I will try my best to make sure I stay safe and away from shellfish.

Please do tons of research about the area you are going to, contact your hotel if is small to make them aware, tell your guides, look in happycow.com for vegetarian restaurants in the area you’ll be staying and do the same at trip advisor.

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