What to do if you get sick in Japan
You’re in Japan, and you find yourself sick or injured. What do you do? In the immortal words found on the cover of the book, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, first of all, DON’T PANIC.
And then read this article to find out what happened to me so you will know what to do, where to go, how much it might cost you, and whether anyone will speak English.
If you just happen to be in Kanazawa at the time, you’re in luck because I was, too. You’ll learn which medical facility to go to along with a list of other resources for that city.
But again, DON’T PANIC.
How did I get injured in Japan
This story begins with a bad knee, a pair of shoes, and a blister.
I arrived in Japan not completely in one piece in the summer of 2018. I had a torn meniscus, a stress fracture, and arthritis on my right knee all from a fateful stint on a treadmill and a fall in Vietnam, another on my kitchen floor, and still another down a flight of stairs all over the past three years. (I swear I was not drinking. I’m just really clumsy.
Walking is generally ok for me as long as I exercise regularly, but because I’d been so busy at work in the months before my trip to Japan, I hadn’t exercised much at all. As a result, I arrived in Japan limping along on a bad knee, causing me to put all my weight onto my left leg and foot.
And on my first full day in Japan, I was wearing these shoes that I hadn’t worn in a long time: my Tevas (see photo below). These were the same pair of sandals that I’d been wearing since 2012 and the same sandals that I’d worn in Peru, Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia, etc. They had served me well and despite being too heavy, I’d never had any problems with them. Yet, in Japan I did.
I was also carrying more than I normally do when I travel: a new Fuji XT-2 camera, a gorilla tripod, and a 901-page Lonely Planet Japan book. Oh and I thought I’d take my laptop with me so I could get some work done. This computer came with the world’s biggest power cord.
Because of the bad knee, the sandals, the added weight, and the incredible amount of walking I was doing in Japan, my right knee blew up to the size of a cantaloupe and my left foot got it really good. Along with a few scrapes and cuts from the straps of my sandals. a blister had formed on the bottom of my left toe.
I thought the blister was no big deal. Whenever I had gotten blisters before, they had always gone away after a day or two. But not this sucker. Instead, as the days progressed, the blister got bigger and bigger until by day six, it was covering half of my big toe.
Walking became quite painful. But I just sort of ignored it. Being in denial about a lot of shit in my life is something I’m really good at. I tend to put up with painful situations longer than is good for me. And Japan was so amazing that I wasn’t going to let pain stop me from seeing as much as I could of it.
I did search online for what to do about the blister.
Here’s what the experts (a.k.a., the internet) say about blisters: Don’t pop a blister yourself. It will eventually heal on its own. Blisters do not become infected if they remain intact.
Since my blister hadn’t popped, it had to be ok, right?
It wasn’t until day seven when I arrived in Kanazawa that I noticed my whole left foot had started to hurt and become red. When I first realized that I needed a doctor, I searched online in vain for what to do. Most of what I found was misleading or out-of-date. One website warned people not to go to a hospital as it would be too expensive. Instead, the site recommended going to a clinic.
How did I find medical care?
Then I read a blog post from an expat who had lived in Kanazawa and who’d gone to a clinic inside the train station (Kanazawa Station Clinic) whose staff spoke English. Never mind that this post had been written umpteen years ago. It was the only helpful piece of information I could find.
You might ask why I didn’t look for info in my 901-page Lonely Planet. Yes, I did and didn’t. I looked for the name of a hospital in Kanazawa, but I found no information.
The one thing I did overlook in those 901 pages was that in the back of the book, Lonely Planet suggests not going to a clinic but instead going straight to a hospital if you find yourself in need of medical care in Japan. And yes, that is what I should have done.
You’re probably wondering whether I had travel insurance. Yes, I did. My insurance through my job covers international travel. But I’d still need to pay for the bill upfront and then get everything translated from Japanese to English. I also had an emergency travel assistance service called Unum through work as well, but I thought I’d need to make an international phone call. They say “call collect,” but who here has ever been successful at calling collect internationally?
The next morning I checked with the front desk at the hostel for suggestions on where to go. You’d think they would know, wouldn’t you? But they had absolutely no idea what to do about a foreigner in need of medical assistance.
They did look up the clinic at the train station for me and found the address. They suggested not calling and instead just showing up because if they called and said a foreigner wanted to come in, they’d refuse to see me. It’s better to just show up.
The hostel helped translate “I have an infected blister” into Japanese. The odd thing was that the receptionist had no idea what a blister was. I understood why he wouldn’t know the English word, but when we used Google translate and translated it into Japanese, he still didn’t know what it was. Even when he looked at the blister, he was still clueless.
Don’t Japanese people get blisters?
What happened at the clinic?
I took a taxi to the train station and found the clinic on the 4th floor. It looked exactly like all clinics do in the United States. There was a waiting room on the left side with typical-clinic like semi-comfortable chairs in rows and a receptionist standing behind a desk on the right side. I went to the reception desk and gave the receptionist a big smile and said, “Konnichiwa” and then handed her my note.
I could tell that I was the last person on earth she wanted to see.
She read my note, looked up at me, and said in English, “I’m so sorry, but we can’t see you. You need a hospital. You need a surgeon or a dermatologist.” Her English perhaps wasn’t this perfect, but it was pretty close.
I thought to myself, “what did that guy at the hostel write on that note?”
All I needed was for a doctor to pop my blister and give me antibiotics. How hard can that be? I sort of politely insisted that I be seen because I had no idea what to do otherwise and the thought of going to a hospital seemed too overwhelming. She told me to sit down in the waiting area.
A few minutes later, a nurse who spoke English with the perfect American accent came over to me. In front of the whole waiting room, she had me remove my shoe and sock to look at the blister. She repeated the same information, “I’m so sorry. We can’t see you. You need to go to a hospital to see a surgeon or a dermatologist.”
Really? How strange. I’m I don’t need surgery, and I don’t have a skin disease.
Where did I finally get medical help?
The clinic wrote down the name of a hospital for me, the Johoku Hospital. I found another taxi to take me there (¥9,000). It dropped me off at the wrong entrance, but I didn’t know that. I went up to a female hospital employee and handed her my note, and without saying anything, she (as Japanese often did) walked me to another building and brought me to a long receptionist desk with
The hospital wasn’t fancy or especially very technologically advanced looking. It was white, bland, simple, sterile, and quiet. What stood out for me was that there were no signs in English anywhere in the hospital.
A woman came out from a room in back of the front reception desk. She spoke English quite well. I think her job was to be an interpreter. She sat me down at a table and gave me a form to fill out, translating the parts that I didn’t understand. There’s absolutely no English on the form. I can read some Kanji because I studied Chinese before. However, this knowledge didn’t get me too far on the form.
When I told her my problem, she looked up the word, “blister,” in her dictionary. She had the same quizzical look on her face as everyone else did.
I thought to myself, “what is going on with these people? Haven’t they ever heard of a blister before? Ok, it’s a large blister, but it’s still a blister. I don’t have some contagious disease.”
After filling out the form and giving them my passport, I sat and waited around in the reception area of the hospital.
I then got a very late idea to try to see how to contact the emergency assistance service. I had their app on my phone. And lo and behold all I needed to do was press a button on the app and it immediately called the service and right away someone answered the phone. Up to that point, I was pretty calm about the ordeal, but when I had to explain to the people at Unum, I started to choke up and lose my composure. I’m alone and everyone thought I needed a surgeon. I should have called Unum before because they could have probably found me medical care sooner. Other than finding me a doctor, they also provide interpreting service. But there was an interpreter at the hospital, so I didn’t need their service. However, Unum was so kind that they called me back later to find out if I was ok.
The interpreter came back with a plastic ID card with my name on it and my birthdate. It was all in Japanese, but I assumed it could be used to access my records. The funny part was that they got my birthdate wrong. They said I was born in 1945! Wow! Do they really think I’m 73 years old?
Then I went to a nurse triage, which was still in the reception area but off to the side (not private at all!). A nurse looked at my foot and then went to confer with the interpreter. Finally, after 15 minutes, the interpreter and nurse come back.
“I’m so sorry, but the dermatologist and surgeon are not at the hospital today, so we will send you to a plastics doctor.”
I assumed they meant a “plastic surgeon.”
At this point of the ordeal, I’d accepted the fact that everyone thought I had a skin disease or my toe needed to be removed. Whatever. If they wanted to remove a toe, I didn’t care at this point because by then, my foot was pretty much screaming at me.
“I’m so sorry. But you need to wait
An hour? Three hours? I’m American. We consider
The interpreter brought me to another floor and sat me down in a waiting room. The room was full of elderly people who didn’t look like the kind of people who’d need plastic surgery. Sure, these people had wrinkles, but they looked too down to earth to be concerned with getting botox.
What did the doctor do?
After maybe 30 or 40 minutes, my name was called.
I went into a white and sterile room where A bald middle-aged man in a white coat was sitting on a rolling stool and a nurse and the interpreter were standing to the side. I sat on a bed that was so low to the ground that a baby could probably crawl onto it. The doctor and nurse spoke no English. I explained what happened and the interpreter interpreted for me. I took off my shoe, and as I suspected, the doctor told me I just needed the blister popped and some antibiotics. No toe removal and no contagious skin disease like the rest of Japan had thought.
He sanitized the area by putting iodine on it, popped the blister painlessly, and put a bandage on it. He was very kind and gentle.
Then they gave me some extra gauze and tape for my blister to take with me to the pharmacy. “Don’t show this bandage and tape to people in waiting room.” I felt very special.
Then the interpreter took me downstairs so that I could pay for the procedure.
I could not use a credit card, but I figured that I’d be ok since I had about $300 in Japanese yen on me.
I sat down in the waiting room on the 1st floor where I was when I first came in to wait for my bill.
Finally, after about 15 minutes, my bill was ready.
The interpreter handed me the bill.
I looked at it.
I couldn’t believe my eyes.
It was ¥3,500.
US$32 U.S. (€28 / £25)
If you’re American, I probably don’t have to spell this out for you. But if you’re not American, I should explain that NOTHING medical or dental costs $32 in the United States. Ever! Perhaps a piece of tissue costs that much in a hospital. When I told my podiatrist in the U.S. how much it cost me, he nearly fell off his chair.
I gladly paid the fee.
Then the interpreter gave me directions to the pharmacy, which was a couple of blocks away.
The antibiotics came to ¥1,760, which is around US$16 (€14 / £12), but I also bought more gauze and tape so the bill came to around ¥2,300.
I was told to rest my foot for a day and then I should be good to go. I had antibiotics for three days. The foot healed nicely. I had no trouble with the blister for the rest of the trip.
I returned to the United States with permanent foot problems, plantar fasciitis, that has plagued me since. However, I bought really high quality and expensive stability athletic shoes. Because of the shoes, both my feet and knee hurt less. I highly recommend Brooks Womens Ariel 16 Overpronation Stability Running Shoes.
So if you get sick or hurt in Japan, in the words on the cover the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, DON’T PANIC. Perhaps the doctor or nurse won’t speak English, but there might be an interpreter around to help you out.
It shouldn’t cost an arm and a leg like in the United States.
I can’t guarantee that your experience will be as smooth and the people as nice and helpful as my experience was, but perhaps this story will know what to do and put you at ease about what can happen if you’re all alone and you need to see a doctor in Japan.
- If you are in Kanazawa, go to the Johoku Hospital for medical care. Here is the address: 20-3 Kyomachi, Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture 920-8616, Japan
- Another website I found that might help you if you are in need of medical care is the Ishikawa Foundation for International Exchange.
- Here is a PDF guide for expats living in Kanazawa.
For more information on how to avoid getting sick while traveling, you can read my list of 12 helpful health tips.
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