I cleared immigration and set my foot in Tokyo for the first time. It was a humid, cloudy afternoon. By the time I reached my Couchsurfing host’s apartment the sun had set and a cool breeze was flowing. My first day went by in a blink of an eye.
Then came second, third and fourth day. I was busy getting swept by Tokyo’s skyscrapers, chaotic streets, and intense subway system. It was on a quiet metro from Shinjuku to Soshigaya that I accepted I had come down with a cough and cold that refused to go down.
Health has always been my priority, so I decided to treat this seasonal condition first before resuming my trip. Using Himawari Medical Information Service – a multilingual medical helpline and search platform for Tokyo clinics and pharmacies – I found nearby clinics willing to take me without an appointment.
In exchange, it took my entire day.
I went back and forth in Ueno Station, asking for ¥10 and ¥100 coins, waited by the green pay phones to confirm my consultation and left for Asakusa to meet the English-speaking doctor. The whole process was hard, to speak medical care in broken Japanese and convey my doubts, questions, and thoughts.
But it worked out for the best and helped me continue my journey with improved health.
Before and during this endeavor, I learned about some useful resources and information that helped me diagnose and recover with better care. And I’d like to break them down and simplify the process of getting right health care in Japan for you all.
What’s the gist?
There are mainly two types of medical facilities in Japan: Clinics and hospitals. You can go to either depending on your convenience and the type of care you seek. Clinics offer specific medical services whereas hospitals assist in all types of healthcare needs.
Japan National Tourism Organization’s guide quickly summarizes the overall procedure to access healthcare facilities when in the country. Most of the facilities only accept Japan’s National Health Insurance and Employees’ Health Insurance plans.
Some might also accept cash-free international medical insurance based on its policy and conditions.
Otherwise, you will need to pay upfront in cash and claim a reimbursement from your travel health insurance company later, which I had to do. It’s important to note that only a few major healthcare centers accept credit cards.
Most of the clinics and hospitals follow appointment system, with some of them having referral fee in place. Usually, hospitals offer walk-in consultation between 9:00am – 11:00am and might ask for a ¥2000 – ¥5000 fee from patients without a doctor’s referral.
Clinics either keep morning or evening hours open for walk-in consultation, and it’s on a first-come-first-serve basis. It’s always better to find information about the facility you plan to visit to understand their respective policies and mode of operation.
Hail the Big G
There’s nothing to fear for we have Google on our side. It will be your guide in conquering the language barrier and recovering faster as it was mine. Through Google, I came across platforms that offer multilingual medical support to foreigners and travelers.
Himawari, which I used, is specific to Tokyo. AMDA International Medical Information Center is another service that provides telephonic assistance to foreigners, with its centers in Tokyo and Osaka.
If you are traveling outside of Kanto and Kansai region and are in need of medical care, you can always refer to Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare website. Its web page has aggregated every prefectural medical information website, a handful of which offer information in English as well.
Another one is Yahoo! Japan‘s hospital search web page. This provides filtered information on hospitals and clinics all over Japan, though it’s only available in Japanese and will need to be translated.
Here are some common medical phrases to keep in handy. I combined Google Translate results with some of the said phrases to communicate with reception and clinic staff in medical jargons, who generally do not understand English.
To assess your condition and determine the appropriate plan of action, you can dial #7119 to speak with an operator. Moreover, you can download Dr. Passport – a multilingual translation app made exclusively to communicate health symptoms to medical professionals in foreign countries.
I had been planning my Japan trip for a long time and getting sick within few days of my arrival certainly made me feel overwhelmed. Yet, I’m glad I followed through to treat my condition on time. I felt a peace of mind and was able to experience Japan like its meant to be without any major concerns.
We can never know what we might come across on the road. But we can certainly be aware of our health and try our best to maintain it well, despite the differences in weather, air, food, and lifestyle.
Of course, there are going to be cultural and linguistic barriers. It’s going to seem frustrating, unfair and exhausting. Nevertheless, we owe it to ourselves to stay healthy and happy! Traveling in optimum health and mind is much more exciting.
I do hope every one of you travels in great health and will not need medical assistance. You know your body the best. So if you do end up feeling unwell, don’t hesitate to seek help from healthcare pros to stay fabulous on your adventures.
Happy healthy travels!