My Experience with the Japanese Health Care System: Kyoto

In all of our travels, Jeff and I have been very lucky to have nothing serious happen to us. Our suitcase has always followed us, we’ve never been robbed or pick-pocketed, and we’ve never had a medical emergency. Weeks before we said goodbye to London and made our way around the world, two very dear friends of ours were in Phuket.

Since it was one of our stops, we were excited to hear about their trip to get tidbits and advice. But before they could fully experience the Thai island, they found themselves in a hospital needing emergency surgery. The scooter they had rented had a brake failure, and they went flying through an art shop window. Using their shirts for tourniquets, they both survived the crash and resulting surgery and were in the hospital for almost a week. Miraculously, they are on the road to recovery and in good spirits.

After our initial shock dissipated, we took a hard look at traveler’s insurance for the first time. A fellow travel blogger, Nomadic Matt, recommended World Nomads as an insurance company, so we took the plunge and breathed a sigh of relief for the “just in case.”

The Honeymoon_forblog
After Thailand and Cambodia, we found ourselves in Japan seeking healthcare.

The policy and the notion of mortality left our minds as we enjoyed our weeks traipsing around Stockholm, St. Petersburg, and Bangkok, but after my “Phnom Pains” in my stomach didn’t go away after a week, we realized we needed to find a hospital.

A brief description of my troubles for education purposes only. Apologies in advance. Jeff and I were both queasy and physically exhausted. I was light-headed, so sleeping for a full day was not surprising for both of us. His “Montezuma Revenge” symptoms cleared up in about 3-4 days. While I was no longer queasy, nauseous, or light-headed after day 5, I was seeing a lot of blood. I had zero other symptoms, and no more diarrhea. I would have felt completely normal. Healthy appetite, no nausea, but the blood persisted in alarming amounts. By day 7, we made our way to the Kyoto Hospital, and the tale continues below.

By this point, we were in Kyoto with just a few days before climbing a massive mountain and then finding ourselves in Tokyo. We were worried that after seven days, my symptoms were not getting better, and what were we going to do if relief didn’t come before our next flight. We were a week away from being on American soil, but as many of you know, seeking medical care in the U.S. uninsured is expensive.

Next to our Ryokan was a clinic that I was planning on visiting since their sign specified English speakers, but before the weekend was over, I emailed a physician in Tokyo to try and set up an appointment in advance. The American Clinic Tokyo caters to English speakers, so we thought this would be a good back up if I could not find care in Kyoto. Thankfully, the doctor emailed me back at 10 pm giving us places to go in Kyoto saying that I should seek medical care before reaching Tokyo. I was stunned that the actual doctor returned my email and after hours so quickly.

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Try to find a clinic that offers English or your native language. We did not use this clinic, but it was down the street from our hotel.

Monday morning came, and Jeff and I walked over to the Kyoto Furitsu Medical University Hospital near the Imperial Palace. Sadly, we did not get to see the Palace because of our medical detour, but weighing the options, it was okay to skip it. It was 8 am. We walked to the Information Desk and saw the sign that said, “English Translator arrives at 9 am.” I was very anxious, but not because I didn’t know what was wrong with me or I didn’t know how to get the right medication, but because I didn’t want to miss out experiencing Kyoto. Misplaced, yes, but how many times would I find myself in such an extraordinary town?

Thankfully, the woman behind the counter had a handy, laminated sheet of phrases in Japanese and English so we could point to a sentence and have each other understand. After a few moments of staring at a medical sheet all in Japanese, she called over a fellow doctor who spoke broken English to help us fill out the necessary information. Then, he ushered us over to take a number and wait for it to be called by the candy-stripers who would put us in the system. Numbers would begin getting called at 845 am.

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A portion of the medical form that had only partial translations.

Just before the gates were to open, Jeff walked away, and oh, how I wish he hadn’t. Right at 845 am, not a second late, the gates opened mechanically, and about a dozen women in pink candy-striper uniforms stood in perfect rows with hygiene masks on, said something robotic in Japanese, bowed, said it again, and then got to work like busy bees in an incredibly efficient hive. By the time Jeff came back, my eyes were wide in surprise. I had never seen anything in person so precise and different from any medical situation I have been in.

My number was called, and I had my paperwork processed in very broken English before we determined that I needed to go to the gastro-internal department. I was given an ID card and told to make my way to the 2nd floor. This is where things got a bit more bizarre.

On the 2nd floor, there were two separate hallways that had rows upon rows of chairs set up like an elementary school classroom. The hallway was lined with doors like any cartoon where the character has to chose which door to open. TV monitors were mounted above the doors flashing numbers that reflected your paperwork and when the ding(!) resounded in the hallway, your number is put up with the matching door number. You get your paperwork and walk to the door and go inside.

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It was a magic door system with monitors matching your given number with a numbered door. (Not my photo.)

Thankfully, I did not have to do this because a nurse came and found me. How she found me must have been easy since I was the only non-Japanese person in the room. She asked me the basic information and then whisked me into room 10. The doctor and nurse then tried to understand my symptoms and think of a diagnosis. It became clear that the nurse was assigned to me because she had the best English skills. My doctor knew very little, and I, obviously, knew very little Japanese. We even resorted to drawing diagrams which became mildly mortifying as we watched her flip through the colors of her pen and choosing red after finishing her diagram of a toilet.

There was no wi-fi in the hospital for us to download a translation app, which we should have done in advance. But Jeff, ever pragmatic, walked over to the calendar and pointed to the dates while saying words like, “travel” and “Thailand and Cambodia,” to which the doctor and nurse looked at each other with a resounding and hilarious, “Ohhhh!”

I was told it was “not serious,” but my symptoms sure seemed serious after seven persistent days. Because I was pressing the question of anti-biotics, I had the lovely experience of ruling out hemorrhoids. Thankfully our marriage is still intact since she closed the curtain. But I was still incredibly embarrassed.

In the end, we decided to go with a blood test to see if there was an infection in my body, and I came back an hour later to get the results that I was perfectly fine. Resigning to the fact that it was “not serious” and I would just be watchful, we got our paperwork and left. It was 1 pm, much to my surprise, when we got to the pay station. Also, we were expecting to pay upwards of four figures for a blood test, doctor, and nurse care plus English speaking tax, but instead, we were charged $190.

As a cherry on the sundae, my symptoms were completely resolved that day. I didn’t have another inkling of illness or a virus for the rest of the trip. While Jeff was elated at my clean bill of health, I was disappointed that we spent our final morning in Kyoto in the hospital. So, from there, we rushed off to see as many temples as we could.

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We beat the clock to make it to the Fushimi Inari Shrine before sunset.

I did think this post was an unnecessary account of the trip, but after a second thought, I realized I was not the only one to have medical issues while traveling. So, after reading my interesting experience, I hope you can take away these helpful hints for getting around the Japanese Health System.


Helpful Hints:

  • Download or have a language translation app on your phone or written phrases with you. But if you write them on a piece of paper, make sure the words are in the native letters. Writing the Japanese words with English letters would not have helped us much.
  • Consider taking a photo of your malady if it’s not easy to replicate for the medical staff. It can be mortifying and gross, but it could have saved us some Pictionary time.
  • Get traveler’s insurance. We paid $325 for our coverage through World Nomads. They were very responsive and helpful in getting us where we needed to be.
  • If you’re somewhere that does not speak your native tongue, search beforehand if they offer language services.
  • While it is impossible to check the hygiene of most restaurants in S.E. Asia, always practice caution in eating from street carts. But also always, always wash your hands before eating.
  • If you’re somewhere that has a questionable water source, do not include ice cubes in your drink and use a straw that you grab from the collection. Don’t let the vendor grab your straw for you.
  • Here is the CDC website for dealing with Traveler’s Tummy and what they recommend for seeking medical attention.

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The spectacular LED light show at Kyoto Train Station on floor 4F.

After exploring Kyoto, we were onto our next very active adventure: climbing Mount Fuji. Stay tuned for our epic climb and seeing the world above the clouds.

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4 thoughts on “My Experience with the Japanese Health Care System: Kyoto

  1. I’m so glad to hear you managed to find a place where the nurses/doctors spoke at least a little English. That must have been an exhausting experience for you! Also, good advice for dealing with illnesses and maladies abroad.

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