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  • Shona McCarthy

Being Sick in Japan: Have Fun At The Pharmacy

Updated: Apr 29


One of the greatest fears I had about my trip to Japan was the thought of catching a cold while I was there. I knew I would be moving many times between different cities, which could be quite taxing and stressful. So I packed carefully for such an eventuality. I packed special pills, and a reusable face mask. So, when I did get sick, I wasn't without some way of coping. Travelling to another country can create that perfect storm of factors that lead to colds and flu: Stress, fatigue, unfamiliar viruses, dehydration or atypical hygiene routines. However, catching a cold in Japan was not at all the disaster I thought it would be.

When I caught my cold, it was just before I had to travel from Osaka to Kyoto. I was staying in a relatively rough area called Higashi-Nari, and while I had eaten fairly well during my stay, the weather had been incredibly cold and I was still dehydrated from my flight thanks to failing thermoses.

I really pushed myself to spend a whole day at Universal Studios Japan. And then the next day I did a big tour around Osaka. But what pushed me over the edge was a detour I took into Bentencho to see the Mega-Daiso-Don Quixote they had out there.


My time in Bentencho was much more stressful than I expected. It didn’t help matters that about a third of the Kansai region had come down with a cold, judging by the amount of flu masks I saw. Also, I was trying to post things home and move a giant suitcase from Osaka to Kyoto in this state. So, I was left with the task of working out how I would manage being ill and doing all of this at the same time. The first thing anyone should know about being sick in Japan is that it is considered basic social etiquette to wear a face mask of some description when you are ill. To go without a mask when you are obviously sick is considered to be shockingly selfish. In Japan, "chucking a sicky" is simply not an option. This means that if someone else catches your cold, they will definitely being going to work sick.

A selfie I took while I was sick in Kyoto. You can see the mask I made and one of the many tissues I used to keep it hygenic. People kept asking me where I had bought it. You can now buy them in my online store. CLICK HERE!!!

I had been really anxious about this back when I was packing, so I had brought a mask I had made myself out of some red quilting fabric from Spotlight. Many people within Japan actually complimented me about it, but then they only started plying me with compliments once I explained that I was Australian and couldn’t understand what they were saying. Prior to this, they were speaking Japanese to me in very serious and slightly angry tones, which prompts me to wonder if red masks have a special meaning in Japan that I haven’t yet learned. But since there was no one to explain this to me at the time, and it didn’t seem to be causing serious problems, I didn’t challenge it. I kept the mask lined with tissues since it wasn’t disposable, and I changed the tissues every 1-3 hours to keep myself clean.

Other elements of basic social etiquette you should be aware of in Japan is that most people don’t blow their nose. In fact, some guides that people write on Japanese etiquette will claim that it is forbidden to blow your nose in Japan; something that made me afraid to visit Japan for a very long time. But a trip around Kyoto during cold season will reveal that this claim is a gross exaggeration. I learned this when I was sitting on a train between Kyoto and Osaka, and a genteel little old lady sitting beside me carefully folded her pocket handkerchief, placed it over her nose, and gently but audibly blew into it. I saw an old man working as an obi-jime weaver in the Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts likewise pause, take out his handkerchief and give it a deep blow of his nose. So, when you find guides on Japanese culture that claim that Japanese people never use their handkerchiefs for blowing their nose, don’t you believe it! There is still the expectation that you will blow quietly and not do any “heavy excavation”, but then I imagine that would be true of most places in the world. Using a little hand-sanitizer after the fact will also go far in currying good will.

I had packed numerous herbal supplements in my luggage anticipating potential illness, and I took these, but with some awareness that they wouldn’t cut it for someone who would need to drag an enormous suitcase full of clothes and sundry through various train stations which didn’t always have escalators and elevators. So, when I had the chance, I entered one of Japan’s numerous chemists. In particular, Matsu-Kyo is ubiquitous. I imagine this is partly because of the whole “sick-days simply aren’t done in Japan” situation. There would be a natural and ongoing need to be able to easily access various medications. In the chemist I used Google Translate to tell one of the staff that I needed some “powerful pills for colds and flu”. She was likewise wearing a mask, so I suspected she would know where the good stuff was. She answered with some Japanese words I didn’t understand, so I used Google Translate’s voice function to learn that she was asking me what my symptoms were. I tried to explain that my nose was running and I was feeling weak. She sold me a box, making sure I understood how much to take and when. As I left the store, I couldn’t help but think, “Japanese women are amazing.” That member of staff was so pretty, well-groomed, patient, sophisticated, and apparently educated. I had similar positive experiences when I had to enter the Matsu-Kyo near Universal Studios Japan to pick up some ibuprofen for a friend. In other words, asking for medication in Japan might seem scary, but most of the time, it will work out well for you. The staff are usually not going to mess around and they will be keen to help you.

Some pictures of the cold tablets I bought and took in Japan. To this day, I don't know what they really were. But I do know that a runny nose is called "hana mizu" or "nose water" in Japan.

Certainly, I can say that the pills, plus the hot, nutritious konbini meals I consumed that day really helped me make my journey. It's also noteworthy that KFC Japan will sometimes sell flavourful soups that really help with feelings of illness. Despite how terrible I felt, it was probably one of the shortest and least painful colds I had ever had, particularly when you consider the amount of walking I did during that time.

The standard rules of drinking lots of warm water and soup still applied in Japan as ever. That the hotel I was staying in had a thermos full of hot water in the room everyday really helped a lot. But Japanese vending machines often also contain warm drinks and other items you will find helpful if you get sick in Japan. Indeed, soon after I landed at my hotel, I wandered out to one of these machines and sculled a can of tomato juice, trying to get more vitamin-C into my body. I also suggest using painkillers on days when you will be doing much physical activity so that you suffer a little less.

As my cold softened, I began to get the classic irritated throat that usually follows. So, I went back into Matsu-Kyo to see what they had for such a situation. I spotted some small bags of vaguely herbal looking lozenges hanging on a display. I chose the bag that looked most interesting to me and found that it was indeed traditional style medicated throat candies. They tasted very sweet and lemony, and herbal. Let me tell you, they worked far more effectively than any type of throat lozenge I ever tried in my homeland.


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