John and the Japanese Massage Chair

Even after four visits and cumulatively two months of my life spent in Japan, there are still things that can humble me, beat me down, and kick the crap out of me in this country. Exhibit A : the Japanese massage chair.

On Tuesday, I had just finished my first Japanese gym session since arriving two weeks ago. I had promised myself that I was going to try and keep to my workout routine while in Japan because despite sweating all the time and the copious cardio I get from walking almost everywhere, the reality is that none of that builds and maintains muscle mass. So, I paid my ¥600 to drop by the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium in Sendagaya to pump a little iron and break an earned sweat.

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Getting Sick on the Road

I’ve been fighting off a headache today.  It’s an ugly one.  I get them every so often – often rooted behind my eyes and pushing either up or down from my sinuses.  (The two older ladies who don’t believe in scent-free environments sitting near me at Starbucks aren’t helping the cause, either.)

When I get one of these headaches, I know exactly what to reach for.  Advil Cold and Sinus usually knocks back the pain and lets me function until all returns to normal in my sinuses.

But what happens when I can’t reach for Advil Cold and Sinus?  When I’m in Japan?  I was confronted with this very real problem the first time I visited the land of the rising sun in 2013, and had to figure out how to get the relief I needed to carry on.

On my second night in Tokyo, I was laying on the futon on the floor of Chris’ apartment with a pain shooting through my head – similar to the one I had today.  I was having a fitful sleep, and wanted desperately to rid myself of the headache which was zapping the life out of me.  However, my usual over the counter drug of choice wasn’t available.  In fact, I had to ditch the last two tablets I had of it on the airplane.

See, Japan (and many other countries) tightly control the medicine that comes in to the country.  It’s illegal to bring in products which contain pseudoephedrine (like Advil Cold and Sinus) when landing at Narita.  Now – you can easily buy products which contain it once in the country, but bringing your own supply from home is against the law.

Unable to sleep, I opened up Google and started trying a variety of words and phrases to find the over the counter medicine I needed to get some relief.  That was when I stumbled upon a thread in a forum for foreigners living in Japan from someone asking the same question.  There was lots of reaction – especially on the things that you shouldn’t buy (one poster said one possible over the counter medication was like legal speed and should be avoided at all costs!), but eventually someone posted the picture of a box which seemed to be the unanimous answer to the question.

I have no idea what this says.
I have no idea what this says.

I’ll be straight up here.  I have no idea what this box says.  But with an Internet forum’s seal of approval (yikes) and a screenshot of the box from the website, I ventured off in to Tokyo the next day to find the supposed miracle drug to cure what was ailing me.

While the language barrier presented itself in other ways in the previous 24 hours, this was a big hurdle to get past.  With little more than the consensus of a bunch of gaijin on a message board and a photo in my hand, I’d be asking a pharmacist to get me a box of whatever the hell this was.  The little stick figures on the box seemed to exhibit the same pain symptoms I did.  I had no idea if there was any warnings on the box I needed to heed.  Was this the dreaded “as bad as speed” medication everyone was talking about?  What was I getting myself into?!  It’s all enough to give you a headache.

Upon arriving at Shinjuku Station, I scurried to a kiosk sporting a green pharmacy sign (similar to the ones you see in France.)

“Sumimasen,” I gently intoned as I raised my hand to the man in the white coat behind the counter.  He came over, as I powered up my phone, loaded the picture, and with an “I’m lost and helpless” smile on my face pointed at the picture of the box on the screen.  He smiled, turned around, and fetched the box off the shelf.  Roughly ¥2,000 (or C$20) later, I was on my way.

I have to admit – popping that first pill was scary.  I had no idea what the dosage was supposed to be, so I only took one of the pills chased with a swig of water.  The wait was on – but didn’t last long.  Within about an hour, the pain I had felt behind my eyes and in my sinus cavity for about 24 hours had dissipated.  I wasn’t feeling any heart palpitations.  I wasn’t foaming at the mouth.  I was going to be okay.  Score one for the Internet.

Since my first experience with the product (which I’ve now come to know as Benzablock), I now feel comfortable knowing when I experience a bad sinus headache, I can walk in to a pharmacy and show the picture to a pharmacist and soon be on my way with relief.

In pretty much every guidebook I’ve read, the comment is the same – if you forget it at home, you can find it on the road.  It’s true – although you might need a picture of whatever it is you want if language is a barrier!

What are your experiences with getting sick – and getting medicine – on the road?  Please share your stories in the comments!