Let’s Go to the Hospital: Adventures in Japanese Health Care

First of all, I AM FINE!!!! It wasn’t an Emergency Room visit or anything.

So lately I have had a sore muscle that has not responded to physical therapy. I saw a physical therapist (PT) here in Japan, and my PT in Washington while I was back in the U.S. this summer. I asked my U.S. therapist about maybe getting an MRI in Japan just to see if something obvious came up, and both the U.S. therapist and my doctor in Japan agreed.

So on Friday morning I headed off to Minato Red Cross Hospital for my appointment at the Radiology clinic, referral in hand.

I visited the hospital before with a friend I’ll call Karen. She is undergoing cancer treatment at the hospital, and I have joined her on some of her visits to provide transportation and comic relief. Karen is tough. As in, she rides her bicycle to chemotherapy and radiotherapy tough.

Earlier this week Mark asked to take the car today. I started to say no, I need it to get to my appointment. Then I thought, why do I have to drive? The weather will be nice, it’s about the same distance as home to school, which I cycle several times a week. So following Karen’s lead I cycled over to the hospital, fulling expecting to find designated patient bicycle parking.

And I did.

So I headed in to register, seeking out the English language registration form per Karen’s advice. Found it! I took the form up to the desk and quickly Googled how to say “I don’t have a residence card or Japanese insurance card,” anticipating the first few questions. Sure enough, the desk staff asked that, confirmed that I would pay 100%, then sent me on my way to Radiology on the second floor. I managed all of that in Japanese, and I felt rather proud of myself.

English language registration form: check!

I wish I could have take a few more photos of the hospital’s interior just to show how organized and well-labeled everything is–but other patients, privacy, etc. It didn’t seem terribly kind to snap photos of people in a hospital. Beforehand I panicked slightly at the thought of finding my way through a Japanese hospital because American ones are always so confusing–and I can actually read the signs in the U.S. Thankfully the Japanese hospital labeled all departments and areas with numbers; the signs used those same numbers, and it looks like walking through a well-labeled train station.

I turned up at the Radiology department check-in desk, and this time I didn’t quite anticipate what questions I would get in Japanese. As I shrugged the universal “I didn’t understand that” while apologizing in Japanese, the clerk reached for a laminated card with statements translated into English. So efficient! I headed back to my changing room and donned my Japanese hospital gown. Following kimono and yukata etiquette, I ensured that the left lapel crossed over the right.

Left over right, just like a kimono

Then I headed into the fanciest MRI suite I have ever seen. I have had several MRIs in the US, though the last was about 20 years ago. So maybe MRI suites in the US look like this now–but wow. It looked like the interior of a Virgin America airplane cabin, complete with New Age music and changing mood lights. I even got to choose which “movie” I wanted to watch while trying to lay perfectly still for 20 minutes. The movie was projected onto the wall, and I saw it courtesy of the mirrored glasses the technician lowered over my eyes. Scan finished, I changed back into my clothes and headed down to pay.

SUPER fancy MRI suite! These photos don’t do it justice

Now I didn’t ask in advance how much the MRI would cost, but rather assumed that the cost would be reasonable based on previous experiences with the Japanese health care system. In the U.S. MRIs range from $400 to the thousands of dollars, with the average price around $2600 USD. Hospitals in particular seem to cost more than standalone imaging centers.

My bill? 27,000 yen, or around $240 USD.

Alas, no Fuji-san This Year….

This morning Mark and I awoke at 3AM, ready leave at 3:40 to pick up our friend Jamie before driving to Gotemba to meet the rest of the Fuji-san group. The biblical/monsoonal rain from the evening before persisted all night; the forecast predicted that the rain would end around 7AM, a little later than our desired hiking time. I checked for cancellation messages and found none waiting, so I set about last minute preps: getting dressed, packing the backpack–and for Mark, downing the first of several cups of coffee to stay awake for the drive.


At 3:39AM, we got the call: no Fuji-san today. Even though the rain was supposed to stop just before our hiking time, our group leader Vincent determined that the drive itself would be too hazardous, as well as the climb.

While disappointed, I agree that it was the right decision. I tried to wind down and return to bed. Meanwhile Mark Would. Not. Stop. Talking, thanks to those two cups of coffee. I headed back to bed.

Ah well. See you next year, Fuji-san.

Preparing for Wisdom: Tomorrow We Climb Mount Fuji

He who climbs Mount Fuji is a wise man; he who climbs twice is a fool.
-Japanese proverb

Like all self-respecting expats living in Japan, Mark and I decided shortly after our arrival two years ago to climb Mount Fuji at some point. This year an excellent opportunity presented itself: the chance to climb with friends who have done it before.


The official climbing season runs from July to mid-September. During this period restaurants, shops, and sleeping huts line the various climbing routes. Our climb this Saturday takes place after the season officially ends, so that means no amenities like the chance to buy water or a steaming bowl of ramen. But hopefully that also means smaller crowds!


A visit to Mount Fuji during a 2016 camping trip that inspired us to reach the summit

Climbing on Saturday means preps on Friday. Since we are completing the climb in one, long day, that simplifies packing considerably.

But first, here’s a little background on Mount Fuji.

At 3776 meters (12,389 feet), Mount Fuji is Japan’s highest peak. Practitioners of the Shinto religion consider it sacred, and its likeness has appeared in literature and art throughout Japan’s history. Still classified an active volcano, Mount Fuji last erupted in 1707 and rained volcanic ash on Tokyo 94 km away.

Every year 300,000 to 400,000 people flock to Fuji to climb. 300,000 people. Now you see why we opted for an off-season climb. It’s often called the most visited mountain in the world.


Most peaks in Japan use yama (mountain in Japanese) in their names, such as Asama-yama. But not Fuji; Japanese called it Fuji-san instead. I first assumed that this use of -san is the same as the honorific -san used in names, such as Watanabe-san (Mr. or Mrs. Watanabe). But Wikipedia tells me that this -san is actually a Sino-Japanese reading of the kanji for mountain, 山. What Wikipedia neglects to mention is why every other Japanese mountain out there reads 山 as yama–but there you have it. Just don’t call it Fujiyama–or worse, Mount Fujiyama–or you’ll look like a rube.

The current weather forecast for Fuji-san shows temperatures around 11 C (51 F) at our starting point at Fujinomiya Trail Station 5 (2400 m elevation), and 3 C (37 F) at the summit. The winds are expected at around 40 kph (25 mph), so pretty brisk for an extended hike. That means lots of layers, including rain gear, gloves and hats, and lightweight, stuffable down jackets.


Due to my sporty nature I already owned most gear that I needed, but I decided to add a new pair of long pants to my wardrobe in honor the occasion. I went to the Navy Exchange on base hoping to find something canvas-y and fitted but still loose enough to move comfortably. That’s how I ended up buying these Tactical Pants by 5.11. “It’s fashion for FBI agents,” quipped Mark. He was joking, but a quick Google search showed that 5.11 in fact started out solely to outfit law enforcement, military, and other public safety types. They were even chosen as the official pant of the FBI Training Academy in 1992! So that explains their large assortment of clothing for sale on military bases.

The tag on my nifty new pants boasted deep pockets for smart phones and extra magazines, so I decided to give the pockets a test run.

Pretty sure the designers of the smartphone pocket didn’t picture the ears of my Pikachu phone case peeking out….
….or the latest issue of Town and Country!

OK, so not those kinds of magazines.

[A note for you non-native English speakers: a magazine is a clip for ammunition that you slide into a firearm. Magazyn in Polish, cartouche in French.]

If you look closely, you’ll notice that said magazine is the latest issue of Town and Country, which somehow starting arriving in my name this past month. I have never read this magazine before, ever. So how I ended up with a year-long subscription remains a mystery. It’s not terrible–sort of an off-brand Vanity Fair magazine, which I pick up from time to time. At least it’s better than Better Homes and Gardens, which arrives monthly in Mark’s name. But I digress.

So back to Fuji-san preps!

Since all comfort huts along the hiking route are already closed for the season, we have to bring our own food. In general I eat pretty healthfully, but there’s something about hiking and camping that brings out my basest, most-food-additive-y cravings. And that’s how I ended up buying highly nutritious snacks like nasty Pringles, mini cinnamon rolls, Oreos, M&Ms, and cracker and jalapeno cheese sandwiches. Mmmmmm. I’ll also pack boring/healthy stuff like dried apricots, nuts, egg salad sandwiches, and apples.

Weeks ago my friend Debra urged me to carry oxygen. When she climbed, three out of six in her group ended up using it. Initially I balked. Normally I’m an At Least I’m Out There sort of person, as proven by my highly mediocre yet tenacious triathlon career. When she mentioned oxygen I immediately imagined the SCUBA-like rigs used by Everest climbers, and even I had too much pride to consider it for Fuji-san. Then I learned of the nifty, tiny oxygen bottles sold in Japanese outdoors stores, not much bigger than an asthma inhaler. I secured a bottle from previous friends who climbed–and we’ll see if I’ll use it or not.

So cute! Look at that teeny oxygen bottle!! (Also this beer is delicious and low in alcohol, BTW)

But the most important item? This bottle of Moet to celebrate our successful ascent. Most of our climbing team hails from France, so bringing along a bottle or two of bubbly goes without saying. Sure, we’ll spread two bottles over 14 people–in plastic cups, because we’re not barbarians, and there’s no need to chug directly from the bottle as if we were summiting Everest or something. We’ll gamely enjoy a gulp each. Because honestly, who wants to drink more alcohol than that at 3776 m/12,289 feet, anyway?


We are climbing with a group of fourteen people, many who have done this exact route before. I would never attempt a first-time, out-of-season climb by myself, so I am grateful for the support. We are meeting at that classic meeting point before mountaineering expeditions: the 7-11 in Gotemba, at 5:15AM. Stay tuned.

Crucial, 8:31PM on Friday update: I wrote this post this afternoon, fully expecting to climb on Saturday. Right now it’s pouring biblical/monsoonal rain. Our group leader Vincent optimistically points out that the rain should stop shortly before our designated climbing departure time–but I don’t know. Mark and I see it as a 50-50 chance that we’ll go. But considering that the little mammals (children and dog) have been farmed out to various friends’ houses…worst case scenario, we eat Oreos and drink Moet by ourselves for breakfast. And that’s not so bad.

Let’s Eat Junk Food: Cheetos, Sort Of

Today I stopped by my favorite grocery store Hiruma right before lunch. I had sandwich fixins’ waiting at home, and I decided that my sandwich needed a chips chaser. I noticed this bag of looks-like-Cheetos and decided to give them a go.

IMG_7897My crack Japanese reading skills told me that these are made from corn, and cheese flavored. Also there’s a picture of cheesy fondue. Context clues!

I tried to get a more detailed translation from Google Translate. Instead I got the following.

Really, Google Translate?


A few more tries with Translate told me that it’s Rich Cheese flavor.

I ripped open the bag. They looked like Cheetos in shape, though the color was a slightly less-vivid-than-Cheetos shade of orange.  The crunchy texture was exactly the same. So far so good! Not so good was the flavor. As with an earlier tasting of Japanese Doritos, these tasted OK but oddly sweet.


Speaking of too-sweet/savory flavors in Japan, earlier today I spoke in front of Cy’s fifth grade class about why different countries eat different foods. We talked about one country’s food being modified to local tastes in another country, and the Indian and Chinese students in the class had plenty to say. They also commented that Japanese “spicy” wasn’t spicy at all, but strangely sweet. They didn’t actually say What the HELL–because they’re ten years old–but the exasperation was there. I was laughing.

So back to the Almost Cheetos! One part from the original that I didn’t miss: the orange-stained fingers.


You Mean You Wanted to Get *Out* of The Car? Or, Adventures in Parking

Today I visited a friend with a rarity, a guest parking spot at her house. She warned me in advance that it’s pretty tight, but I was confident that I could park our Nissan Cube Benji the Orenji pretty much anywhere.

So here’s a photo of Benji parked in said spot.


See that black railing between Benji and the stairs? The gap is so narrow that only the front passenger door can open, since it’s in front of the railing. Neither back door can open. Here’s another view of how narrow the gap is.


And here’s a view of the tight squeeze between Benji and the wall.


Backing into parking spots is A Thing in Japan, and one that I generally follow. In this case the downside of backing in is that the driver’s door ends up against the wall and can’t open. Thankfully Benji has bench seating in the front, so sliding over to the passenger side to exit the car is annoying but not that terrible.

Backing into this spot proved particularly exciting. See that teeny little curb between the parking spot and the street? Of course you can’t, because it’s roughly 12 millimeters in height. But since Benji’s pizza-sized wheels are only 1 millimeter more than the curb in diameter, it takes more gas than it should at the 0.000004 km per hour at which I’m backing up. So I’m trying to gun it enough to jump the enormous curb without backing into the house. The way the engine protested you’d think that I was trying to back up Mt. Fuji or something.

Also Benji’s backup sensors were going nuts at this point. As I get close to something while in reverse Benji emits a polite beep-beep-beep to get my attention. As I get closer the beep gets louder and faster, as in hey, BEEP-BEEP-BEEP no kidding there’s something back there! When I’m really close, Benji abandons all dignity with a steady, non-stop BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP. So the whole time I’m reversing at 0.000004 km per hour Benji is losing its mind BEEEEEEEEEEEEPing at me. Did I mention it was 8AM as I tried this maneuver?

I had to unload stuff in the trunk, so backing in didn’t really work for that part. And why don’t I just park nose in, so the driver’s door can open?

Here’s why.


The back of Benji hangs out into the street, so I can only park like this short term to load and unload. If I pulled all the forward I’d have to crawl into the back seat to access the only door that can fully open because of the railing. Instead I sucked it in and squeezed out the door, which was resting against the black railing and opened as wide as it could go.

I can just picture the architect who designed this absurd parking spot/wall/railing combo getting all indignant that someone, you know, actually wants to get out of the car after parking.

Some days Japaning is hard.