Planning Safe, Planning Smart – A Guide to Having a Healthy Holiday in Japan
So, you’ve finally done it. You’ve decided to invest the time, the money and the emotional commitment to visit Japan. For you this may just be another holiday, or it may, as was the case when I first visited here in 2005, the realization of a lifelong dream.
Of course I am sure you’ve prepared diligently for your trip. Hopefully, you’ve read some of my previous articles on here to give you some useful ideas about places to visit, you’ve gone out and bought one of those handy “beginner’s Japanese” phrase-books, and you’ve hopefully got the OK from work to take some time off for your trip.
There’s just one more thing, something vitally important but very often missed by modern, carefree travelers. It’s important to inform yourself of the steps you need to take to maintain your health while you are here.
Whilst Japan is one of the most beautiful countries on Earth, and also extremely safe by any measurable standard, it has a weather system and bio-diversity that is radically different from the US and Europe. As such, there are some hazards which we need to be aware of.
Ask Your Doctor Before Visiting
As with any foreign trip, a good first start is a visit to see your local doctor to see which vaccinations or inoculations are needed before you come here. What I am about to say here was the advice given recently by a friend of mine who works as a doctor in the UK, so it may be different from the advice you may receive in your own home country. As always, it is best to consult your own doctor before traveling.
Thankfully, despite being very hot in the summer, Japan doesn’t play host to any of the more dangerous tropical diseases such as Malaria or Dengue Fever, which may be present in other parts of Asia. However, the UK National Health Service (NHS) recommends vaccines for the following diseases:
Hepatitis B: This disease which afflicts the liver can be contracted through blood contact, such as contaminated needles or through sexual activity. However, it is very rare in Japan, and has been on the decline for several years.
Japan is designated as a “low-risk” area for Hepatitis B. There are a number of vaccines available to protect against this disease and you can in some cases combine the course with a vaccine for Hepatitis A, which is definitely a good idea if you plan to travel elsewhere in Asia after visiting Japan.
Japanese Encephalitis: This is a very dangerous condition, affecting the nervous system. However, again it is rare and can be successfully treated if diagnosed quickly enough.
As this condition is spread through mosquito bites, this is one which travelers to more rural areas should definitely look to vaccinate themselves against before traveling.
Bear in mind that the mosquitoes that spread this disease are most likely to congregate in areas with large concentrations of rice paddies. So, if you are going to be staying anywhere near rural farmland, then a vaccine is definitely recommended. In the UK, the most common vaccine for Japanese Encephalitis is the IXIARO vaccine, available from your GP upon request.
Tick-Borne Encephalitis: This is similar in terms of symptoms to the aforementioned Japanese Encephalitis, though less dangerous, as only 1 in 100 cases typically proves fatal. As the disease is primarily spread by infected ticks, it is particularly an issue of concern during the summer months, when the hot weather brings a surge in the tick population. You’ll want to pay particular attention to this condition if you are hiking or mountain climbing during your stay in Japan, as the ticks are most commonly found in wooded or hilly areas.
Again, vaccination is the best form of prevention. The “TicoVac” vaccine is widely available and gives several years protection against infection.
Of course hiking also brings with it some other dangers that travelers need to be aware of. Thankfully, deadly poisonous snakes such as the black mamba or the king cobra, which will literally turn your blood to jelly, aren’t indigenous to Japan. If you are swimming in perfect, blue waters off the coast of Okinawa, there are certain types of jellyfish that can deliver a pretty painful, but ultimately harmless, sting.
Actually, statistically speaking, the most dangerous animal in Japan (apart from Sunday drivers!) is the Japanese hornet. On average it kills about 40 people per year in Japan.
What Creatures To Look Out For
The “suzumebachi”, to give it its Japanese title, is not, strictly speaking, a poisonous animal, as it doesn’t inject a neurotoxin when it stings.
Instead, the danger with suzumebachi is that the sting can trigger an anaphylactic shock in some cases. Again though, this is treatable provided you seek help in time (this is why it’s always advisable to never to go hiking or hillwalking alone).
Bears may also present a danger if you are hiking in Hokkaido, however cases of bear attacks are almost non-existent these days as the types of bears we find in Hokkaido will, in most cases, go out of their way to avoid contact with humans.
Another smaller, though perhaps more aggressive, animal to watch out for during your hiking treks is the wild boar. I’ve encountered these a few times during various hikes around the Kansai area, especially on the trekking trail behind Shin Kobe Station.
Japan is one of the safest countries in the world, not just socially but also in terms of biology too. The country also boasts one of the world’s best systems of hospitals, clinics and medical professionals. It’s highly unlikely that you will ever have to contend with any kind of major health issue here when you visit. However, if the worst should happen, then you can rest assured that you will always be in safe hands here.