My encounter with Japanese cold remedies

I have got a horrible cold. Cough, sore throat, runny nose…  (ひどい感冒があります。せきや、のどの痛みや、鼻水や、、、)

Still, it has reminded me of the horrible cold I caught while in Japan last March, and the weak cold remedy my husband tracked down in the local pharmacy (じもとの薬局).

The main reason I caught a cold was that we had caught the bus back from Kitano Tenmangu to the centre of Kyoto. The bus was packed, and someone who wasn’t wearing a face mask sneezed on me. Being sprayed by germs wasn’t helped by the weather being cold and the house not having any heating other than the air-con units in the bedroom and living room. So I ended up with a cold. Well, tonsilitis first, which was a bit of a worry, but gargling with salt water knocked that one on the head, and I was just left with a sore throat, cough and runny nose.

Fortunately, there was a pharmacy a short walk from the house, on Oike Dori. Before we left the house, we’d done a bit of research online to try to find out what cold remedies might be available to us and how to recognise them. The word on the internet is that Japanese cold remedies are pretty weak – both the ones you can buy over the counter in a pharmacy and the shots that you can get from a doctor if you’re prepared to spend most of the day sitting in a waiting room. Still, I felt that I had to do something, so off we went to the pharmacy.

It was quite a decent size, and there were different sections for different types of symptoms, all handily labelled with cartoons of people suffering from the symptoms. After a little wandering up and down, we found a section for which the cartoon sufferer had glowing marks at the throat, the nose and the head. This was a good discovery, and worth remembering if either of us grow ill again next time we visit (not that we have ever planned to grow ill in Japan). Next up came trying to decipher the packaging, to see if we could work out any active ingredients and what the dosage was. I let my husband do most of this, because I was feeling quite ill! A lot of the ingredients are listed in katakana, which is the system used to phonetically reproduce Western words. So we could tell that the box of medicine in the picture above had ibuprofen in it, because it says イブプロフェン on the box.

I was also able to look up a couple of words in hiragana in the dictionary, so discovered that seki (せき) meant cough and nodo (のど) meant throat. I guessed that the kanji  鼻水, which literally translates as nose water, meant runny nose.

I understood the words that said the medicine was for people over the age of 15 – so not child’s medicine, and therefore I was in with a chance of it being kind of effective.

The biggest shock was that it cost around 1200円, which is about £8.25, for a packet of 18 pills that you had to take 3 at a time, 3 times a day. Based on things I’d read online, I knew that over the counter medicines in Japan are expensive, because they are the alternative to taking a day’s holiday from work to sit in the doctor’s waiting room until a doctor can see you and give you a shot. I didn’t think they would be so much more expensive than in the UK, though!

I took 3 tablets when I got back to the house and waited for them to have some effect. The ibuprofen helped a little bit, but I ended up relying more on the throat sweets we’d found in the Family Mart along the street from the pharmacy.

It’s a shame, because this advert makes it seem like a fun medicine to take!

I’ve done a translation of some of the words on the packaging, over on my Learning Japanese blog. I’ve also found a couple more blogs that have useful information for Westerners who fall ill while in Japan! One by a JET ALT who was out there in 2009, the other by an American woman who is working in Japan. Both of them have words and translations that would have been helpful to us, if only I’d found those sites while we were in Japan!

I’m hoping that I never need to refer back to any of the information here, but it’s usually better to be safe than sorry!



6 responses to this post.

  1. […] in winter, take lots of layers. Should you be unlucky enough to get ill, here’s my account of trying to find cold remedies that work (there are none) in Japan. If you’re going in summer, prepare for hot, humid and potentially […]


  2. I got a cold last summer in Tokyo (lost 10° in one day) and I bought different kinds of cough tablets none of which were working for me. That was a hard time even speaking enough japanese to get what I wanted. Next time I’ll bring my own.


  3. […] The weather took a turn for the worse, so we decided to head back to the centre of Kyoto to pay a visit to Nishiki Market. The 101 bus was as full heading away from Kitano Tenmangu as it had been on the way there, so we took a 59 instead and got off at Kawaramachi Dori. Regular visitors to this blog will know that this bus journey led directly to my encounter with Japanese cold remedies! […]


  4. Posted by Alex Hurst on 13/08/2014 at 8:43 am

    I’ve never had any cold medicine work for me here… or any medicine, really. I know part of it is that it’s more homeopathic in drug stores than in the U.S. Luckily, every year we replenish our stash in the states.


  5. […] Nihon no Zasshi: My encounter with Japanese cold remedies […]


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