Skip to main content

Visiting a dentist in Tokyo

I kept my cool until I saw my dentist's second bill. "Are you insane?" I squealed. "Is this a joke? You expect me to pay this?!"

Never mind teething problems; I was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder caused by a bill for ¥550. That's less than you pay for a telephone call to your dentist in South Africa, and I'd just been fitted with a brand-new crown.

Japan, I love you.

Here's the story. My dental dilemma started when a molar that had an old, big filling decided to say sayonara. The back part of the tooth, which held the filling in place, snapped off. I didn't experience any pain, but I realized I wouldn't be able to pretend that nothing had happened. I wanted to do just that, because I'd read so many horror stories about dentists in Japan. 

  • They suck.
  • They're hideously expensive.
  • You have to go back, like, seven times for just a filling!

Thus spoke colleagues, discussions boards and comments sections. I consulted my best buddy Google with trepidation. My search had certain parameters: 

  • I've had zero personal benefit from Abenomics, in other words, I didn't want to sell a kidney in order to save a tooth.
  • I prefer an English-speaking dentist, since I have no idea what root canal treatment would be in Japanese.
  • I prefer a dentist who's trained in the United States. Say what you will about the land of the drones and the home of the Tea Party, but Americans have perfect teeth.

I found a clinic in Roppongi that's affiliated with an American hospital. A check-up costs ¥31 500, a filling is ¥84 000 to ¥168 000, a crown is up to ¥262 000, "orthodontics" (whatever that involves) is ¥1,5 million. Just lop off the last two zeros to get the equivalent price in American dollar.

I fainted and fell off my chair, nearly breaking three other teeth.

As far as I can figure out, this clinic accepts national health insurance for some, but not all, treatments. Many Western/English-speaking dentists in Tokyo are so expensive that they don't deal with national health insurance at all, because that limits expenses.

Before I continue, let me digress briefly to tell you about healthcare in Japan. It has its critics, but I think it's a great system that ensures good healthcare for most of its population.

Japan has two types of health insurance: employees' health insurance (健康保険 kenkō-hoken) and national health insurance (国民健康保険 kokumin-kenkō-hoken) for those who aren't eligible for company insurance. All Japanese citizens and non-Japanese residing in Japan for more than a year are required to enroll, although many foreigners deliberately avoid this payment. If you're curious about costs, your monthly instalments are based on your age and income, but it starts at roughly ¥10 000.

I'm on my employer's so-called "social health insurance and pension" (社会保険 shakai-hoken). All medical expenses are fully covered by employees' health insurance, but I have to use national health insurance for dental treatment. That means I have to cover 30% of my dental expenses myself, and the government (i.e. taxes) takes care of the rest.

That's why I fainted when I read what crowns cost: 30% of ¥262 000 is still a helluva lot of money.

This was an emergency, a Lehman shock, a Eurozone crisis of meltdown proportions. I emailed my colleagues and friends: HALP! Advice arrived, and I opted for the Trust Dental Clinic in Harajuku, partly because it's a convenient location, partly because I grinned when I saw their name. If you're a journalist, you quickly learn that you should never trust anybody who says "trust me". So I chose the trusty one.

I realize that makes no sense whatsoever, but that's the basic operating principle of my entire life.

The seven lucky gods were with me. Dr Oikawa is an excellent dentist with a conservative approach, i.e. he doesn't immediately advise you to replace your crooked gnashers* with perfect white tombstones. He speaks fluent English. He knows more about South African politics than I do. He plays Otto's Classical Music on 1.FM while he works. He's fully aware of the idiosyncrasies of Japan's dental care system and how it can baffle foreigners used to different methods.

(* I have British colonial teeth with an African flavour, in other words, horrendous. I can only pray that others are so captivated by my heavenly blue eyes that they don't notice my numerous other imperfections.)

I had to return three times – that's part of the requirements of national health insurance – but my contribution for a metal crown and a thorough cleaning is roughly ¥6 000.

A good dentist is a precious commodity. This auntie, who's rapidly getting long in the tooth, is happy with her discovery.
His cousin was now of more than middle age, and had nobody's word but her own for the beauty which she said she once possessed. She was lean, and yellow, and long in the tooth; all the red and white in all the toy-shops in London could not make a beauty of her. -- William Makepeace Thackeray, The History of Henry Esmond, Esq.

Popular posts from this blog

Higanbana, a flower of loss and longing

I love this flower. I love all flowers, but this one, ah, this one comes packaged with the most wonderful stories. Its scientific name is Lycoris radiata; in English it's red spider lily; in Japanese it has several names including higanbana (ヒガンバナ), in other words, autumn equinox flower.

It's also referred to as manjusaka (曼珠沙華), based on an old Chinese legend about two elves: Manju guarded the flowers and Saka the leaves, but they could never meet, because the plant never bears flowers and leaves at the same time. They were curious about each other, so they defied the gods' instructions and arranged a meeting. I assume it was not via Twitter. The gods promptly punished them, as gods are wont to do, and separated them for all eternity.
To this day, the red lily is associated with loss, longing, abandonment and lost memories in hanakotoba(花言葉), the language of flowers. It's believed that if you meet a person you'll never see again, these flowers will grow along your…

Edo wind chimes: air con for your soul

Have you noticed that Japan has a thing about bells?
Watch people's phones: every second phone charm has a little bell that jingles with the slightest movement. There are bells on doors and bells at shrines and bells at temples. There are bells on traditional hair ornaments called bira-bira kanzashi, bamboo chimes tuned DFGA for your garden, bells are a symbol of peace (link) and their sound echoes the impermanence of all things (link).
From which one could correctly deduce that peace is ever transient.
Now, before I get sidetracked down a thousand rabbit holes, let’s focus on the real topic: bells, yes, but specifically wind chimes or fūrin(風鈴).

I would not to mine own self be true if I didn't include a little history lesson. Here we go:
The oldest wind chimes found at archeological sites in South East Asia are 5000 years old. These early versions were made from wood, bones and shells; and were probably used to keep birds out of cultivated fields and/or to ward off evil spirits.

This is what my language sounds like

A while ago I promised I would do a post about Afrikaans songs. Oh dear. It's more work than I thought it would be, and it's aggravated by the fact that I've lost touch with contemporary culture in South Africa. (Please don't ask me about Die Antwoord. I don't get it. I don't want to get it.) So for now, while I continue my research, I've selected two golden oldies that are very natsukashii (that's a Japanese word for "dear" or "missed") to me. You'll notice the central themes that unite these songs: an abiding love for Africa, as well as loss and longing.
Quick recap: Afrikaans, my mother tongue, is a South African language developed from 17th century Dutch. It has adopted words from Malay, Khoisan and Bantu languages, but 90% of its vocabulary is of Dutch origin. Yes, I understand Dutch (with a bit of effort) and Flemish (easily). Afrikaans has about 6 million native speakers.
Tomorrow we return our focus to Japan. Tonight, son…

The princess who loved insects

Edit added 8 May 2013: This post receives so many keyword search hits for "The Princess Who Loved Insects" that I've published an updated post (with extra information) that focuses on the book. Click here to read it.)

Blogging has been an interesting experiment. I initially started two blogs, Rurousha for personal musings and Sanpokatagata for factual stories accompanied by photos. I've now decided I'll do all stories on this blog, regardless of the content, and turn Sanpo into a supplementary photo blog. I'm not sure it's a good idea, since I'm not a good photographer at all, but let's see how it goes.
It occurred to me that "nomad" is not the ideal name for my blog. I don't wander anymore; I want to live in Japan forever and ever amen till death do us part. Then I remembered that I've already stayed in six different apartments in Tokyo and although most of my income is derived from one company, I've been based in three diff…

Call it remorse

Something out of memory walks toward us,
something that refutes
the dictionary, that won’t roost
in the field guide. Something that once flew
and now must trudge. Call it grief,
trailing its wings like a shabby overcoat,
like a burnt flag. Call it ghost.
Call it aftermath. Call it remorse
for its ability to bite and bite
again. — Don McKay, from “Angel of Extinction,” Angular Unconformity: Collected Poems 1970-2014 (Icehouse Poetry, 2014)

The Princess Who Loved Insects (updated)

My blog gets so many search keyword hits about this particular topic that I've decided to update an old post about the Japenese story The Princess Who Loved Insects(虫めづる姫君Mushi Mezuru Himegimi).

It's contained in Tales of the Riverside Middle Counselor (堤中納言物語Tsutsumi Chūnagon Monogatari), a collection of short stories written in the late Heian period. It focuses on the adventures of a young girl who refuses to make herself beautiful and play the courtship game. She doesn't blacken her teeth and pluck her eyebrows (as refined ladies did in those days); instead, she spends her time outdoors, playing with bugs and caterpillars.

I refer to her as Ms Mushi (Ms Insect).  A girl this tough is definitely not a prim prissy Miss, she's a ballsy Ms. She's my favourite Japanese heroine. She's strong, she's rebellious, she refuses to pretend, she ignores society's stupid rules that fetter women. You go, girl! Long live caterpillar eyebrows!

Donald Keene mentions in hi…

Hiking along the old Tōkaidō in Hakone

How in heaven's name did Edo travellers walk long this road …

over this pass …

wearing straw sandals?!

Last week I walked along the old Tōkaidō (東海道East Sea Road) in Hakone while The Hero was trolling¹ for trout on Lake Ashi (芦ノ湖Ashinoko). I did it in sturdy hiking boots, and although my feet weren't disgruntled, they weren't entirely gruntled either, if I may paraphrase P.G. Wodehouse.

It was the first time I visited Hakone, and I enjoyed it so much that I'll just have to go again. Since The Hero agrees with me, I predict more Hakone posts, but this one will focus on my first trip's main goal: following the Tōkaidō, the road that connected Edo and Kyoto. The old road has been replaced by modern highways² and high-speed railways, but you can still walk along the original route between Moto-Hakone (800 meters above sea level) and Hakone-Yumoto (80 meters above sea level), a distance of about 10 km. The sea levels should warn you that it's a steep route.
I didn't…

Hiking along the Mitake Valley in Okutama

I'm lying. Exaggerating. It's not hiking; it's walking.

As a matter of fact, the Mitake Valley Riverside Trail has given me a new definition of walking vs hiking: if you encounter vending machines along the way, it's walking, not hiking.
I've done several hikes in Okutama, but I'm going to start with this walk because anybody can do it. It's exceptionally beautiful, truly pleasant and very easy. You don't need to be an experienced hiker, you don't need hiking boots, you don't need energy drinks – or Scotch – to keep going.

It starts at Ikusabata Station on the Ōme Line, follows the Tama River and ends about 5 km upstream. It took me about two hours of slow walking, many photos, frequent diversions and arbitrary stops to enjoy the autumn colours.
Let's do this section by section. Warning: this post is photo-heavy!
Ikusabata to Sawai

It takes 90 minutes from Tokyo Station. Take the Chūō Line to Ōme, transfer to the Ōme Line and get off at Ikusab…

The ultimate guide to Kanda Myojin

I'm floundering. I don't know how to start a post about Kanda Myōjin (神田明神), because how do you choose a highlight from this collection below?
The decapitated head of a rebellious samurai who's still haunting Ōtemachi is buried in the vicinity, and his deified spirit is enshrined here.It's been called the world's geekiest shrine thanks to its proximity to otaku heaven Akihabara. The shrine has a Facebook, Twitter and LINE account.You can see some extremely generously endowed young ladies on the shrine's ema.It has a horse. A real horse. A tiny living breathing pony.Birds protect it against fire.
See my problem? Where do I start the ultimate guide to the ultimate shrine?

Why Kanda Myōjin?
Let's be boring and kick off with my own connection with Kanda Myōjin, which is very simple: I've always lived within walking distance of the shrine. My first four years in Tokyo were spent in Kanda, blissfully close to the book district Jinbōchō, and I frequently passed …

Hi, Keanu! Here's the real story of the 47 rōnin.

Chūshingura(忠臣蔵). Is there anyone in Japan – nay, the world! – who doesn't know this story? It's been told in novels, kabuki, bunraku, films and TV shows, and now Keanu Reeves has tackled it in his movie 47 Rōnin.
When I first heard about the film, I was thrilled, but now that I've seen the trailer … uh-oh. It's a fantasy-adventure-martial arts mishmash that can't decide whether it's Star Wars, The Matrix or The Last Samurai; but perhaps the full-length feature is better than the trailer.

Everybody will be talking about it, though, so let's look at the real story of the 47 rōnin. It's based on historical facts. As briefly as possible this is what happened in 1701:
A country baron called Asano Naganori was appointed by the shōgun to receive the emperor's ambassadors. Since Asano was unfamiliar with court etiquette, a higher-ranking nobleman called Kira Yoshinaka was instructed to act as his mentor. Then disaster struck: Asano tried to assassinate Kira. …