Japan’s spartan home remedies short on comfort, ice cream


It’s that time of year again, when “kaze (colds)” and ” infuruenza (influenza)” merge with the “sugikafunsho (hay fever)” to generate and spread that oh-so-miserable feeling.

We were warned months in advance that this year the amount of cedar pollen was to swell tenfold, and the only thing to do really, was to “gaishutsu wo hikaeru (reduce trips outdoors)” and to wear a “masuku (mask)” along with “goguru (goggles)” during the hours of “tsuukin to tsuugaku (work and school commutes).”

Consequently the streets are looking a little sinister, what with the massed ranks of masuku and goguru faithful, their features obscured by the heavy-duty contraptions a la something from a dire bioterrorism movie.

I actually saw a couple, their faces totally covered up, wearing identical nylon jackets (cotton and wool fabrics trap pollen and should be avoided by kafunsho sufferers) zipped up all the way to their chins, wearing long pants and gloves. But they were holding hands which caused me to renew my faith in Japanese romance. A bit of pollen (or pollen-busters) wasn’t going to stop them from expressing their love for each other.

Actually, people seem to be having a pretty good time. If there’s one thing the Japanese love, it’s “byouki-jiman (boasting about sickness),” followed by lectures on various home-remedy recipes.

Here’s a method which one of my aunts swore by, to obliterate colds, hay fever, headaches and bad moods in one brilliant stroke: boil a huge pot of “kuromame (black beans),” and breathe in the steam. She said this was “isseki nicho (killing two birds with one stone),” since you breathe while stirring the beans, and at the end of it everyone gets to eat them. Take it from me: your throat may feel a little better, but it does nothing to improve your mood.

A girlfriend of mine says that one of her most vivid childhood memories is being sent to bed with a “konetsu (high fever),” and then waking up several hours later to find a cabbage leaf wrapped around her head. Her mother believed that fresh veggies absorbed the heat and cooled down the body.

Apparently, my friend did feel better, but the whole bed smelled like cabbage soup. When she complained, her mother replaced the cabbage with slices of daikon placed carefully on her forehead. She would wake up to find crusty, dried daikon chunks strewn all over the sheets. These days she sticks to pharmaceuticals to combat her colds.

More conventional home remedies for the sniffles include the “ashi-yu (filling a basin with hot water and then soaking your feet in it),” “tamagosake (eggs in sake),” “shoga-yu (grated ginger in hot water),” and Korean Ginseng tea. While in the West people tend to cool a fever down, the Japanese opt for sweating it out (with the exception of my friend’s mom), which is why every cold and flu menu includes piping-hot “okayu (rice porridge),” lots of heat in and around the bed and multiple towels wrapped around the neck. I always insisted that ice cream would be much more effective — but did my family ever listen? No way.

Many of the older generation say that nothing works for all ills like taping two “umeboshi (dried, salted plums)” to one’s temples, and then getting down on one’s hands and knees for “yuka-migaki (floor wiping).” They’re also great believers in the “kanpu masatsu (rubbing down the body with a dry towel)” at the crack of dawn, or “rajio-taiso (callisthenics)” at the crack of dawn, and kendo practice . . . at the crack of dawn.

“Hayane hayaoki wa kenko no moto! (Early to bed and early to rise is the source of health)” is a phrase I’ve been listening to since birth — I once told my grandmother she was endangering my health by giving me what is known in Japan as a “mimi-tako (callouses on the ears)” by all that repetition. She didn’t like that at all.

But one of the things worth listening to is how, in the old days, cases of hay fever were extreme rarities. Few kids got colds and no teenager was concerned about dieting. The biggest priority for everyone was procuring enough calories that would sufficiently fuel a 12-hour workday, six days a week.

The older generation says, of course, that “ima minna kurashiga rakusugi (everyone has it too soft these days)” and cites “dan-i hoshoku (warm clothing, too much nutrition)” as the source of modern ills. This is what my acupuncturist friend says about hay fever: “danjiki shite, nikutai rodou sureba daijyobu (stop eating, engage in manual labor, and you’ll be OK).” Still no ice cream.