Watch out for allergies when studying abroad. Make sure to bring all necessary medications, with a Yakkan Shoumei if need be (certificate that allows you to bring more than one month’s supply of prescription medication into Japan). Finding information on how to acquire a medicine certificate was difficult, and in the end, no one ever checked it at customs. Still, I felt safer being prepared. Note that stimulants, such as those containing Methamphetamine or Amphetamine (found in ADHD medications) are banned in Japan. Narcotics are also banned.
A Q&A pdf can be found here: http://www.mhlw.go.jp/english/policy/health-medical/pharmaceuticals/dl/qa1.pdf
More information on importing medications here: http://japan.usembassy.gov/e/acs/tacs-medimport.html
Studying abroad is not the best time to discover you have an allergy you never knew existed. Early in the program, our group went out to eat at a Korean barbeque place in downtown Beppu. It was a big, fancy restaurant with long tables and zabuton pillows to sit on. I’ve been to yakiniku (BBQ) places in Sacramento where you fry your own food at the table, so I had an idea of what to expect. These places fill up with steam and smoke, so if you are sensitive to stuffy air, you probably want to avoid yakiniku. With this many people, it was difficult to share the table grill. The main point was to provide a comfortable setting to be social and get to know the group. To be honest, my experience in Sacramento was by far more pleasant and delicious.
I love mushrooms. My favorite is Portabella, ever since having a Portabella sandwich at UC Davis in California. I would never gather and eat wild mushrooms, because I’m afraid I’d pick poisonous ones by mistake. Death caps look an awful lot like other, edible mushrooms. I’d had mushroom dishes of various varieties before my trip to Japan, and enjoyed them all.
I had no idea why I had a rash a day or so after eating out. It quickly grew worse, until I had itchy bumps all over my body. Alarmed, I went to the health clinic to get answers. The nurses there referred me to a skin doctor. I was very glad that I had a Japanese friend escort me (thanks Anri!). The clinic was tiny, with only two or three examination rooms. None of the staff spoke any English. Not the women at the front desk, nor the doctor. If you visit a health clinic off-campus, be prepared for a language barrier or take someone with you to interpret.
The doctor only had to look once at the rash before recognizing it as shiitake mushroom poisoning. The rash appears in distinct lines, as though the skin has been clawed by an animal. I found out later that shiitake allergy is rare. A reaction can happen when the mushroom is not thoroughly cooked. That mushroom I had taken off the grill at the yakiniku place hadn’t been cooked free of all its toxins. In fact, it had probably been mostly raw.
For the following week I was a miserable, red and itchy mess. The salve and medicine the doctor gave me helped clear it up, but wearing clothing and doing anything that chafed skin still hurt for quite a while.
Wikipedia only has a brief mention of the allergy: “Rarely, consumption of raw or slightly cooked shiitake mushrooms may evoke signs of allergy, including “an erythematous, micro-papular, streaky, extremely pruriginous rash” that occurs all over the body including face and scalp, appearing about 48 hours after consumption and disappearing after several days. This effect, presumably caused by the polysaccharide lentinan, is known in Asia but is unfamiliar to Europeans. Although it may occur in roughly 2% of the population, thorough cooking may eliminate allergenicity.”
Now that I know I’m allergic to shiitake, I try to avoid it. Since coming back from Japan I’ve only had one light reaction after eating at a Chinese restaurant. Fortunately, the rash’s “claw marks” were faint because the mushrooms had been cooked better.
I’m happy and grateful that I had support when I got sick. I can’t imagine how frightening it would be to break out in an unknown rash when alone in a foreign country. When you travel anywhere, always have a plan for sudden sickness or injury, because the unexpected will happen.
 Wikipedia contributors. “Shiitake.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 26 Oct. 2014. Web. 16 Nov. 2014.