Travel

Malicious Mushroom

shiitake mushroom photo from wikipedia

Shiitake mushroom growing on wood. By frankenstoen from Portland, Oregon

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.

grill at yakiniku restaurant

The grill placed onto our table at the yakiniku restaurant.

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.

Yakiniku Restaurant

Yakiniku Restaurant – Korean barbecue.

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.”[1]

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.

[1] Wikipedia contributors. “Shiitake.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 26 Oct. 2014. Web. 16 Nov. 2014.

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cat in bath sketch

Onsen in Beppu—Kitahama Hot Springs, Termas

onsen symbol

The symbol for onsen

Onsen are hot springs, also used to refer to the bathing facilities around the hot springs. In contrast, sentou are indoor public bath houses where the baths are filled with gas-heated tap water[1]. Beppu has eight major hot springs known as “Beppu Hatto” (Beppu Eight)[2]. Beppu has the second-largest amount of hot spring water discharge in the world, with 2,909 vents[2].

My study abroad program was in the summer, through the tsuyu rainy season and on into the sweltering humidity of June-July. Some days, even fresh from a shower, it only took thirty seconds to be dripping with sweat again. It was the worst season for hot baths. Regardless, I had come across the Pacific Ocean to Japan’s most famous onsen locale; I wasn’t going to leave without trying a few.

One of my favorite onsen experiences was at Kitahama Hot Spings, Termas[3]. Termas has an outdoor bath the size of a small swimming pool. Because it was co-ed, we wore swimsuits; a good thing, because the multistory hotel between the bathhouse and the bay had lots of overlooking windows. I would definitely have raised an objection to traveling businessmen surveying a women’s bath from their hotel suites.

It was hard to resist floating around despite the no-swimming rule. There are several standard onsen rules, such as no swimming, splashing or noisiness (don’t disturb the other patrons), don’t drop your towel in, and (this might disappoint a lot of foreign visitors) anyone with a tattoo cannot enter the bath. I suppose this is to deter yakuza (mafia) from hanging out and scaring customers.

With the breeze from the bay, warm water to soak in and surrounding city lights, visiting Termas was one of the most surreal and wonderful nights I spent in Beppu. I’m sad that, because I didn’t want to get my camera wet, I couldn’t take any pictures.

To make up for it, here’s a very cute illustrated article on onsen rules: http://www.wattention.com/archives/onsen/


[1] Wikipedia contributors. “Onsen.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 18 Aug. 2014. Web. 6 Oct. 2014.

[2] Wikipedia contributors. “Beppu Onsen.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 8 Jan. 2014. Web. 6 Oct. 2014.

[3] http://www.city.beppu.oita.jp/01onsen/english/02shiei/08terumas/terumas.html

Orange cat at Kitahama park

Noraneko: Stray Cats in Beppu and Nagasaki

When I came back from Japan, friends and family asked me why sixty percent or so of my trip photos starred cats. It’s not that I’m a cat fanatic, although I do love them, but the city of Beppu has so many stray cats, and they make interesting foreground subjects. Beppu isn’t the only city with a stray problem. In Nagasaki, too, cats perched on the monuments at the Peace Park, where in 1945 the atomic bomb fell.

Peace Park Cats

Cats hanging out atop a monument at Nagasaki’s Peace Park

Cats at Nagasaki’s Peace Park

Cats at Nagasaki’s Peace Park

Some of the felines hanging out in storefronts seemed to be adopted by shopkeepers, who had set out bowls of kibble. Sometimes I saw a kind lady at Kitahama Park (Beppu) offering the resident cat gang a large tub of catfood for dinner. Mostly though, the strays looked to be on their own.

Cats munching kibble

Cats chowing down on kibble left by a kind lady

A mom and her kittens hung out in a wood box on the side of a boat garage. The mom was a Calico, and it was very obvious from one of the bright white kittens what sort of man the dad had been. Mom-cat was shy and protective of her litter, so I couldn’t get too close. Sadly, a week later someone had filled the woodbox they’d been squatting in with wood, so the family had to move out and I didn’t see them again.

Strays have rough, dangerous lives, especially in the vulnerable and naive kitten stage. I was very depressed when I saw a kitten that didn’t make it lying on a sidewalk one night. Cars, cold, malnutrition; it’s a miracle that so many do survive the obstacles to become adults.

Unlike in California, in Beppu there didn’t appear to be active spay and neuter programs to stem the stray cat population. As charming as it was to pet friendly strays while I explored town, they shouldn’t be fending for themselves between busy streets and alleyways. I don’t know anything about local policies or the economic situation—I can only say what I observed for two short months—but I hope there is change in the future.

On a side note, I didn’t see a single stray dog. The dogs I did see (mostly shibainu) played in the parks with their owners.

Kittens living in Woodbox

Mom Cali playing with her kittens

Mother cat and kittens

Mother cat and kittens frolicking around a boat garage.

Summer in Beppu: An Introduction

Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University


Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Beppu, Japan

The first time I traveled outside my home state of California wasn’t to another U.S. state (not counting an hour spent inside the Hawaiian airport), but five thousand miles west to Japan. At 22 years old, it was my first plane ride and my first time traveling alone. For two months I stayed at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Beppu, Kyushu. I wanted to witness for myself the magical wackiness and beauty of Japan, the country that so many Americans have fallen in love with as an epicenter of creative pop culture.

There are probably millions of blogs that show off interesting and wonderfully weird aspects of Japan: anime, manga, and cosplay; maid, butler and cat cafes; Hello Kitty, alpaca and capybara toys; flashy bars, love hotels and restaurants; black squid-ink hamburgers; and of course, the famously ubiquitous vending machines. Even if you’re not a Japanophile, you’ve heard of some of these things.

At Stray Cats and Onsen, I’m going to focus on my personal experiences and impressions about my two-month stay. Although the majority of my visit was in Kyushu, I stopped by Tokyo for a couple days for a fast-paced walk-through of some famous locations. That one weekend alone gave me plenty to think about.