We still don’t know what got us sick in Tokyo. But when four Lifehacker staffers travelled there together this month, three of us caught different bugs at different points. For me, that meant an upset stomach and diarrhoea that sent me to bed at 6 every night and made fine dining impossible. I had great luck with Tokyo’s plentiful public bathrooms. Much worse luck when I tried to buy stomach medicine.
I’ll tell you that story, but first, go grab some stomach medicine — Pepto-Bismol, antacid, ginger, whatever covers your most common travel ailment. Or whatever other medicine you frequently need when you’re travelling, if it’s at all more complicated than an antacid.
Stick a few days’ worth of doses in your suitcase. They’ll last a while. And if you travel somewhere with unfamiliar language and/or medicines, you will want them. If you’re not convinced, read on.
Even with the help of Google Translate and some English-speaking drugstore clerks, I had a hard time finding the right stomach medicine in Tokyo. The first medicine I bought was ... a hangover treatment, I think? It had a stomach on the box, that’s all I knew. I was at one of Central Tokyo’s many convenience stores, which tend to have just one shelf-end of medicine. (Pharmacies and supermarkets have many more options, but they’re less omnipresent.)
I was too embarrassed to explain to the clerk precisely what I needed my body to stop doing. That’s the sort of personal detail I share for public blog posts. But she did explain that I’d want to take this with water. She didn’t mention that it was a powder. I dumped a dose into a bottle of water and chugged. It might have worked, but I wanted something more reliable.
I googled “Japanese stomach medicine” and got a Medium piece on “7 Must Buy Medicines at Japanese Drugstores.” Number 2, Seirogan, is “a quick resolution for runny stomach.” Seirogan is a famously smelly stomach and diarrhoea medicine made popular during the Russo-Japanese War, and its name originally means “Conquer Russia Pill.” (The brand later tweaked it to mean “efficacious dew drops.”) The TV commercials all feature the same military bugle call.
It was a fun little cultural experience, but one that almost did more damage, as I misread the dosage directions through the haze of the Google Translate camera. I took the smelly pills three times in an afternoon before I figured out that you’re only supposed to take a dose every four hours.
So I googled again, and found Stoppa, a more familiar-feeling, if less historically rich, solution. This time I read the directions in English: like Seirogan, Stoppa is for taking every few hours. Stoppa got me through the 12-hour flight home, but only with a bathroom break about once an hour. The guy in the aisle seat was very patient with me.
What I wish I had was classic Pepto-Bismol chewable tablets, or at least the Walgreens knockoff. Whether because they’re less long-lasting, or because the FDA doesn’t care, you can take these tablets every hour. I know what to do with these; my body knows what to do. I wish I’d had a handful to munch on.
The reason I say you should pack them now is that you won’t remember to pack them before your next trip. You’ll think through the things you expect to do on your trip, like walk through snow, or go swimming, or dress up for a business meeting. You won’t think through all the incidentals. “Ah, anything else I can pick up at a corner store,” you’ll say. And that’s true for sunscreen and toothpaste and wide-brimmed hats.
But medicine is more complicated, and in medicine, it matters when you get something wrong. If I’d remembered that I always get an upset stomach on trips — if I’d packed the right medicine ahead of time — I could have had a lot more fun in Tokyo.