3. Healthcare and Available Medication
I'm a full supporter of socialized medicine, but it does have it's pitfalls. Widely available healthcare and an aging, overworked population results in people trying their best to stay healthy and nip any impending illness in the bud so they don't have to miss work and use their sick days. Add into the mix a lack of effective, over-the-counter medicines like sudafed and ibuprofen, and you end up with a lot of people going to the clinic at the same time. You will be waiting a long time to see a doctor.
When you find yourself feeling under the weather, you have a couple options: the small clinic just down the street, or the hospital in the next town over if you live in the countryside like I do. Smaller clinics are great since they're usually open until 6pm-7pm and offer much shorter waiting times. These clinics tend to specialize, though, so check to make sure the place isn't limited to one department.
However, you might find the doctors there a bit less attentive and more abrupt. For example, I went to my local clinic for a mysterious stomachache I'd had for about a week. For some reason, clinics in Japan don't take preliminary measurements like height, weight, and blood pressure beforehand so they showed me right into the doctor who asked me the usual questions ("When did it start?", "Any diarrhea?", "Any blood come out?", etc.). He then asked me to lie down where he felt my stomach a bit and asked where it hurt. Then he wrote me a script, told me the meds might affect the color of my bowel movements and that was that. The whole thing took less than five minutes. No explanations of what was wrong with me or anything.
Hospitals offer the usual fancy machines like x-ray and MRI, but they also offer a wider range of doctors who specialize in their particular field. I also find the doctors a lot more conversational and attentive. Unfortunately, each department has it's own set times when they except patients and they usually don't take anyone after noon. This means taking time off work. These hospitals are also independent from each other and that means there is no universal system to keep patient information. I recently took my husband in to get his knees looked at and they took x-rays. After a recommendation from my teachers, we went to a different hospital to get a second opinion and they had to take yet another x-ray since they don't share information with each other.
Like I said, most of the OTC meds here are weak-sauce and won't do you much good. Tylenol was just brought into the Japanese market in the past few years, but it's expensive. The upside to getting it through a doctor is that insurance will cover it and effectively make it cheaper than buying painkillers outright and it's not too hard to get a script from any doctor for simple things like painkillers or loperamides. There is also a plethora of pharmacies, and you can fill your prescription at any of them. Take care though: sometimes smaller stores will not have one of your meds in stock and will need time to order it from the closest major city.
I absolutely love one of the pharmacist at my local place, though. He always tries to speak in English and explains everything as best he can.
Huge downside: birth control is not covered by health insurance. You will end up dropping $30-$40 a month for the pill. The only semi-permanent option is the IUD and good luck convincing anyone to give you one if you're single and/or childless. I've said it before and I'll say it again: get a long-term method in place and do it BEFORE you come to Japan.
Also not covered: psychoactive and stimulant drugs used to treat psychological disorders.
The only convenient stores I usually encountered in the US were housed in gas stations and usually only provided terrible snacks, drinks, and maybe a movie rental service and a few basic drugs. In fact, I find that a Walgreens is more like a convenient store than actual convenient stores because of their wide variety of services.
Japanese stores really put the "convenient" convenient store. They offer everything from printing/copying to package delivery. Many even have kiosks where one can purchase tickets for a plethora of things such as concerts, amusement parks and highway bus fare. Another great feature is the ability to pay for online orders in cash (using my American debit card incurs bank fees and the terrible exchange rate). Most importantly, they aren't stingy with their bathrooms. That's what they're there for, after all!
And of course, we have Japanese atms. I've mentioned that Japan is a cash society before, and that means more trips to the atm than most foreigners are used to. The good news is that there are atms (and convenience stores with atms) everywhere. You usually can't drive for more than five or ten minutes in the countryside without finding one. In the city there seems to be at least one on every block.
One of my favorite functions of the Japanese atm is the automatic transfer of funds from one account to another. Since Japanese banks don't use checks at all, most people transfer money through the atm. All you need is some basic info like their name, bank and account number. And if that seems rather inconvenient to have to input all that information every time, you can have the machine make card for you so all you have to do in the future is swipe the card.
Another big boon to money transfers in Japan is that an atm from one bank can transfer to another of a different bank with no fees or hassle. In the US, a person usually has to go the bank the payee belongs to in order to deposit money in their account. In Japan, you only need to do it from an atm where your account is held and can send money anywhere.
Going to a festival? You will wait in line. Riding the train at rush hour? You will stand on the train waiting for an open seat. Checking out at the grocery store on their big sale day? More waiting in line. You will no longer wonder how handheld gaming became Japan's biggest gaming industry when you've rode the trains long enough.
Oddly enough, when waiting in lines becomes such a large part of your life, you begin to assimilate it. Eventually, instead of it being a huge inconvenience, it's just another part of your day like making breakfast or driving to work.