Health & Safety

Emergencies

Japan's national emergency phone numbers are:

  • Police: 110
  • Ambulance, Fire: 119

Japan's ergency and ambulance services are generally effiient and reliable. Some pay phones will have a special button that can automatically connect to the 119 call center, in case you are without reception. The caller's location is traced manually or automatically once the call is connected, but it may take longer to connect you to an operator who can speak English. Outside Tokyo, it is difficult to receive foreign language assistance when dialing 110 for the police. 1339 is a number for non-emergency medical information calls.

Drinking Water

Rest stop with mountain water from 500 meters up in the mountains In Japan, drinking tap water is usually fine, but whether or not it's safe depends on the person. Depending on the mineral content, some people may still get an upset stomach. I drank tap water occasionally, but vending machines were so ubiquitous and affordable it was never necessary for me to. Just make sure you recycle the bottles afterwards.

Moutain water can be drinkable depending on the situation. The first thing you should look for is whether there are any residentials, buildings, or factories nearby. If you are near the foot of the mountain, the water may not be as clean. Next, when you scoop up the water, pay attention to whether it is clear and if there are any visible sediments in it. Occasionally, you will see a pipe connecting to a water source from higher grounds. These are installed by the local residents or farms, often for passerbys, so feel free to dig in. At one particular rest stop built and maintained by a group of elderly women, a long hose delivered water all the way from 500 meters up in the mountains (see photo). It had a subtle sweet taste to it.

Blisters!

Unfortuntely for many people, blisters are an inevitable part of the pilgrimage. Don't wait for blisters to form before Goolging in agitation on what to do. Prevention is your best way to minimize pain on your feet when walking on the pilgrimage. First, make sure your shoes are not too loose or too tight on your feet. The two main ingredients for a blister is moisture and friction between your skin. This means that the choosing your socks matters. There are socks that are extra absorptive or have friction under the socks, but many have found the five-toe Japanese sock (五本指靴下) to be especially helpful as well. The extra fabric around your toes will prevent your sweaty toes from rubbing against each other all day long. During the pilgrimage, a fellow pilgrim also taught me a way to wrap tape around my toes and the front-bottom of your foot, which has the similar effect as the five-toe sock.

So, you've done every single thing on the book to prevent it from happening, but after a long day of walking and sweating, you sit down and feel that little sting in between your toes. Now what?

Taped up blisters on both my feet during the pilgrimage Blisters must be treated right away. Don't wait until the end of the day to get to it. The earlier you treat it, the quicker the recovery process. If you just feel a blister forming, you may still be able to prevent it by taping it tightly. The second I started getting multiple blisters, I went wild taping over every single one of them (see photo). It didn't matter if they were whether imagined or real. After a week of blister hell, I never got another one.

If a blister has already taken its form, look at its condition. A blister can be intact, torn, or deroofed. If it is intact, take a needle and gently pierce through the top-most layer of the skin. It won't hurt unless you poke too deep into the flesh beneath the blister. Let the liquid drain. Now that the blister's skin is broken, you may apply an antiseptic like Betadine. Even though it is torn, you should try to keep the blister roof in place. Next, dress your blister with tape (foam tape or medical tape for the skin) or a hydrocolloid dressing like Compeed. Wrap the infected area tight enough to keep the air out, but not to tight that it would further irritate it and cause you pain. At night, after a shower or bath, sleep without anything on the infected area or with just a light bandaid to let it air out. When you wake up the next day, repeat the process of applying the tape, and do this everyday until it completely disappears as it can return easily.

Wildlife

Shikoku's two most life-threatening wildlife animals are boars and a poisonous snake called mamushi. I encountered neither one of them, but it is wise to do a little research on what to do if you see a wild boar or get bitten by a mamushi. There are also other venomous insects that you might encouter in the wild or even in your place of lodging.

Wild Boar – Inoshishi

Attention boars sign The inoshishi is the Japanese subspecies of the wild boar. Male inoshishi eventually lives solitarily, and females live in groups. If necessary, they can run up to 40 kilometers per hour. They are a problem for farmers in Japan, as they will eat the crops and damage embarkments by digging, and on rare occasions attack people.

Most pilgrims never see any wild boars (I didn't), but those who have encountered them on mountains and forests. They can scent your smell long before you see them. While some may hide away from you, boars can be unpredictable, especially if they act to protect their offspring. Sometimes, they may simply be curious and will walk up to you to get a closer look. Most of the time, the mother will belt out a loud grunt and snort, and she and the younger boars will all flee from you at high speed. If a boar is there to get food from you, stand tall and shout at it, confidently but not aggressively. Do not feed them, ever. In the rare cases you've heard where humans are attacked by boars, it is almost always because people acted aggressively toward the boar or provoking them with dogs. If a female boar with her piglets start to growl at you, confidently back away. Remember, boars are docile creatures that won't in their right minds harm you unless there is a good reason.

Japanese Pit Viper – Mamushi

The Japanese mamushi snake These are the most venomous snakes on the Shikoku Island. Each year, 2,000-3,000 people in Japan get bitten by a mamushi, and about 10 people die from it. The average length of a mamushi is is 45-81 centimeters (18-32in). The color of their bodies is pale gray, reddish-brown, or yellow-brown, overlaid with a series of irregularly-shaped lateral blotches bordered in black. These colors make brilliant camouflage for them to hide in vegetation or leaf litter. The yamakagashi is another venomous snake in Shikoku. It is easier to spot because of the yellow coloring on its head and red stripes.

Mamushi tend to be more active during the warmer months of the year. Warning signs are erected in areas where mamushi frequent. You may find them on mountain trails with a lot of foliage or fallen leaves. When hiking in these areas, you should be aware of your surroundings and use your staff (kongōzue) to check the area before proceeding. The mamushi and various other poisonous insects are one of the top reasons why you should wear long pants on hikes.A mamushi's bite is lethal if left untreated. Bitten victims require about a week of intensive care in a hospital.

Japanese Giant Hornet – Suzumebachi

Mukade, the venomous Japanese centipede. The Suzumebachi (スズメバチ、雀蜂、胡蜂), meaning "sparrow bee," is a subspecies of the world's largest hornet. As the name suggests, its size is astonishingly large, with adults often growing to 4.5 centimeters (1.8in) and a wing span of 6 centimeters (2.4in). It has a large, bright yellow head with big eyes and a dark brown thorax with an abdomen banded in brown and yellow. They tend to live in rural areas in Japan, and can be sighted fairly often on the Shikoku Pilgrima trail. They are active during the summer, and will hang around until September and October, after which the cold weather causes the colonies to die out.

When provoked, the suzumebachi can be very agressive. Every year, about thirty to forty people in Japan die from being stung by the suzumebachi. Its venom, injected by a 6.25-millimeter (0.25in) stinger, attacks the vitim's nervous system and damages the tissues within. Being stung by a suzumebachi is extremely painful, and requires immediate hospitalization. Their sting can cause anaphylactic shock in allergic people, but can still be lethal to people who are not allergic given that the dose is sufficient. According to some people, for a person who is not allergic, being stung a second time will usually do the trick, causing an allergic reaction.

They are attracted to darker colors and the smells of perfume, so avoid wearing dark clothing and perfume. They make a loud buzzing sound, so be alert when you're in the mountains. If you encounter one, try your best to stay calm and slowly move away from them. If you get stung, immediate wash the wound with clean water, then try to squeeze out as much of the venom as possible. If you have a cream that contains histamine, apply it on the wound before you get to a hospital. Alert locals or businesses nearby, as they may have antidotes handy.

Centipede – Mukade

Mukade, the venomous Japanese centipede. The are various kinds of centipedes in Japan. The one that is particularly dangerous is the mukade (ムカデ、百足), which can grow up to 20 centimeters (almost 8in). They are most commonly found during and after the rainy season from June to August in the countryside close to mountains. Due to a lack of protective coating found on many insects (centipedes are not insects, by the way), mukade can easily dry out. Therefore, they tend to hang out in moist environments such as under logs or rocks, and tend to come out only at night. You might also find them in a house or on the bed, and because they are very territorial, just throwing them back out into the wild won't get rid of them. They will find their way back. Many people pour boiling water on them and then cut them in half.

Mukade are dangerous because they are venomous. They can easily become aggressive and bite you. People describe the pain of a mukade bite as 10 times stronger than a common bee sting. You skin will swell and hurt a lot, but there is no need to go to the hospital for it unless you have an allergic reaction. If this happens, go to a drug store and find a product called ムヒアルファEX (muhiarufa EX), which helps cool the skin and relieve the pain. An interesting solution is to create a sesame oil ointment by soaking the bodies of mukade in sesame oil for days. Another similar solution is instead of soaking centipedes in sesame oil, you can soak it in a type of Japanese alcohol called Shochu.

Other Harmful Insects

The pilgrimage will take you to many areas in the countryside and moutains, so you will inevitibly have to deal with some annoying little creatures. Cicadas (semi), for example, are mostly harmless, but if they mistake you from a tree, they may grip you with their legs and start eating off you or lay eggs on you. The stink bug (kusagikamemushi) are harmless when unprovoked, but if you touch or intimidate them, you will be covered in a nasty odor akin to the smell of cilantro. The denkimushi is a small caterpie that does nothing but release a chemical that feels like an electric shock if you touch them. The Japanese mountain leech (yamabiru) is a blood sucking creature that will extend their bodies and jump on you when you get close, then proceed to dig their thousands of teeth into your skin. They can be found in bodies of water, on trees, and on land as well. They can easily bite through your socks and clothing. You won't feel the bite as they release an unsuspecting numbing chemical beforehand.

Don't let what I said scare you away. The countryside and wilderness in Shikoku is absolutely gorgeous, you will feel like a God on the mountains. It would be a shame to miss the views. Some people never see any of the said animals, and some others may see them a few times. When I went from late-May to mid-July, I didn't see any of them except a dead centipede. I did, however, see these harmless little cuties. Shown below are a Japanese tree frog (amagaeru in Japanese; they are a sign that the rice fields are healthy), a crab, and another crab that is rainbow-colored (sorry, I don't have a good picture, they are so incredibly shy).

Amagaeru, the Japanese tree frog next to a rice field in the summer.
Amagaeru, the Japanese tree frog next to a rice field in the summer.
Amagaeru, the Japanese tree frog next to a rice field in the summer.