The Ladies Clinic: A Different Kind of Adventure

The following is part of a series of posts focused on daily life in Japan, which is an adventure of a different sort. Previously posts in this series included renewing my Japanese driver’s license and my enigmatic neighbor. This next post is on a topic that, when I tell my female friends about it, they always beg me to write it down.

“Ready?” said a voice from behind the curtain.

“Yes,” I replied, although I was a little unsure. Suddenly, the chair I was sitting in rose up and rotated to my right, simultaneously laying me on my back while thrusting my legs and nether region through the curtain and to the other side. Behind the curtain, I could detect a bright light. Another voice asked if I was comfortable. 

No, I had not been abducted by aliens. I was visiting the gynecologist in Japan. 

When moving to a new place, one has to attend figure out everything about your new neighborhood. It’s a lot more than just learning the public transportation system. After living in Tokyo for two years, I had discovered my favorite international bookshop (Kinokuniya in Shinjuku), my favorite tiny bar (the five seater Nektar in Shimokitazawa), and my dedicated camera shop where I took my film to get scanned and developed (National Photo in Harajuku). But I still hadn’t found my gynecologist. 

I cannot stress how important this is as a woman. I don’t even have a general practitioner, but having a dedicated gynecologist, one that I get along with, who knows my history, and is easy to communicate with, is absolutely necessary. There was one “ladies clinic” that I had gone to occasionally in Shinjuku that was good for same-day stuff like UTIs and yeast infections, and while the waiting room was chic and the doctor was nice, he wasn’t my guy.

So I did what all expats do: I mined my lady friends for their recommendations, and stumbled upon a wonderful gyno at Yoyogi Ladies Clinic. She is exactly what I love in a doctor, a balance of thoroughness and no-nonsense with a bedside manner and a sense of humor. She also speaks good English, which for me is crucial. As a bonus, the English-speaking nurse who works with her is possibly the sweetest woman I’ve ever met, who even helps me fill out all the forms and translates all the brochures for me.

However, there are many things about going to the gynecologist in Japan that were completely unexpected. 

The first slightly unusual thing is that most “ladies clinics” don’t take appointments. Instead, all patients are seen on a first come, first served basis, although reservations can be made online the day of. This system extends to lots of medical offices and clinics in Japan as well. I actually don’t mind this, as I’m free to pick the date and time that suits me best, but it’s something you should know before you go. 

The big thing however, that makes going to the gynecologist in Japan different from other countries, is the exam experience, which, if you don’t know what to expect, is pretty shocking. First, you sit down with the doctor face to face and have a brief consultation where they tell you what they will do during the exam and answer any questions that you may have. That done, the nurse shows you into a side chamber with a leather medical chair, kind of like at the dentist, that is separated from the rest of the examination room by a curtain. The nurse then instructs you to undress from the waist down and have a seat. To protect your delicate sense of modesty, there is a pointless scrap of cloth resembling the weight and sheerness of tissue paper that you are instructed to place over your lap. 

Once you are ready with the modesty drapery in place, the nurse presses a button. The chair lifts up, rotates, and sticks your legs out of the curtain before finally separating to part them. The end result is that you are in the air, lying on your back, with your head and chest on one side of the curtain, and your spread naked legs and lady bits on the other side where the doctor is waiting. She then goes ahead with her exam, sometimes asking you things and giving directions as a disembodied voice behind the curtain, like a medical Wizard of Oz. 

As an American, I find this whole experience absolutely bizarre. While I do actually prefer the leg-parting chair over the metallic torture devices, aka stirrups, used in the US, the curtain totally baffles me. I understand that some women are shy and going to the gyno sucks in general, but I’m here because I want an authorized professional to look at my vagina. Having the doctor do something so medically intimate as a floating voice on the other side of a curtain feels oddly dehumanizing. 

Otherwise though, I can honestly say that the experience has been great, particularly when it comes to the cost. American health insurance is ghastly expensive and feels like it covers nothing. While Japanese health insurance can also be expensive, when I do have to go to the doctor I feel the full benefit of it, as it covers almost everything. In my experience, this leaves doctors freer to run more tests and do more procedures. In my first visit to Dr. Miwa, aka The One, I needed to have my hormonal birth control device removed. While she was down there taking it out, she went ahead and did a pap smear, STD testing, cancer screening, and an ultrasound of my uterus. All together, the cost of all of these tests cost me less than a copay in the US. While I have heard horror stories from other expats, personally I’ve always gotten lucky and have always experienced this high level of thoroughness from Japanese medical care. This really helps to make me feel like I’m being taken care of here, although I’m still an outsider.

It’s not glamorous to admit, but living abroad can be really tough. You have to figure out everything about your new neighborhood and new country from scratch, in another language. So when you figure out another piece of the puzzle, whether that be the best bakery near your house or a gynecologist who’s got your back, you feel like you won the lottery. You feel a little bit less like an idiot foreigner passing through, and a little bit more like you truly live here.

Safe and Happy Travels,

Mo