Fake Plastic Food In Japan Evolved From Less Than Appetizing Origins

plastic food samples japan
Mathieu Thouvenin, Flickr

Walk through any food court or eatery in Japan and you’ll find yourself face to face with walls of plastic food. These displays are designed to show potential diners exactly what they’ll receive if they order a particular dish, from the portion size to the ingredients right down to the little garnishes. They’re helpful for foreigners who can’t decipher Japanese menus but even the locals have come to depend on the fake food when eating out.

These sample meals have always had an uncanny realism to them – and now we know why. It turns out these plastic food replicas were borne out of a more scientific art form. The original maker of fake food started out creating models of human organs and diseases, with the realistic plastic replicas aimed at helping doctors study illnesses. Pretty soon, restaurants came knocking on the artisan’s door – despite it’s unappetizing origins, they figured fake food was the perfect way to familiarize country folk with the unique fare city restaurants had to offer.Like most things in Japan, the plastic samples don’t come cheap, especially since the food samples are modeled off real dishes and created for each individual restaurant. A life-like plate of plastic sushi or a heaping bowl of fake spaghetti sell for around $100 each, although budget-conscious restaurants can rent their fake food for about $6 a month.

The sample-making company says they haven’t been able to get the concept to take off in the Western world… after learning the less than appetizing story behind the samples, we’re not sure they ever will.

Do you like the idea of plastic food? Do these samples help you pick your meal or are they are turn off?

ZocDoc Helps You Find Doctors, Make Appointments While Traveling

ZocDoc helps you find medical assistance while travelingThere is nothing more frustrating than having to seek medical assistance while traveling. It is bad enough to have something unexpected come up while you’re at home, but at least your personal doctor is generally only a phone call away. But while you’re on the road it can be difficult to find a specialist and booking an appointment can be a real challenge.

That’s where ZocDoc can come in very handy. The service, which is available on both the web and as an Android and iOS app, allows users to quickly and easily find doctors, dentists and other specialists based on location. The website version of ZocDoc searches based on zip code while the mobile apps use the smartphone’s built in GPS chip to locate options that are near by. Searches can be narrowed by looking for specific specialties (allergist, cardiologist, orthodontist, etc.) and you can even add a search criteria based on the insurance provider you’ll be using.

When the search is complete, ZocDoc presents all the available options in a clean and easy to read format that includes addresses, reviews and a listing of the next available appointment. Tapping or clicking on an open date and time allows the user to then quickly and easily book that appointment.

Putting ZocDoc through its paces, I was impressed with just how simple the interface was both on the website and the iPhone app. It really is very easy to use the service to locate a doctor. Booking an appointment couldn’t have been any easier either and the whole process took just a minute or two to complete.

For now, ZocDoc only works in the U.S. but for travelers who frequently move about the country, this could be an incredibly useful app. If you find yourself frequently on the road and occasionally needing medical assistance of some type, this service will come in very hand. While not expressly built for travelers, it certainly is a resource that we’ll all be happy to have if we ever need it.

[Photo Credit: U.S. Airforce via Wikimedia]

Top five things to look for in a travel doctor, and why you should have one

travel doctorsDespite writing about food and adventure travel for a living, I used to be somewhat blasé about the concept of travel medicine. Multiple incidents of Giardia/dysentery/traveler’s diarrhea/full-body outbreaks of mosquito and sand fly bites just taught me to carry a serious stash of antibiotics in my first-aid kit. At least I’ve always been conscientious about travel immunizations and educating myself about the primary diseases indigenous to my destination.

When you’re young and healthy, it seems silly to have a travel medicine specialist. Although this article is primarily directed at adventure travelers, odds are, the worst thing you’ll come home with is a backpack full of crappy souvenirs. But no one’s invincible, and should you require a specialist for something not responding to conventional treatment or with progressive symptoms, time is of the essence. Many “exotic” diseases progress rapidly, and can cause irreversible damage or death if not properly diagnosed and treated. Even with incurable diseases, the earlier you catch them, the easier it will be to manage symptoms and prevent them for worsening.

No, I’m not a doctor, although I come from a medical family. But I got seriously schooled after visiting Ecuador two years ago. After a fantastic month of adventure activities in remote parts of the Andes and Amazon Basin, I fell seriously ill the last day my trip. Two years of at-times crippling symptoms, 10 CT scans, five medical facilities, dozens of specialists, four surgical procedures, two surgeries, one cancer diagnosis, and near-medical bankruptcy later, I’ve become an expert at being my own advocate.

My infectious disease doctor believes that I contracted a form of bartonellosis called Oroya Fever after being bitten by sand flies. The good news: My health is currently stable, but we don’t know if the disease is in remission or not. But I have permanent cognitive damage, scarring or tumors on most of my internal organs, and intermittent arthritis. But believe me, I feel lucky.

I don’t want anyone to go through the health and medical nightmare I’ve endured, so I’ve compiled a list of essentials in a travel medicine doctor. Ergo, number one with a bullet:

1. Is he/she a travel or tropical medicine specialist?
Pre-bartonella, I used an internist as my GP/prescriber of antibiotics. If you can find an internist, gastroenterologist, or infectious disease doctor who is also a specialist in travel medicine, that’s a huge plus.travel doctors 2. Does he/she have personal experience traveling or practicing in developing nations?
There are a lot of practicioners who aren’t globally aware, so to speak. You can’t diagnose what you don’t understand, know about, or have first-hand experience with. Period.

3. Is he/she a good listener and empathetic?
It’s difficult to find these qualities in any doctor, especially in today’s medical climate. But it’s imperative to find someone you can communicate with, and who understands what you’re going through if you’re suffering from a mystery travel ailment. Don’t settle, even if you need to travel to another state or country to seek treatment (what stumps doctors here is often commonplace in the country of origin).

4. Does he/she have a good network of colleagues in multiple specialties (including travel/tropical medicine) to consult for additional opinions?
My current mantra is to seek a third opinion, from at least two different medical facilities. That, and to have a travel physician who actively consults colleagues and does additional research to assist with a diagnosis and/or treatment. My infectious disease doctor talked to specialists at a medical school in Peru on my behalf, and even tracked down a relevant medical paper from 1897 as he honed in on a diagnosis. And while I wouldn’t consider it a deal-breaker if the answer is no, see if your doctor is an active and participating member of the International Society of Travel Medicine.
travel doctors
5. Does he/she return your calls/provide you with email, pager, or office number so you can get in touch directly?
I’ve learned that a good doctor who is invested in your recovery will provide an open line of contact to address questions, concerns, and exchange pertinent information. Tip: Please don’t abuse this privilege. Physicians work insanely long hours, under constant stress. And don’t expect to hear back immediately if you leave a non-urgent message; be realistic. A couple of days, fine (many specialists aren’t in clinic every day). A week? Make a polite follow-up.

Whether or not you end up getting a travel doctor, the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers (IAMAT) provides loads of useful information, including a directory of global travel medicine clinics with English-speaking staff, and a destination-specific travel health planner. And depending upon what you plan to do on your trip, where you’re traveling, and your financial situation, you may want to invest in travel insurance.

[Photo credits: blood transfusion, Flickr user CarynNL;patient, Flickr user kk+; legs, Laurel Miller]

The Ultimate Travel First Aid Kit

Busy season for the doctors of Everest ER

The Everest ER docs make climbing the mountain much saferThe spring climbing season in the Himalaya is well underway, with dozens of teams climbing on a variety of mountains across the region. The busiest of those peaks is Mt. Everest of course, where in a few weeks time, a couple of hundred mountaineers will be hoping to stand on top of the highest summit on the planet. Many of them wouldn’t have a chance of doing so however, if it weren’t for the hard work of a dedicated team of doctors who staff the Everest ER.

More formally known as the Everest Base Camp Medical Clinic, the Everest ER first appeared on the South Side of that mountain back in 2003. It is a joint effort between the Himalayan Rescue Association of Nepal and the U.S., two organizations that work closely with one another to ensure that the climbers have a reliable place to have their health needs addressed. Over the course of the past eight years, the ER tent has become a staple on the mountain, dealing with everything from minor sprains and bruises to life-threatening high-altitude sicknesses.

2011 has been a particularly busy season for the staff of the Everest ER. Last week they noted that they had already seen 276 patients and were on pace to shatter all previous records for the number of visitors to come through the doors of their tent. Since setting up shop in April, they’ve had to evacuate three of those patients due to the severity of their altitude sickness, but each of them recovered nicely once they were taken to lower altitudes. Another patient, a Sherpa no less, made the ill advised move of taking off one of his gloves while high on the mountain. The 100 mph winds there quickly delivered a severe case of frost bite that the docs had to treat as well. The vast majority of the other ailments that the ER team has had to deal with have been simple stomach issues, severe colds, and a case or two of the Khumbu Cough, an upper respiratory condition that is common to visitors of the region.
The record number of patience that the Everest ER doctors have seen this year is not indicative of careless climbers or overcrowding on the mountain. In fact, by most accounts, Everest is quieter this year than it has been in some time. But over the past eight years, the ER staff has built an excellent reputation of having the skills and supplies necessary to treat any health related problem that the climbers have, and that has earned them a healthy dose of respect around Base Camp. In years past, some of the larger commercial expeditions would bring their own team doctor with them, but now many of them are saving money by leaving their doc behind and relying on the Everest ER squad instead. This means that mountain is probably safer then ever to climb, as a well trained, and well prepared, medical staff is on duty at all hours of the day and night.

Of course, everything that they’ve treated thus far this season is just a warm-up for what is to come. Later this week the Sherpa guides will complete the process of fixing the ropes all the way to the top of the 29,029-foot peak. Once that work is complete, the other climbers can begin their summit bids at well, and sometime around the middle of the month, they’ll do just that. The real dangers of the climb will reveal themselves when the mountaineers head up to the top en masse, where they’ll be left exposed, possibly for hours, in extreme cold and thin air.

They can rest assured however, that the Everest ER docs are there for them should they need them.

[Photo credit: Pavel Novak via WikiMedia]

An interview with a traditional African healer

healer, traditional medicine, HararAt first glance, Alia Abdi doesn’t look like someone who can cure cancer with a simple recipe. A middle-aged wife and mother living in a typical home at the end of a rambling alley in Harar’s old city, she offers visitors hot coffee and a ready smile, like any other hostess in this hospitable town.

Alia gets a lot of visitors. She’s a traditional Ethiopian healer, with a variety of herbal recipes to cure everything from liver trouble to Hepatitis B to, she says, cancer.

I first heard about Alia through the Harari tour guide Nebil Shamshu Muhammed (nebilha20@ yahoo.com) who was suffering from jaundice. He felt ill and listless and his eyes and tongue had turned an unhealthy yellow. Nebil went to a regular hospital where he was given medicine and instructions about his diet. The medicine gave him a fever and the food he was supposed to eat made him ill.

Five days and a 1625 birr ($95) later, he stopped taking the medicine and decided to go to a traditional healer. Alia studied his symptoms and asked him questions about his appetite and how he felt. Healers don’t make a diagnosis of a particular disease; they look at the symptoms as a whole and brew up a medicine based on that. She presented him with an herbal concoction to take, saying “Pay me what you can. If you’re poor, don’t pay me at all.” Nebil gave her 300 birr ($18)

He took the mixture and proceeded to throw up for the entire day. That was part of the process, Alia assured him.

“After that I felt clean. My fever was gone,” Nebil said.

He looked better too. I have no medical training but I could see his yellow pallor had faded and he had more energy. I decided to visit Alia myself, taking along Helen Sepal, a senior in the pharmacy department at Haramaya University. Reclining on pillows on the floor of Alia’s living room as she burned incense and heated up coffee in a pot set atop glowing coals, she told us about her path to becoming a healer.”I learned from my mother-in-law,” she says, “I’ve been doing this for 14 years. Only one child of each generation is chosen to learn the secrets.”

And secrets they are. Each healer has his or her own cures and they don’t share them with anyone but their apprentice, not even other healers. Alia has 47 recipes, some of which cure more than one malady, but all she’ll say about them is that they’re made from mixtures of local plants.

“Why don’t you share this with us? It would be useful if all the healers pooled their knowledge,” Helen asks.

Alia shrugs and gives a noncommittal, “I’ll think about it.”

Unlike some practitioners of alternative medicine in the West, Alia respects modern medicine. She uses it herself sometimes, and if someone is already taking Western medicine, she won’t give them any of her own because the interaction of different medications could hurt them. Alia studies Western medicine from the sidelines, working as a janitor at a local hospital and asking patients what kind of treatments they’re getting. If she thinks she can help, she’ll give some advice of her own.

Alia also differs from some African healers in that she doesn’t claim to be able to treat HIV. Nebil says many are scared to.

“A healer in Kenya said he had a cure for AIDS and health professionals killed him. They were jealous. Other healers heard this and don’t reveal their secrets now. If they have a cure for AIDS they only use it for relatives.”

Whether this story is true or not is hard to say, but if the healers believe it, it’s stopped them from trying to treat one of Africa’s biggest health problems.

Alia wants to make it clear that she’s no witch. While she does pray to help her patients, there’s no sorcery involved. All her cures are based on herbal mixtures. She also shows a practical side, telling her patients to get proper rest, to take vitamins, and to eat well. Alia admits a certain placebo effect too.

“Sometimes when a person thinks they’ll be cured they get better,” she says with a smile.

After finishing our coffee we say goodbye. Nebil was already a believer in traditional medicine, as are most Ethiopians. Helen and I are impressed too. Helen repeats her comment that healers and Western-style doctors should work together. This is a refreshing change from the knee-jerk negative reaction to traditional medicine I’ve seen from some health professionals. After all, if a people have lived in a region for centuries, it makes sense that they’ve discovered the medicinal properties of the local plants. While I’m doubtful about some of the more grandiose claims like being able to cure cancer, considering that modern medicine hasn’t done a very good job at curing this disease either, it would be a good idea to check out what the healers are doing.

This probably won’t happen, though. Competitors rarely cooperate, and the doctors in the hospitals and the healers in the private homes will continue to treat their patients separately, even though these patients may benefit from both traditional and Western medicine getting together and sharing what they know.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Harar, Ethiopia: two months in Africa’s City of Saints

Coming up next: A visit to an African market!