A trip to the dentist, or two

It’s inevitable, with no fluoride in the water or toothpaste, and delicious sugary food galore, if you are staying in Japan for longer than a year you will need to visit a dentist at some point. Unless you are opting for the denture look, which I certainly wouldn’t hold against you.

As someone who does not have a phobia of dentists (aside from the fear of an empty wallet), I was still a little nervous about this experience. I didn’t know any common dentist terminology, and felt rather blinded by ignorance in general. Luckily, I didn’t read the numerous articles online about Japanese dentists, because they are 99% horror stories and 1% helpful. I just went with a recommendation, and a friend in tow.

This is my story.

It begins the same as any dentist tale, with the awkward wiggle that is essential in a reclining chair. I wonder if I should warn them of the possibility of me fainting. I had kicked the habit before I left Australia, handling blood related situations with the grace of any other, that is until our annual work medical examination in Japan. In my defense, the examination was conducted in an assembly line, and there were three other people sitting next to me having blood taken at the same time. Four people, four arms, four needles and four vials of blood, it’s just too much.

What is the word for faint in Japanese anyway? Oh well, I guess I will just close my eyes if they try to show me something gory, and think about calm blue oceans. Calm blue oceans. A towel is placed over my eyes, which helps the illusion immensely. This is much preferred to the super trendy sunglasses, as it blocks not only the light but also any flying debris. Breathe in, breathe out, and repeat.

My dental assistant is very quiet. She doesn’t say a word. I can hear the dental assistant next door prattling away to my friend. I wonder if he is having better luck understanding her than I am. The design of the practice is similar in my mind to a bus depot. There is a row of ‘parking spaces’ on a slight angle, separated by thin walls. The entrance way to each can be blocked by a pull down screen, the back is completely open to allow the dentist to move from ‘lot’ to ‘lot’, which is why I can hear quite clearly.

Most dental surgeries in Japan are privately owned by a dentist. They may have a staff of a few dental assistants, however this is minimal. The dentist will generally supervise multiple patients at a time, moving from one to another, as the assistants stay put and do the majority of the work. Hence the bus shelter feel.  

The dental assistant starts the clean with a familiar tingling feeling, numbing cream. This is not standard procedure for a clean in Australia, where our national motto is ‘suck it up, cause nobody likes a crybaby’. Actually, I think it’s a nice touch. It’s not so numb that you’re drooling everywhere, but you don’t feel any pain. Perhaps if patient comfort was more of a focus in other countries, dentists wouldn’t have such a bad image.  

The assistant is replaced by the dentist who walks in from the back. He inspects my teeth, giving the assistant instructions on how to proceed with the clean. He addresses me, and asks for a second time if I can speak Japanese. I say that I can a little, which is my standard response. He talks extremely slowly, but there is no point if I don’t know the word. He finally accepts this truth and goes out the back to research a key word. He comes back with ‘calculus’. I deduct that he means I have a calcium build up on my teeth. He asks me if I know how to use a toothbrush properly. I don’t answer. It’s not really a question anyway. It’s the start of a tutorial on correct toothbrush technique, in Japanese.

The dental assistant is then left to complete her tasks, which interestingly enough, only includes the bottom half of my mouth. The second half I am informed must be completed at a second appointment. Certainly not a necessary split, however this again is common practice in Japan. A clean will be spread over two appointments. More complicated work may take three or four visits. I’m not complaining, in fact, if the experience had been more painful this might have been a nice touch. The 99% horror story version of this account would tell you that the 'split appointment practice' is a money making scheme. However, since my combined bill for the two appointments was a total of $44, I don’t really care what the reason is. The only thing I want to know is when can I make my next appointment?

Three days later I have the top half cleaned. One year from now I will receive a note in my letter box reminding me to make an appointment. Life is good for dentists and patients alike.


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