At first I put the problem down to hay fever, which always plays havoc with my sinuses and was still going strong even at the beginning of July (I had been under the impression that grass pollen is practically non-existent in Japan, but no such luck – another foreigner working in Ibaraki recently posted on Facebook about how his grass pollen hay fever has been almost untreatably bad). It soon got to the point where the offending ear would remain blocked until after lunch, and then to the point where it was still the same when I went to bed. After two or three days of listening to the world in mono, and having to either lean in towards people to hear what they were saying or turn around so that my left ear was facing them, I realised that it was time to go to the doctor.
At the height of the cedar pollen season in the spring, Mrs M’s uncle recommended a jibika (耳鼻科 / ear, nose and throat specialist) who had been a contemporary of his when they were at school, and whose surgery is just up the road from our new apartment. As is the case whenever one falls ill in Japan, I didn’t have to be referred to S-sensei by a GP, nor did I have to make an appointment to see him: his clinic is open until 6.30 on weekdays, and in the four or five times I have been there, it has never taken more than a twenty-minute wait before I am ushered into his office and asked to sit down.
Rather than an ordinary chair, however, as the patient, one is directed to a kind of high-backed examination seat equipped with various attachments, head- and arm-rests, and which reminds me of a Frankenstein-style electric chair whenever I sit in it. S-sensei himself is a chubby fellow in a white coat and spectacles, and while a normal doctor (well, the kind of doctor I’m used to seeing on ER, anyway) will have a stethoscope draped around their neck, S-sensei has a CD-shaped mirror strapped to his forehead at all times. He is more nutty professor than friendly doctor, has a habit of licking his bottom lip when he speaks, and when he does speak, it is faster than possibly any other Japanese person I have ever met.
‘What seems to be the problem?’ he asked the first time I met him.
‘My hay fever is really bad and I’ve run out of medicine,’ I said. ‘I’ve tried the over-the-counter stuff but it doesn’t work, so I was wondering if you could prescribe something stronger – I was taking cetirizine hydrochloride back in the UK’
‘Actually that's quite weak. Hay fever drugs are classified in three levels, and cetirizine is a level three.’
‘Really? That’s all I’ve ever been offered. I didn’t realise there was anything stronger.’
‘Obviously the stronger medicines may make you drowsy, so we’ll monitor your condition through the season and give you a prescription based on that. If you take a look at this chart, you’ll see that the pollen in Ibaraki is particularly bad – the worst in the country, in fact – and next year it’s going to be even worse. Do you take any other kinds of medicine?’
‘I use a nasal spray sometimes.’
‘You need to be careful not to become too dependent on nasal sprays. Can you read Japanese?’
‘So long as it’s not too technical, yes.’
‘Have a look at this – or your wife can read it for you.’
He handed me a photocopy of an article from a medical journal about the perils of steroid-based nasal sprays, and carried on talking for several more minutes. The more he spoke, the faster his voice became, and rather than interrupt his flow, I asked Mrs M to go over the salient points as we drove home.
When we went to see S-sensei last week, he peered into my right ear using one of those instruments with a little conical whatsit on the end containing a magnifying glass and a light.
‘It’s just full of earwax,’ he declared. ‘Let’s check the other one. Yes, that’s almost as bad.’ He called Mrs M over to see for herself. ‘See? Completely blocked. There may be another problem, but until we get these cleaned out I won’t be able to tell.’
A couple of years ago I had an attack of tinnitus, which I eventually decided had been caused by my rather over-zealous use of cotton buds. I have been trying to wean myself off them ever since, to the point where for the past few months, I have only been cleaning my ears once a week. As a result, instead of having tinnitus I was now partially deaf, so S-sensei prescribed some ear drops and asked me to come back in three days’ time, when he would clear the blockage.
‘Do you mind me asking how you’ll do that?’ I said. ‘It’s just that a couple of friends of mine suffered hearing damage after having their ears syringed.’ I wasn’t sure how to translate this into Japanese, so described the kind of syringe you would use to receive an injection or give a blood sample.
‘Don’t worry,’ said S-sensei. ‘We don’t do any alternative therapies here. A few years ago there was a treatment going round that involved putting a lit candle in your ear. It was ridiculous, and I was the one having to clear up the mess.’
Three times a day for the next three days, Mrs M put three magic ear drops into each ear and left me lying on my side for three minutes at a time, and by the third day – as S-sensei had warned me – the gunk had softened up and then re-congealed to make me deaf in the left ear too. Monday was my first day working at the board of education since the beginning of April, but I could do little more than sit at my desk and ignore everybody. If someone spoke very clearly and I listened very carefully then I could just about hold a conversation, but it was like spending all day stuck at the bottom of a swimming pool, and I left early in order to get to the clinic before it closed.
The first time I thought the nurse had called my name it turned out to be somebody else’s, and when she did call my name I didn’t hear it at all, but before long I was back in the Frankenstein Chair and S-sensei was sticking a long, thin metal tube into my ear. This worked a little like one of those small-scale computer keyboard vacuum cleaners that you used to be able to buy from the Innovations catalogue, and Mrs M and I also found out what that mysterious CD-like mirror was for: S-sensei positioned it over his eye so that it reflected light into my ear, and looked through the hole in the middle.
‘Try not to move,’ he said. ‘This may hurt a little.’ And indeed it did, although the pain was nowhere near as disconcerting as the noise, which was a combination of hoover-like suction and what sounded like extreme radio interference: crackling, squealing and the occasional firework-like explosion.
‘You see that?’ said S-sensei, holding up a chunk of earwax that rather than the usual orange-y colour was a kind of dark, reddish brown. ‘That’s what happens when you don’t clean your ears properly.’
Once the ordeal was over, he told me that I should use a cotton bud every day and come to the clinic once a month for the mini-vacuum cleaner treatment. Despite his assertions to the contrary, however, I realised that the procedure I had just undergone was to all intents and purposes the same as having one’s ears syringed, and not an experience I had any intention of repeating.
Still, the original problem had certainly gone away, to the extent that my hearing was now almost too good: every shuffling footstep, every humming machine, every tinkling metallic medical instrument, every chattering voice in the clinic sounded inordinately loud, as if someone had turned up the volume on my internal amplifier. The sensation reminded me of a story from Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, in which a patient’s sense of smell becomes hyper-sensitive after a drug overdose, and popping into the supermarket on the way home was like being immersed in the kind of interactive sound sculpture installation you sometimes find at the Tate Modern. It seems likely that my ears had been at least partially blocked for some time, and that instead of this over-sensitivity being due to the shock of regaining my hearing, I was simply experiencing the world as it really sounds; whether or not this will help me keep up with S-sensei’s high-speed Japanese, though, is another matter.