Living in Japan with Diabetes

Guest blogger, Kim Cooper, shares her story of traveling to Japan and the many challenges she faced dealing with her T1D along the way.

Kim CooperKonnichiwa culture shock! I set off on my first trip to Japan as a university exchange student. I couldn’t wait to study the language and culture firsthand. But not only did I have to get accustomed to the ins and outs of living in a foreign country rich in unusual and unique traditions, I also encountered new challenges living with type 1 diabetes. Here are the top five diabetes hurdles on my journey.

1. The Never-ending Flight

I arrived at Kansai International Airport in Osaka, Japan after approximately 15 hours of flight. I had never been on a plane for more than four hours prior to this so I wasn’t exactly a pro at knowing how to handle diabetes in the air. Sure, I could close my eyes and picture myself doing jumping jacks to burn off the high-carb in-flight meal, but unfortunately imagination didn’t help. I ended up dealing with the dreaded blood-glucose rollercoaster. Up and down the entire flight, my rocky blood sugar ride was a good lesson: pack my own food—even when heading to the land of the rising sun.

2. Surrounded by Steamed Rice

I lived with a host family and although they were aware of my diabetes, they showered me with traditional Japanese food. There was one major problem: the delicious dish of steaming white rice that sat calling my name at each and every meal (yes, including breakfast). When I tried to ignore it beckoning to me in English, it would lure me in Japanese. For some reason, it was much harder to resist gohan than rice, despite knowing full well that it was a carb overload. Every meal was a test of my gohan willpower.

3. Teeming Trains

As soon as I set foot on commuter trains, I wondered if I was breaking a sweat because of a low or because of pure anxiety. I had never seen so many people occupying such little space. And I never imagined that I would have trouble reaching for my sugar pills on a jam-packed train while trying not to let go of the pole that kept me upright. I quickly learned to plan ahead before boarding crowded trains!

4. Konbini

Japanese convenience stores, Konbinis, brought temptation to a new level. Konbinis are stocked with scrumptious high-carb meals like obento (lunch boxes), onigiri (rice balls), and instant ramen. And how in the world was I supposed to say no to chocolate wrapped in cute pink packaging? The candy shelves were chock-full of adorable-looking sweets. However I quickly found out that I didn’t feel very cute after a konbini choco-indulge! It was best to steer clear of all konbinis after school.

5. Support

The most difficult thing about living in Japan was being far away from my support network. I phoned my family on a regular basis but it wasn’t the same as having them nearby to confide in and talk through my difficulties. It’s family, friends, and organizations like the JDRF that truly make coping easier, and I realized this even more so when travelling overseas. 

Despite diabetes challenges on my journey, I had the time of my life! The experience made me stronger and more determined than ever that diabetes wasn’t going to stop me from doing anything. It also set the stage for knowing what not to do on my second and third trips to Japan!

Have you travelled with diabetes? Comment below and share your story.

Kim CooperBio: Kim Cooper is the editor of OWL Magazine ( and has had type 1 diabetes for over 30 years. She enjoys writing stories, learning about health and fitness, and connecting with others in the diabetes community.

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