Japanese Traditional Healing: Moxibustion
Moxibustion in action (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)
by Greg Beck
Everheard of Moxibustion? I HADN’T!
I went in to the doctor’s with an injured foot, hoping for a massage, MAYBE some acupuncture, and somehow or another the doctor and I started chatting about it. I think he seemed impressed at my complete readiness to let him stab me with needles because he asked, “So you’re familiar with はり and きゅう?” Hari, literally “needles,” is how Japanese refer to acupuncture. I guess it seems obvious that you’d need to be accurate when stabbing yourself so they didn’t feel the need to dress up the term?
In any case, I was in my zone and my Japanese listening skills were peaked, so when he said kyuu I thought “Scanning databases. . .kyuu not detected!” When I asked the doctor about it, he explained (very patiently and without being condescending) that “Kyuu is where we burn dried grass on you pressure points to relieve muscle tension.” “Really?” I asked in mild disbelief and genuine interest. “Oh yes, it’s been a traditional healing method in Japan for over a thousand years,” he answered.
Getting hooked up for an acupuncture treatment (Following photos all taken by Greg Beck)
I scanned the Japanese-English dictionary on my phone. “‘Moxibustion’. Huh, there it is. Ever heard that?” I asked. He hadn’t. “Oh well,” I said, thinking that was the end of it. He stuck me with about six needles, hooked them to leads, and left me to nap for about 20 minutes while a machine electrically pulsed massaging waves through my foot. When he came back and removed them, we continued talking while he gave my foot a rub down.
“So do you do okyuu (the added “o” is an “honorific” in Japanese) here?” “No, it’s too smokey, so some people would complain, and we’d have to pay more for our building’s fire insurance,” the doctor told me. “Oh, I see,” I said. But did he detect some disappointment? The next thing I knew he vanished and then returned a minute later with a box of small spitball-shaped balls of – you guessed it – dried grass! “See, these are what they look like,” he explained. “You can burn them like this or roll them tighter so they burn hotter.”
“Oh, but you have them here even though you don’t offer it?” I asked, and that was all it took to push him over the edge. Clearly the guy had a subtle sadistic undertone and had been itching to burn someone with these, because he told me to sit up and he would show me how it works. He explained how they work as he demonstrated.
First, you burn a small amount on the nearest pressure point of the affected area, and pinch it out before it burns down to the skin. Then you set another wad on top of the smoldered one and let this one burn a little lower before pinching it out. You repeat this three or four times and then, finally, you let one burn all the way down and yes, by golly, it BURNS!
Getting ready to start the moxibustion treatment (lines are from taping)
He sat there contentedly and offered to do it once more. Naturally, I accepted and as he calmly lit my foot on fire he talked more about moxibustion. He told me that he was giving me the real deal, and that it would leave me with a small blister on my skin, but, and I quote, “You won’t care about that.” Oh? Luckily he was talking to the right person. I didn’t care!
Moxibustion treatment in progress
“Really, you can do it yourself,” he said. “To yourself? How do you know where the pressure points are?” “Doesn’t matter,” he answered nonchalantly. “Anywhere that hurts is fair game.” “And people still do this?” “Old people do it a lot. Some young people do it, but they use store bought kits.” “There are store bought kits?!?” “Yeah, they are called sen-nen kyuu (千年灸) and you can buy them at any drug store. You should try it out when you go home to Hiroshima. They have different heats you can choose from. The hotter, the more therapeutic, but even the weaker ones feel nice.” “I will! Sen-nen kyuu, right? Like…” “Like 1000 years kyuu, yeah, just ask at the store. The clerk will probably be surprised someone looking like you is asking!” and we both laughed. I thanked him and went on my way.
When I was on my way home the next day, I remembered to buy the sen-nen kyuu. The lady at the shop wasn’t too openly surprised by my inquiry, but complemented my Japanese and urged me to try the second weakest one before going straight to buying the hottest one. Looking back, I regret listening to her. The second weakest one was still advertised as being “normal,” but it only really felt good when I tried it on my neck. I still intend to go back, maybe tell her “I told you so,” and buy the strong stuff, which is infused with garlic (maybe I’ll be protected from vampires too!)
A store bought sennenkyuu kit
So, here’s how sen-nen kyuu work. They are a little tube of the grass, but affixed to a tiny cushion with a hole in the middle that supposedly channels the heat down onto the precise area you want. The cushion also has an adhesive bottom, so you remove the paper from the bottom, light the tip of the tube (the same way as incense), and then stick it on whatever hurts! The kit in the picture cost 840 yen (about 10 USD) and came with a TON. Each one takes about four minutes to burn out, and then you’re supposed to leave it on for another minute. The instructions included some very cutely animated warnings not to put too many on yourself at one time, but I think that’s mainly because they are on fire and can burn other things if you brush against something during your five minute session. Best just to stay still and focus on letting the healing heat in to your muscles.