Our Japanese reporter adds ‘making drugs‘ to her SoraNews24 resume.

Our Japanese language reporter Haruka Takagi recently made a trip to Toyama Prefecture, famous for beautiful Starbucks stores, trout sushi and being a drug-dealing hotspot.

Yes, you read that right, but we aren’t talking about those kinds of drugs — Toyama Prefecture has a long history of providing Japan with pharmaceuticals, since 1690 in fact. Toyama Prefecture’s reputation as Japan’s medicine makers started back when Maeda Masatoshi, the second feudal lord of the domain of Toyama, gave a medicine called hangontan to a feudal lord which cured his pain and discomfort. Of course, in those days drugstores didn’t exist, so once word of Maeda’s magic medicine spread, ‘drug-dealers’ would travel around door to door selling their wares, coming back later to collect money only for any medicine used.

Even today, pharmaceutical production makes up over 15 percent of Toyama’s total industrial production, and Toyama is rightly proud of its rich medicinal history. As a result, a popular sightseeing spot for tourists is Ikedaya Yasubei Shoten, a store where visitors can experience the culture and history of medicine sales in Toyama. The store was founded in 1936 when they started manufacturing and selling hangontan, the same medicine that Maeda Masatoshi made back in 1690.

One of the things you can do at Ikedaya Yasubei Shoten is have a go at making your own medicine the way it used to be made. Not quite as far back as the 1600s, but visitors can create their own medicine using a machine dating back to just after the World War II.

Before Haruka turned her hand to making her own drugs, she was shown how the machine works.

The clay ‘medicine’ is pushed out from the back of the machine, using the foot pedal to feed the clay through small holes.

The clay is then sliced up into small pieces, about 5 millimeters (0.19 inches).

The small pieces of clay are then scooped out using a spatula-like tool and placed evenly in front of the machine.

To make them more even and pill-like, a large tablet-like tool is placed on top and gently pressed whilst rotating…

And ta-da! The pills were then dried for two days before being sold to the public.

▼ You can see the whole process in action in this video, uploaded by a visitor

Once the shop employee finished expertly making tiny, evenly shaped pills, it was Haruka’s turn. She was a little worried that when she was moving the tablet to flatten the pills, they would get moved around and get stuck together. Thankfully, the employee gave her a piece of advice before starting, saying “The trick is to press down and move the lid in a circular motion with an even amount of force. At first they will be stiff and hard to move, but when it feels like the pills are rolling around smoothly, they’re ready.”

The employee helped Haruka scoop out the pills, and it was time for her to press down.

Immediately, Haruka was met with some heavy resistance from her pills. What looked like a smooth process when the employee did it was a lot tougher than it looked, and as Haruka struggled to move her arm around, she could already feel some of the pills getting stuck together! Nightmare! She gingerly lifted the lid to inspect the damage and…

… any thought about switching careers to ‘drug-dealer’ immediately left her mind. They were all different shapes and sizes! 

Of course, it’s important to make clear that the ‘medicine’ Haruka was making wasn’t real medicine; current Japanese law states that medicinal pills must be manufactured in a controlled factory to prevent any foreign substances from being mixed in. Instead, Haruka created some clay ‘dummy’ pills, that looked just like the real thing.

The employee offered some advice, commenting ‘That’s what happens when you don’t apply an even amount of pressure… but these are still totally fine!” before giving Haruka a paper balloon as a consolation prize. The paper balloons are said to be a reproduction of the ones drug sellers used to give away as souvenirs to their customers.

As well as making her own medicine, Haruka got to see other historical artefacts, like these baskets used by drug-sellers back in the day to sell their wares…

… and wheels that were used to grind herbs into powder for medicines.

After her whirlwind trip through Japan’s history of medicine, Haruka decided to treat herself with the very hangontan pills that started it all. If you didn’t know any better, you could almost mistake them for flower seeds. They didn’t look anything like the medicine we’re used to today.

But how did they taste? Haruka popped some of the pills in her mouth, expecting to be whisked back to the Edo period. If she closed her eyes, maybe she could imagine she was a feudal lord who had just received some medicine from Masatoshi Maeda, ready to make history…

Instead, she was quickly brought back to present day with the bitter taste and foul smell of the pills. The smell and aftertaste was akin to moss or wild grass, and was reminded of the Japanese saying ‘Ryouyaku kuchi ni nigashi’, meaning ‘good medicine tastes bitter’, or ‘the advice you find the hardest to take is often the most useful’.

While Haruka was grateful for all of Masatoshi Maeda’s contributions to the history of medicine, she was quietly relieved at how far pharmaceuticals have come since then.

Shop information
Ikedaya Yasubei Shoten / 池田安兵衛商店
Address: Toyama Prefecture, Toyama City, 1-3-5 Tsutsumichodori
Open 9 a.m.-6 p.m.

Photos © SoraNews24
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[ Read in Japanese ]