Fitness and exercise in Japan
Japanese people aren’t known for their athleticism. However they aren’t known for their obesity, either. In fact, if they are known for anything fitness-related, it would have to be their extraordinary life expectancy.
But you aren’t here to be average – you stand out too much for that anyway. You want to excel, you want harder abs, better balance, faster reflexes, stronger arms. You want to break out of that pale, balding, budding beer gut, started-smoking-again-because-why-not-its-Japan, can’t run 100 meters JET program stereotype that you’ve fallen into.
Well I’m here to tell you that you can. Exercising in Japan isn’t the easiest thing in the world but, like most things that seem intentionally difficult over here, it’s definitely not impossible.
It’s worth noting that exercise is pretty ineffective without a solid diet – something else people often have trouble with when coming to Japan. This article focuses on the exercise part, but make sure to check out my post on maintaining a proper diet in Japan as well.
The problem with exercising in Japan
It’s easy to make excuses when it comes to exercise, but some of the excuses you hear from those living in Japan are quite legitimate. Here are a few:
- You live in central Tokyo and there is no room to run or cycle without crashing into people.
- You live in central Tokyo and the air on the street smells like diesel farts and cigarette smoke.
- A monthly gym membership costs more than your gas, water, electricity, internet and phone bills combined.
- You don’t have the time because of your busy 9-3 job as an ALT at the local school.
These aren’t bad excuses (except maybe the last one). But they also aren’t insurmountable hurdles. Here are a few tricks from a seasoned fitness try-hard.
How to become Japanese Arnold Schwarzenegger
Go to the local community sports center
Municipal sports centers save lives. I didn’t find out about these until a good three years into my life here.
If you’re anything less than a 400 pound hunk of muscle looking to beef up your palmaris longus, Japan’s city gyms are perfect. They have a variety of machines, treadmills, dumbbells and benches and occasionally even more. Sure, they can be a bit old and you meet the occasional weirdo, but the most compelling argument for these places is that they only cost 200~500 yen per visit. That’s an order of magnitude cheaper than the next best option.
One thing to note: They probably aren’t going to like your tattoo, despite the effort you went to getting your name translated into Japanese. Oh, and the little towels on the machines are there to wipe your sweat off when you’re finished, not to blow your nose.
Join a real Japanese gym
Yes, I know I just said that it’s unreasonably expensive. Your piddly little ALT salary probably won’t cover it unless you’re saving lots of money by being an antisocial fitness freak.
That said, the big gyms in Japan are pretty solid. While they might not be as big as they are back in the wild wild west, they’re pretty roomy for Japan and have pretty much whatever you need (barbells, dumbbells, racks, cardio stuff, lots of cardio stuff, actually it’s pretty skewed towards cardio stuff). So if you are into serious weight training, it might be worth looking into investing into one of these gyms.
As for chains, you have a few choices. You will see Gold’s Gym everywhere you go, but Anytime Fitness is a lot more welcoming of foreigners. Konami Sports Club (yes, the same Konami that makes games) also has quite a few joints around Tokyo.
Depending on whether you go for one of the big chains, whether you want free towels and sauna use, whether you want to be able to use all of the gyms under one membership or just the one near your house and countless other factors, expect to pay anywhere between USD $75 and $200 a month for the privilege. To register, you will need money (there is usually a joining fee of $50 or so), I.D. and a credit card, and possibly also a your bank card if they insist on being old-fashioned.
Just like the community centers, they probably aren’t going to be super enthusiastic about your ink.
Become a supermodel and get a gym membership for free!
This is a great option for those who don’t like paying stupid amounts of money for good service. Simply become a famous model and people will pay for your expensive membership. This is also great for getting free entry into clubs. I honestly don’t know why everyone doesn’t do it.
Do it at home
Back to serious business. Home gyms are great, if you have the budget for gym equipment, and also a spare room or two lying around. Chances are, however, that if you are in Japan, you don’t have either of those things.
Never fear! Grab yourself a yoga mat from Forever 21, and order some cheap dumbbells from Amazon, and you’re practically there.
Alternatively, the WonderCore is seeing some serious popularity over here recently, in case you want to make sure nobody ever comes to your house again.
Join some sort of class
There are a huge variety of classes you can join in Japan. Obviously karate, judo, aikido and the like are on every street corner, but also things like social dance, hot yoga and candlewax torture are becoming popular too.
Often they are taught at the city sports centers I mentioned earlier and also school/uni campuses, but most places will have their own (small) studios or dojos.
You will probably need some level of Japanese for this one, as the classes are obviously going to be taught in Japanese. They might also be somewhat hesitant of taking you on to begin with, but as long as you are friendly and don’t give them reason to say no, the novelty factor will kick in and they’ll open up to you in no time. One exception to this is with the more traditional dojos – it can often be difficult to join a karate club without an introduction from someone.
If you’re in Tokyo, you might be lucky enough to find classes taught in English, but prepare to pay something of a premium. That’s not to say learning karate in Japanese is much cheaper – make sure to take advantage of any free trial programs they have before you sign up to months of membership.
Find a nearby outdoor paradise
But you live in Tokyo! It’s a concrete jungle! You can’t run 10 meters!
Despite its reputation, Tokyo actually has quite a lot of great parks and open spaces. Some examples:
Major rivers: Tokyo is built around its rivers. They manage the city’s entire water system and are designed to flood in case of typhoons or other wet disasters. Because of this, they are built with enormous amounts of space on each side encased by huge concrete dykes. And because they usually flood a couple of times a year, they can’t build anything other than baseball diamonds and running tracks, which means you get tens of kilometers of green, carless serenity.
Parks: They are everywhere in Tokyo. Some are larger than others, but most areas in Tokyo will have at least a few blocks dedicated to the pursuit of greenliness.
The ocean: Japan is surrounded by the ocean. Unless you’re stuck in landlocked Gifu or something, take advantage of that and take some long walks on the beach. Not that Japanese beaches are particularly great.
Between Tokyo’s many parks, rivers, spooky graveyards and Tokyo Bay, lack of places shouldn’t be a problem for anyone with half an arse and Google Maps, so get out there!
If you don’t live in Tokyo, well, you probably live in a wide open space anyway, so enjoy that.
Pools in Japan are crap. They are over-chlorinated, expensive and you have to wear a cap even if you’re bald. They are also expensive and require all sorts of procedures to sign up. You’re better off jumping into Tokyo Bay.
But if you absolutely must swim, many of the community centers I mentioned also house pools that are open to the public, or at least those who live in the vicinity.
Alternatively, Japan does have its fair share of giant water parks with slides and onsens. Try out Yomiuri Land or Showa Kinen Park if you are around Tokyo, or even Nagashima Spa Land if you’re more mobile.
Again, I’m sorry but, they aren’t going to understand the thinking behind why you got that stupid tattoo when you were 15.
As with most things in Japan that should be exactly the same as your home country but aren’t for some reason, you’re going to have to adapt your exercise practices if you want to get fit. I’ve given you a few options, now it’s up to you to get out there and build that summer body. Have fun!