In my 10 years of teaching in Japan, I see far fewer overweight students in my schools compared to the number of fat kids — including myself — I saw during my own high school days.
Of course, an obvious answer is: join a gym or fitness center. I took out a new membership at a nearby 24-hour gym recently, however, it can often feel tedious, monotonous and repetitive. Also, to attain noticeable results takes weeks, even months of a dedicated training regimen. I don’t know about you — but I’m not really one for sticking to routines.
So what can we do here in Japan to improve our fitness, lose a bit of weight and feel healthier during the Japanese summer? Here are three ideas for you to consider that use the time of year, natural environment as well as local sports and activities to help you get in shape and feel healthier.
1. Go for a walk
This may sound painfully obvious, but walking really is the easiest and possibly least stressful way to lose weight in a relatively short space of time.
Japanese cities are surprisingly easy to walk around. Despite the high population densities and busy roads, even the largest metropolitan areas like Tokyo and Osaka have plenty of green spaces — whether parks or along the rivers and canals that cut through them.
Now, this may not be a well-researched fact, but a friend of mine who has lived in Tokyo all her life swears that the layout of Tokyo means that no matter where you are, you’re never more than 10-minutes walk from a local park. Larger ones — such as those in Ueno, Yoyogi and Harajuku — offer excellent walking and jogging routes. They are also just great places to relax and enjoy the sun.
For me, the best places to enjoy a good walk are riverside areas, such as the banks of the Edogawa or Tamagawa in Tokyo or the Nakanoshima waterfront district in Osaka. There’s something about the cool breeze of the riverside that makes a summer walk so much more pleasurable and more apt to keep you moving.
Walking in the intense late-summer heat of Japan can be something of a health hazard though, so you need to be careful. The temperature, humidity and activity put you at increased risk of heatstroke and dehydration — make sure to cover your head and drink lots of fluids! (Thankfully, another reason why Japan is perfect for summer walking is the abundance of vending machines containing water and specially designed hydrating drinks.)
I remember once I decided to go for a walk around central Tokyo, starting in Asakusa and finishing a few hours later in Shinjuku. It almost seemed like there were vending machines every 100 meters or so. Of course, in the countryside, machines will be considerably more scarce — so be sure to take bottled water with you, just in case.
If you don’t have time for a full, two- or three-hour walk during your day then try this simple step: On your way home from work, try getting off the train or bus one or two stops early. Just that extra 15- to 20-minute walk per day will make a big difference to your health.
2. Take up a Japanese activity
This one isn’t for the faint of heart, but nothing beats doing kendo or another Japanese martial art in the 35-degree summer heat of Japan!
The combination of an intense physical workout coupled with the weight and heat of armor, helmet and uniforms (some of which can weigh as much as four or five kilograms) is drastic. I can personally testify to the effectiveness of kendo as a means of short, sharp and noticeable weight loss. You may also want to try karate, judo, jujitsu, aikido, taiko drumming or — wait for it —ninjutsu!
The first time I came to Japan, in the summer of 2005, I took part in a five-day kendo gashuku (training camp) in Akita Prefecture. Over the course of those five days, I lost about seven kilograms. I would have lost a lot more, I’m sure, were we not getting tanked on copious amounts of food and beer each night afterward!
The other thing about kendo and other Japanese martial arts is that they provide an entire whole body workout.
Lifting and striking with bamboo swords works the chest, arm and shoulder muscles, but posture and a correct stance are also important elements, ensuring an equally engaging workout for your back, legs and core.
You’ll sweat — a lot. But ultimately, doing these types of sports in the summer will help you lose weight quickly and also to test your own stamina, mental endurance and concentration limits.
3. Eliminate red meat and starch from your diet
The traditional Japanese diet has long been built on fish, vegetables and rice.
While I would discourage you from eating excessive amounts of white rice (it’s heavy and has minimal nutritional value, like white bread), vegetables and fish — especially when they are steamed, boiled or served raw, as is often the case in Japanese cooking — are perfect staples around which to build a low-calorie, high-energy diet. On top that, cooking these easily found and prepared meals for yourself will save a lot of money during the summer, too.
Overall, whatever you do in Japan this summer — get outside as much as you can. Take advantage of the sun’s vast stores of vitamin D that boost our immune system, make us feel happier and more energetic and help provide ample produce. It goes to show you that summer is just generally good for you!
Do you have some favorite summer activities to help you stay fit and healthy during the Japanese summer? Let us know in the comments!