Visiting Japan is a wonderful, fun adventure. From the safety of a low-crime environment, the convenience of public transportation and yes, the magic of conveyor belt sushi, the country no doubt dazzles, and delights first-time foreigners with its cultural oddities and curiosities.
It can be easy to discount the importance of exercise while on a vacation. But, for those of us who spend a large amount of time enjoying the gym, life in Japan could bring new challenges. I’m here to tell you that exercising and finding a gym in Japan is just one of the magical paths you’ll walk down as a foreigner living abroad.
As the only foreigner, prepare for a wonderful locker room adventure
As the only foreigner, and a naked one at that, you will be the center of attention in the locker room. Your presence will draw interesting looks and sometimes conversation from the curious few who are brave enough to try their English with you. Of course, there are lockers, bathrooms, grooming stations, complete with mirrors, combs, and blow dryers, but a fitness club locker room can be so much more.
Once you head into the bathing area the locker room will transform into a Japanese style onsen, and this is a great thing. The onsen style baths and sauna, are an amazingly relaxing and peaceful pastime that I long for almost daily as a former ex-pat. It does take time to get used to being naked with other people but once you overcome this small mental obstacle, you’ll be free to enjoy a unique cultural aspect of Japan which many foreigners shy away from.
Just remember that nudity in Japan is not as taboo as in the West. I one time had a Japanese old man slide up to me, literally thigh against wet, naked thigh in the onsen bath to have a discussion about America. It is uncomfortable but remember, you’re the only one thinking about being naked.
A gym in Japan can be more expensive than in the West. As a Westerner, I’m accustomed to the luxury of a $45 per month or less gym membership at various fitness clubs; La Fitness, Gold’s Gym, and Planet Fitness to name a few. Some gyms in the US even go as low as $10 per month. In Japan expect to pay around ¥10,000 or more per month.
I lived in a suburb of Tokyo so expect even higher rates in the city. My theory is that many clubs in Japan include amenities most people will never use, such as aerobics, water aerobics, golf, yoga, swimming, to name a few. If you’re a person trying to do weight training or simple cardio exercise, you may find the price tag a considerable barrier to joining a gym.
In Japan, weightlifting and power lifting takes a backseat to cardio. As a weight lifter, I truly struggled to find the kinds of fitness equipment that I needed to have a good workout. Many fitness clubs in Japan have amenities such as pools, fitness classes, tons of aerobic equipment, and locker room luxuries but the majority lacked weightlifting equipment. It came to the point that during the tours of the gym (they all give extensive tours) I would merely ask to see the gym’s weight area because if the weights were very light, I just knew that the gym wouldn’t be adequate.
It wasn’t until I joined a small hole-in-the-wall gym run by an ex-competitive bodybuilder (shout out to Sports Gym Win) did I find squat racks, Olympic, heavy free weights or even pull up bars. This gym was obviously an anomaly in the country with the oldest population in the known world. However, for those looking for simple machine equipment and aerobic equipment such as Stairmasters and treadmills, you’ll have no problem.
Prepare for a dietary challenge. In the west, 5lbs of whey protein can easily be bought for about $55. In Japan, you’ll find this luxury supplement for three times the price, or more. In addition to this, most pre-workout powders and vitamin supplements are not available. For these amenities I recommend buying bulk whey protein online. (It’s cheaper, even after the shipping to Japan!) For other supplements, you’ll likely have no other choice.
In my opinion, working out in Japan has just not taken off like it has in America. Young adults are simply too busy with work to find time for the gym and women are too afraid of looking too buff to hit the weights. It is very rare to see a “built” man or women in Japan. It was my experience that gyms in Japan were always filled with men and women trying to preserve their fitness in their retirement years. But, don’t let this stop you from hitting the gym and enjoying yourself. Working out in Japan is just as amazing and rewarding as it is in your home country and is always worth the effort.
This article was written by Jeffrey Joseph, host of the Anime Addicts Anonymous Podcast, a podcast dedicated to Japanese animation and anecdotes about Japan. For more information about Japan and for wonderful Japan and anime driven dialogue, tune in to the podcast at our website www.AAAPodcast.com and on iTunes.