Losing Weight in Japan: A Personal Journey

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Photo by Paola Kizette Cimenti

It could be said that I am not the man I used to be, or at least I am only about 65% of the man I used to be. When I started writing for GaijinPot, almost exactly one year ago, my writing was a distraction.

Truth be told, mentally, emotionally, and especially physically, I was not in very good shape last summer. A combination of poor diet, too much partying and an overfamiliarity with the local convenience stores (seriously, what was I thinking moving into a building with a convenience store and two restaurants on the ground floor?) had left me tired, depressed and seriously overweight.

At the peak of my physical abilities, back in my university days, I weighed in at a hefty, but well-proportioned 85kgs. Of course back in those days, I was winning martial arts tournaments and playing (or at least attempting to play) five a side football twice a week.

But that was more than 10 years ago, times had changed and I too had changed. My 36 inch waistline had burgeoned to a 48, and my weight had gone from 85 to more than 140 kgs. For my friends in the UK, that’s almost 22 stones.

Something had to be done and fast.

But of course living in Japan, it’s certainly not easy to lose weight. Japanese food is amongst the most varied and delicious in the world. And that’s before we even get started on the beer, shochu and other fine liquors on sale here.

So, here was my dilemma, how could I lose a lot of weight in a short space of time, whilst living right in the middle of a dieter’s definition of purgatory. As it turned out, it wasn’t nearly as difficult as I had anticipated.

I decided I needed something that was cheap, easy to prepare and also using foods that are readily accessible in Osaka.

Before I begin, an important disclaimer. Each person’s body is different and has different nutritional requirements. What worked for me may not necessarily work for you to the same degree. Also, if you are considering embarking on any kind of extreme dieting, please make yourself fully aware of the risks, the potential side-effects and the toll it can take on your body in the short to medium term.

With that out of the way, here’s a rough guide to my daily dietary regimen.

Of all the possible dietary routines I found online, the “juicing diet” seemed by far the easiest to prepare, the quickest to show results and the most cost effective.

Of course, in saying that, I am aware of my own limitations and of course of the dangers of “rebounding”. So, instead of going all out on a juice only diet, I decided to go for juices for breakfast and lunch, and then a regular dinner. On weekends, I would sometimes switch to a dinner juice so I could meet friends for lunch in the daytime.

To make the type of juice required, I recommend getting an electric juicer. Please note, you need a juicer, not a blender or a food mixer. In the end, I was able to find a very basic one at my local electrical store (Yodobashi Camera in Umeda) for around 4,000 yen. These juicers can go up to 40 or 50,000 yen for the top of the range models, but honestly, such extravagance isn’t necessary in this case.

There is only one rule in preparing these juices. You can use whatever fruits and vegetables you wish, but the balance must always be at least 70% vegetable and no more than 30% fruit. If you use too much fruit then you risk flooding your body with fructose sugars and the possibility of diabetes.

In Japan, for cheap fruit and vegetables, you have a few options. You can either go to the local supermarket (probably the most expensive option) or, if you are fortunate enough to live close by, a local fruit market. The final option and the one I tend to use most frequently, since there is one right across the road from my apartment, is the “Lawson 100” convenience store. As the name suggests, all items in this basic supermarket are priced at 100 yen. The fruit and veg, as one would expect, isn’t of the highest quality, but since it’s all going in the juicer anyway, quality isn’t a major issue.

Next, go to a local 100 yen shop and pick up a few 500ml drink containers. I recommend buying at least 5 or 6 of these as you don’t want to be using the same cups every day.

With that in mind, it’s time to get juicing.

I suggest preparing the juices the night before and allowing them time to cool overnight in the fridge before you go to work the next day. However, remember that in Japan’s hot humid summer, things can turn sour very quickly, so don’t leave the juice out overnight and make sure you clean out the filters and excess fruit pulp every day.

Also, be sure to drink lots of water, to allow your body to cleanse itself effectively. One side-effect of this diet in the initial stages will be increased trips to the toilet, so hopefully your boss will be sympathetic!

Of course in Japan, with all its wonderful food and drink options, dinner time is a time when I frequently find myself “tempted by the dark side” as it were. However, with a bit of research I have been able to overcome this. Of course one can prepare their own meals at home. This is a good way to ensure portion control and adequate nutrition.

However, if you’re like me, you are probably too lazy for all that. Thankfully, there’s an Aeon Mall a short bus ride away from my house. There you will find frozen ready meals with calorie counts displayed in clear English on the front. You can mix and match these meals as much as you like, just remember as a general rule to limit your dinner to no more than 600 calories.

As much as possible try to avoid carbonated and sugary drinks. Fruit juice too is very high in sugar. As often as you can, stick to unsweetened teas, like Ooolong-cha or Mugi-cha, and remember to make sure you consume around 2-3 litres of water per day.

Of course, losing weight isn’t just about diet. You need to get off your backside and exercise a bit too. When I weighed 140 kgs, I was, quite frankly, too fat to play sports. I found myself getting tired and frustrated frequently.

Luckily, I remembered an old lesson I learned in high school. Believe it or not, walking for a kilometer uses the same energy or calories as running a kilometer does. My apartment is placed in the Osaka Bay area, away from the main central hubs of Namba and Umeda. Luckily, as I have discovered, from my house to Umeda is more or less an 8km walk in a straight line.

So, 2 or 3 evenings a week I would undertake the trek from Tempozan to Umeda and back again. The round trip takes just over 3 hours, if you can walk at a fairly brisk pace, and takes in quite a few nice little shrines and temples along the way as well as plenty of shops and the beautiful Nakanoshima riverside. At night, when illuminated, this area is especially beautiful.

I go to the gym 3 or 4 days a week too, so it’s a pretty intensive schedule, but the rewards were almost immediate.
In the first 2 weeks of my diet I lost 6 kgs. This pace continued until after 3 months I had lost about 25kgs!

liam-a

Things hit something of a plateau for a while at that point but I persisted, and today I sit at a considerably slimmer 95kgs, about 44kgs down from my starting weight. I still have a little to go to reach my ultimate goal of under 85kgs, but I believe I will get there.

In any diet, rewards are important. So it’s important not to punish yourself too hard. I still allow myself a big meal with friends once a week, and although I very rarely drink alcohol now, I still permit myself the occasional beer at the end of a hot day.

Japanese restaurants offer plenty of healthy alternatives these days too. The likes of sashimi and tofu are low fat but still excellent sources of protein. The various non-alcoholic beers and chu-hi substitutes I have discussed in my previous post are also excellent low calorie alternatives.

With a bit of thought, appropriate planning and a fair degree of willpower, it can be done.

Walking into the local department store a couple of months ago and being able to fit into size 36 jeans again was one of the best feelings of my life. Consequently, trips to Uniqlo and other similar stores to replace my now oversized wardrobe have become a deeply satisfying, monthly experience. As I lose more weight, I expect my Japanese wardrobe choices to expand even more. I can even wear the complimentary yukata now when I visit hotels, something I could never do before.

I realise I am an extreme case, and that this type of diet and exercise regimen may not work for everyone, but please don’t just sit there and write it off. Japan has plenty of healthy food options, plenty of sports clubs and a multitude of ways to lose weight, feel great and enjoy yourself. Good luck to you all.

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Teacher, journalist and now blogger.
  • nayan says:

    Diet Tips for Weight Loss Make sure to have sufficient amount of water throughout the day. Ideally 8-10 glasses.Aim to achieve and then maintain your ideal body weight.Avoid oily, fried and spicy food.

  • Thanks for this article! It is really motivating and inspiring too.

  • MrGoodNews says:

    I want some instructions to get fat. ANy one? I just cant seem to gain weight.Thanks

  • Rogers says:

    I think your secret isn’t your food mixture, it’s your incredible effort and discipline to keep calories down and exercise up. Way to go!!! What made it possible to stick with it this time when you must have tried with less success before?

  • Tess de la Serna says:

    Thank you. Your reply is much appreciated.

  • Legendmir says:

    thank you for sharing and well done! i have lost some weight recently too (well only about 71kg to 64kg so not as big as yours). I realised that chicken karaage and white rice for lunch every day was not a great idea., i switched it up to a hijiki salad and then another normal salad, i ate these at lunch instead but felt hungry , so i added a onigiri at 10 am and then another at 4pm.. i just have a few pieces of fruit early in the morning for breakfast.. this seems to be working ok for me.. but i know i need to get into making my own lunches and get off buying all this processed stuff..and also i exercise everyday now.. onwards!

  • Ajai Robin says:

    Wow! really motivating post.

  • Fransisco TS says:

    I can relate to your experience, Liam.
    During my one year in Japan, I struggled really hard but managed to lose 9 kg. Lost some more when I got home in my country to the total of 14 kg.

    and don’t forget about cheating day! It’s important! I remember I ate 11 KFC’s chicken when there was an all-you-can-eat promo just for 1200 yen. And I was still on a diet that time :p

  • WTF Sunday says:

    Thanks for this article. Great job on your progress. So you have a favorite recipe or two?

  • Emma Crabtree says:

    Well done with your weight loss! I’m also a big fan of juicing from time to time and it seems juice bars are becoming more and more popular and not so extortionately priced recently. I find it interesting that you think it’s hard to diet here as I put my weight loss down to living in Japan and the lifestyle here. Although i definitely sympathize with the working hours, getting home late means for many a conbini dinner, I’m lucky enough to get home early so I can cook at a decent hour and my nearest conbini is 10 mins away, long enough to not bother making the trip when I have a craving. Anyway great article and good luck with your healthier life.

  • Ronald Ivan says:

    Nice one! I was wondering the same thing about how to go about weight loss without relying so much on expensive gym memberships. I’m really interested to find out more about the juicing in Japan i.e. costs and details, what sort of veg vs. price, options for fresh veg and fruits, pitfalls, etc. I’d love to read about that. Also, what about slow juicers in Japan?

  • Elizabeth Lam says:

    Congratulations and I really enjoy your story! Thank-you for sharing, I feel inspired to try this now!

  • Tess de la Serna says:

    Congratulations!

    Are there a lot of overweight Japanese? I saw a PBS show about the problems of overweight kids in China because of fast food restaurants. Does Japan have the same problem? Don’t Japanese walk a lot going to work and home?

  • Liam Carrigan says:

    Thanks, i’m glad you enjoyed reading. Typically I spend about 90 mins to 2 hours at the gym on average 4 times a week. I start with the various machines that strengthen my shoulders, back, chest, abdomen and waist. I do 3 sets of 30 reps on each. Then i will move onto the leg exercises. I do the machines to work my inner and outer thighs, the hamstrings, and finally the calves. Again 3 sets of 30 reps each. Finally I finish up with a 30-40 min ride on the exercise bike. To get the most out of it, its best to use either the Hill Climb or cross country setting.
    Once the workout is done I spend 15 mins in the massage chair, followed by 10-15 mins in the sauna and about 10 mins in the sento bath.
    So, although i am at the gym for about 2 hours the actual workout part only takes about 75 mins.

  • james says:

    Congrats! Better get that profile pic updated. You’ve earned it.

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