Working Out (or not) in Japan

Let me preface this by saying that there is a long list of things that Japan does well. However, based on my experience, gyms/fitness centers do not make this list.

Exercise is a part of my daily life, right up there with breathing, eating, sleeping, and working. Gotta move to stay healthy and all that. But it is amazing how many roadblocks I have encountered in my quest to exercise here.

Here we have Exhibit A, my gym in the US:

(photo source)

In the US, I paid (what I considered an expensive) $65 a month for one of the top gyms in my city (with locations nationwide so I could work out when I went to visit my parents). Open 24-hours and only closed on Christmas day. I could take as many group fitness classes as I wanted, the towel service was free (both sweat and shower towels), never had to wait for a machine, broken machines were a rarity, people with tattoos were allowed in, there were indoor and outdoor pools, water slides…

mdmmmost27_t607(photo source)

The whole place was kind of like a resort, actually. I miss going there so much.

I know this may sound silly, but being placed in a super-rural location in Japan and not being able to go to a gym was one of the things I feared most before I accepted my position with JET. I worried about this far more than not being able to maintain my vegan+gluten-free diet. It was kind of a deal-breaker for me, until I finally decided to just go for it and trust that there would be exercise options in whatever city I ended up.

When I first arrived, it was easy to just go outside and run. In August, September, October… the weather was fine enough. When I ran the marathon in the beginning of October, it was getting a little too cold for my wimpy body. The day of the marathon was cold and rainy and I decided that I needed to get inside for my workouts.

During these first few months, I had also been biking to the Aomori-ken Budokan (literally, “martial arts stadium,” but it is more like a community fitness center with gyms and practice rooms for badminton, karate, kendo, etc). It took about 10 or 15 minutes to bike there from my house. They have a little training room that costs 円100 (yen) per hour to use. A few weight machines, some free weights, a stretching mat, a rock-climbing machine, some bikes, a couple Stairmasters, and four treadmills.

However, this became unsustainable for me. When it became cold, I could no longer ride my bike (especially in the snow). I had to depend on Tori and Kyle for a ride. I could have ridden the train, but the Budokan is along the a non-JR railway and thus more expensive/inconvenient. Also, the training room often reached maximum occupancy around 5:30-6pm and there was often an hour-long waiting list to gain entry.

So, in November I finally sucked it up and went to the “fancy” gym by Hirosaki station. It is only a 5-minute walk from my house! They were offering a joining special with some sort of incentive (isn’t that always the case?) and I really needed a close, convenient place to work out at, so… I went ahead and did it as an investment in my emotional and physical well-being. I don’t have any tattoos, so I was allowed to sign up. I was actually pretty proud of myself for getting the membership all by myself.

I chose one of the cheapest of the membership options, which at ¥6300/$76 per month allows me to come in for a maximum of three hours once a day between 10am-11pm. Except on Sundays and Wednesdays (when the gym is closed to everyone). Oh, and national holidays. No towel service either.

There were other membership options, but they were for either morning-only or night-only use. Who wants to only be able to go to the gym from 8pm-11pm? Oh, and there was also the normal single membership for ¥8400/$102 per month (still no towel service… that is extra). I may switch to this next winter just because I want more freedom.

I have often wondered why there are so many rules and restrictions. Why does the gym only open at 10am? Can’t they find people to work in the wee hours of the morning like they do for 24-hour convenience stores? I am a person who is most energetic in the mornings and have trouble sleeping past 5:30am nowadays. It would be perfect if I could go to the gym at 5:30am like I did back in the US, shower, and then go to work. But alas, I cannot.

And why must they close up shop every Wednesday? Do they think that the machines need a Sabbath? And if it is to give the staff a break, I bet they could find someone to work on Wednesday. Surely. Why do I have to pay extra if I want to use the gym on a Sunday or a holiday?

I wondered if there were gyms that were open before 9 or 10am in Japan and do not have mysterious weekly closures, so I did a little online research. I was flabbergasted. Gold’s Gym Japan has several locations, some of which are 24 hours like what I am used to in the US. But at ¥12,600/$154 (¥18,900/$230 with towel rental) PER MONTH… It’s just ridiculous. How can people afford prices like that?

Oh, and I’d like to add that at the time of this writing, the gym has been closed since Saturday (until Thursday) because of another “construction/refurbishment” period. They already did this once in December.


“Apologies for the construction…”

Okay, that is enough ranting. I know I’ve written a lot about the things I don’t like, but I would like to end this on a good note. I am extremely lucky that I have a nice gym to go to at all. Many many many JETs do not even have this much.

There are an ample amount of treadmills and four ellipticals! The treadmills are the exact same brand I used to run on at my old gym, so they are compatible with my heart rate chest band. The ellipticals were essential when I was recovering from my knee injury last month.

The weight machines are pretty new and there is enough space to do what you want. There are crowded times, of course, but I’ve never had to wait too long to do something I like. Just have to be flexible about this.

I have not used my shower at home since December because I have been showering exclusively at the gym. So naturally, this cuts down on my water bill. Plus, I like being able to shower somewhere warm. My shower at my apartment is quite separated from the rest of the place (and the heater), so taking a shower at home in the winter is like death to me.

The staff at my gym are very friendly and they always give me the key to my favorite locker (the ones on the top row so I don’t have to bend down). One time, a new staff member gave me a key to a different locker. I didn’t want to be picky, so I went ahead and didn’t say anything. A moment later, one of the more senior staff members who knows me came in to the locker room to give me the key to a locker I liked. It was so sweet.

Having some place nice to go work out has been essential for me and I am extremely thankful. I helped Kimberly sign up for a membership there too, so it is awesome having a friend to go with. I have also started talking to Japanese people there and have met two of the teachers I work with. It’s nice that some people are brave enough to talk to me, the “intimidating” foreigner. I talked to one girl there who said she had been building up the courage to say hello to me for a month. Funny, huh?

The weather is changing and I have been able to ride my bike around town recently, so I suspect I will be able to run outside within the next month or so. Fingers crossed. But I still love being able to go to the gym (when my schedule and membership restrictions allow). Even though it is not like my gym in the US, it is still one of my favorite escapes.

Edit: 4/10/2012

The story of the treadmills. So at the gym, they did this huge multiple-day renovation next week. they changed all the light fixtures and re-vamped the showers. The first thing I noticed, besides the new brightness due to the light fixtures, was the presences of cones on the treadmills. Little blue cones with some writing and a picture of a happy stick figure. at first I thought it meant that all the treadmills were closed, but then I watched people take off the cones and begin running.

What the heck were they for?

So I finally asked. This is what they told me: At other gym branches, they had had incidents of elderly people stepping on the machines while they were still running and hurting themselves. So, the cones are to signify that the treadmill belt is stopped and that it is safe to climb on.


2 Comments to “Working Out (or not) in Japan”

  1. Doing this a second time-this computer and I do have a time!
    The new blog was a great read. The country has a lot of strange
    customs as you are finding out.I guess they would find some
    of our ways funny too.Glad you got your card and got a few
    laughs out of the article.Hang in there Jan is cominhg and I
    know you will have a great time.—-Love always Nana

  2. This was awesome. YAY Hirosaki! PS Many thanks for the great AJET logo!

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