Gym-going in Japan
How to Stay Fit and Active while Traveling Abroad
So you’re taking a trip to Japan? Congrats!! You are in for an incredible adventure to a place where literally anything that can be opposite of your experience in the western world will be.
Nearly every physical task you take on is likely to make you feel momentarily confused or stumped (feel like you should turn that faucet to the right? Nope, it’s left. Trying to pull that door open and find yourself struggling? Try pushing it instead, or sliding it sideways. Looking for the handle to flush the toilet? Good luck — you have an extensive menu of options from which to choose).
Even more than physical tasks, though, many cultural and behavioral norms are distinct enough in Japan to leave you feeling slightly off-balance, awkward, or even, sometimes, uncomfortable (feel like you should make eye contact with the person sitting across from you on the train? Maybe don’t. Does it seem like smiling would be a good idea generally? It might not be, unless you want to appear to be simple-minded, etc).
If you, like me, are pretty into fitness and love to exercise, you might find it a challenge to keep your usual routine going in Japan. There are a few ways you could approach this:
- Just take a break. If you’re anything like me, you might actually have a tendency to over-exercise and your body could use a rest anyway. If, however, you are traveling for an extended period or moving to a new place, it’s worth doing some research to plan in advance what you’ll do to stay active while traveling. We are here for 3 weeks now, and moving back in August for me to participate in the JET program and teach English, so, this trip is serving as a good opportunity to think through some of the challenges I may face when we move here more permanently in a few months.
- If you want to keep exercising you could change up your routine somehow. For example, I’ve been weight lifting, but, in the past I’ve run a lot. So, training for the Tokyo marathon is an idea I’ve entertained and may still pursue if my knees will allow it. Having an event or goal to work towards might be good for motivation, too, particularly if you are struggling with the sense that you’re “downgrading” your exercise routine from your ideal (for me, weight lifting) to whatever will be most convenient (running = no equipment needed, can do it anywhere). You could also play around with body weight resistance training, which, counterintuitively, often feels more challenging that lifting heavy weights to me, because without all the weight, the only thing to focus on is reps to fatigue, mind-muscle connection, and intensity — all of which can add up to a really hard workout, while also tending to serve almost like physical therapy to ameliorate the aches and pains that we often incidentally accumulate from heavy compound lifts like squats and deadlifts.
- You could try to continue your routine in a new country by finding a gym that suits your needs, paying for a day, week/month pass or annual membership, and learning the procedures and norms that are in place at your new facility. This is probably only really a realistic option for those traveling to a single destination, or for those moving somewhere, like we will be in August, but, it might be worth looking into if you really love your routine. After all, studying or working abroad in another country can be stressful. Taking the time to figure out a way to keep one element of your weekly routine going might be a great way to add consistency to an otherwise big life change and could help manage stress levels.
The first option of taking a break above is self-explanatory, although I should also mention that it’s very likely that even if you “take a break” from intentional exercise you will likely continue to be plenty active during your travels in Japan. Extensive use of public transportation via train and metro always means a lot of walking to and from stations and between stations and points of interest; even on a low day of walking in Japan, I rarely have trouble hitting 10,000 steps and often get up to 20,000 or more! This amount of walking, paired with thoughtful, local eating of fresh, healthy Japanese food is probably enough to maintain your weight, if not your body composition, so don’t be too afraid of the scale.
I have a post about option #2 and some possible bodyweight workouts you might want to check out that I’ve been using for most of this trip to Japan. I’ve actually enjoyed them a lot more than I thought I would! But, in this post I want to reflect on option #3 and the experience I had today: finding and going to a Japanese gym!
Gym Options in Japan
The blog posts below were super helpful to me in figuring out what options I had in terms of gym-going in Japan. I would recommend a quick perusal to get a sense of what’s available and then coming back here to read about my experience.
I started my adventure by attempting 3 separate locations that are membership-based fitness centers around Ikebukuro, Tokyo, where we are staying for a couple of nights. I struck out at all 3, unfortunately, because they all require you to be a member to use their facilities. For reference in case you want to avoid wasting your time, these were the three lplaces I both called and physically visited and got a firm “no” at:
At the last place, Rizap, I showed the employee this message my husband had suggested I use to ask if she knew of a place that had a day pass available for visitors:
She hopped on her cell phone and found a nearby “Sports Center” which is often the name for local rec centers in Japan (linked below). This sports center only charged 400 yen for a 2-hour pass — 100 yen is ~$1 so that’s just 4 bucks for a workout — score!! Sports centers charge by the number of hours used, rather than by day or week. So, I guess it would maybe have been better to ask for a gym where you do not need to be a member, rather than a gym that sells a day pass?
Regardless, I ended up having to pay for a few upcharges due to my gaijin (foreigner) lack of preparation, but, even so, it was still cheaper than any of the private gyms above would have been. Some reviews suggested the gyms above DID sell day passes but they averaged $22-$30; I couldn’t even get that rate, though. My sports center upcharges included:
- I had to rent training shoes for 300 yen (~$3) since I didn’t have separate clean shoes to work out with (more on shoes and gyms in Japan soon)
- I also bought a little towel for 200 yen (~$2) to dry off with after my shower
- finally, I was charged 200 yen (~$2) extra for taking longer than 2 hours
But, all told, I still only had to pay 1100 yen (~$11) out the door even with all the upcharges, which I’d happily have paid for a day pass at any gym that had weights, so I’ll call it a win!
Ikebukuro Sports Center
Their website has no English translation (that I saw) [edit: found the English site here after the fact] and I would probably not have found this place on my own; however, when I arrived they were super helpful. I figured out it was on the 9th floor by asking a person standing outside with a duffel bag “spahtsu centah wa nankai desu ka?” (What floor is the sports center on?) and got a “kyuu kai” so I knew from my limited Japanese that it was on the 9th floor. I realized after the fact I could have figured this out without help by just going to the elevator where it was labelled in English.
Upon arriving I walked to the front desk and they showed me to a little machine where I paid for my 2-hour pass (400 yen) and got a little card in return.
They then asked if I had separate shoes to train and when I didn’t offered to let me rent a pair from them for 300 yen ($3) so I did that, and then I kind of “when in Rome’d” my way through the next part and watched what others were doing:
- I removed my shoes to enter the locker room in stocking feet.
- I put my stuff in a locker and put the little card in the locker to release the key. I struggled a little with this but no more so than I do at any spa or gym I visit as a first-timer.
- I was given a little card to give to someone in the training room that declared me to be “new”.
- I entered the training room, gave the “I’m a newbie” card to someone who promptly gave me a usage guide with an English explanation of how to reserve cardio equipment (super popular and always on a wait) and the rules for weight equipment use (less popular on weekdays — though slammed on the weekend — so the rules for the weight machines and free weight area was kind of more of a suggestion paired with a “read the room” approach; tldr: don’t hog a bench when others are waiting their turn; sharing is caring). Quick heads up for females: It’s likely you’ll be the only or one of 2 women in the free weight weight area if you choose to lift some weights, so you might feel a little self-conscious. Additionally from my experience, similar to other countries, dudes just sort of have a way of hogging the abenches, Japanese or not. So be prepared grab some dumbells and make it work in whatever corner of mat you can carve out.
- I spent 5 minutes on an exercise bike to warm up since the treadmills were an unknown reservation wait away and then headed over to the free weights area.
- Did my thing, trying to not hog a bench since there were signs suggesting that was a no-no, and I realized I only really needed the bench for 2 moves toward the end of my sets anyway, and then spend some time on weight machines to supplement since I knew this was likely to be my only gym workout during our trip.
- Afterwards, mimed some stretching and yoga moves to an employee / trainer with a shrug and was led to some mats where I was told to remove my shoes before stretching.
- Re-put on my shoes to walk back to locker-room, to take off my shoes again to enter.
- Enjoyed the sauna for a bit, then rinsed off with a quick shower, changed, and walked back out of locker room before putting back on my own shoes, returning their shoes, and paying for going over time.
Biggest takeaways of Gym-Going in Japan:
1. Be observant — look at what others are doing, and follow suit. For example, from my observation, the culture around weight machines and lifting is to do a set and then get out of the way for others to do sets if they like before you do another set. This seems inefficient to an American who is used to doing, say, 3 sets with mini-breaks in-between before being “done” with a machine or an area and moving on to leave it someone else, but, that’s the way it is, so if you see someone hovering, wipe down your machine and move along. Since they also will only do 1 set you can go right back to it soon enough.
2. Be careful with shoes! — This is true throughout Japanese culture, but it seems to be an extra part of the fun at a gym/spa to do a lot of shoe gymnastics to ensure cleanliness of facilities. I think I changed shoes 6 times in 3 hours all told: first to take off my street shoes enter the locker room, next when I left the locker room to put on the training shoes I rented. Later, I removed the training shoes to stretch and then put them back on to go back to to the locker room. I removed the training shoes to re-enter the locker room before finally putting my own street shoes back on (after leaving the locker room the final time post-shower) to leave.
3. Be thoughtful and courteous of others and do not inconvenience them — this means acknowledging that although you may find the gym’s norms a bit odd or inefficient, you really ought to realize that YOU are the odd one out who ought to fall in line with whatever is going on around you. Remember way back when you first when to a gym and how foreign it felt, even in your own country? Gyms just have their own cultures, and to then add the layer of it actually being another culture altogether, well…expect to feel like a fish out of water and you’ll be doing it right. Do as others do, make a big show of wiping down your equipment after every use (there are towels next to each piece of equipment for this purpose), and don’t hog a space or machine for too long. Also respect the rules and signage – don’t take videos, avoid pictures (I took a few of the facilities but avoided peoples’ faces), etc.
4. Don’t expect extremely heavy weights — this sports center was better equipped than most weight rooms in Japan from what the articles I linked above suggest, but, it still did not have barbells or weight plates for heavy compound lifts and its dumbells maxed out at 25 kg (~50lb). Cardio is just a lot more popular than strength training in Japan. So, be prepared to be flexible and modify some moves; this isn’t the time to worry about setting a personal record. PRs can happen when you’re back home in your own gym or space; for now just worry about getting a nice workout in and let that be enough. The one exception was the leg press machine – you could get up to 200 kg on that baby!
It is definitely possible to stay fit and active while traveling, period. And while Japanese culture may not have embraced some of the high intensity or heavy lifting fitness craze we do in the west, there are plenty of options to get a good sweat going and feel great while away from home.
Instead of seeing inconvenience in the challenges of finding a gym to work out in or feeling frustrated by the many expectations and rules in place once you find one, choose to see it as a cultural adventure, and make it a half-day destination to visit a local sports center and enjoy a fun workout! You can’t always choose your circumstances (gym or weight availability) but you can choose your reaction and attitude, so decide to make your fitness a fun adventure while you travel and bring a flexible mindset to the process.
Alternatively, check out my future post, coming soon, about bodyweight workouts and walk or run to a nearby park to bust out some moves before heading home and getting on with your day. Or, check out this great post by Stephanie Lee over at thefyslife.com on the topic tht was super helpful in convincing me that 3 weeks of bodyweight workouts could actually enhance my fitness level: No Gym, No Weights, No Problem: How to Stay Fit While You Travel. You could also try the Aaptiv app, which I’ve used not only for indoor cycling, but also for all kinds of workouts, including bodyweight resistance workouts, yoga, and more all over the world!
Finally, travel is a great reminder that working out is only half the health equation, and that what you eat is just as if not more important to meeting or maintaining your wellness goals. Enjoy the challenge of finding new and interesting ways to stay fit and active while you see the world! ❤