Why Japanese Gyms Suck

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Here are some of the most popular gym chains here in Japan.

Some of the most popular gym chains here in Japan.

I was once a wee young, awkward, bird-chested fellow who was just a tidbit lanky for his own good. I really don’t miss the gigantic, iron ball of self-consciousness that was chained to the utter shame that was my puny teenage body. Ugh, I hated those days! I remember reading every Black Belt Magazine, every Muscle & Fitness, and every glossy, Ironman publication I could get my hands on because I wanted to be bigger. I wanted to look like “those guys.” I wanted to be able to look at myself in the mirror WITHOUT having to squint, turn my head sideways and say “hey, hey, chin up, buddy you’ll grow out of it.” I wanted girls to notice me. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen as much as I would have liked (some things never change, shaking my damn head).

Luckily for me I had a former military officer of a Dad that was, and still kinda is, a pretty buff dude. Roll the father/son, weight training/bonding time montage footage. (In my best Wonder Years narrative voice) “Those weight training session with Pops meant more to me than he probably knew. With every rep, every set, I was learning how to become stronger, how to become better, a man…like my Dad.”

Once Dad put those weights in my hand, I was instantly hooked. A lot more quickly than I expected, the muscles came and with them came increased self-confidence (but what about the women, dammit!?!)

I’ve been lifting ever since…

Having the love of weight training that I do, meant that one of my first priorities in Japan was to find a good gym. That search has literally taken me years. Living out in Tsukuba, aka Science City, meant that it was literally easier for me to find hadron collider or an advanced robotic strength suit than it was to find a good gym.

Living on the Tsukuba Express Line only compounded this problem because that train is so incredibly expensive when compared to the standard, Japan Rail. Just a few stops on that thing can easily rack up a 500 yen (approx. $5.00), one-way trip. So even considering the 1720 yen (approximately $17.00) trip it would have taken for me to get Gold’s Gym Kashiwa and back was out of the question.

For several years I made do in a gym that was custom-designed for the elderly. But now that I’m in Yokohama, now that I have easy access to the Japan Rail Lines, I see that there are definitely more fitness club options. However, from what I’ve seen, and sports clubs I’ve toured, gyms in Japan are VERY different.

Can someone, anyone, PULLLEEEAASE tell me what is up with Japanese gyms? Why do so many of them suck!

Many of the gyms I have gone to are just so limited; that’s kinder, Japan Guy speak for “Many of Japanese gyms suck hairy, monkey butt cheeks.” I’m not claiming to be a professional bodybuilder or anything, but I’m no stranger to weight training. I DO know a good gym when I see one. And I have yet to find a gym that compares to the smorgasbord of fitness club options that I had back in the U.S.

Weird Gym Rules

Have you ever gone into a Japanese gym and just come across some weird rules? I can’t be the only one who’s experienced some of these things.

I remember training at one gym and this thin, tiny, little trainer was trying to give me a hard to for doing too many sets on the sit up bench. Too many sets! I swear I’m not joking. He wanted me to give other people a chance to use the bench. Sounds fair, right? But there was absolutely NOBODY waiting to use it. Jerkface!

In another gym, I tried to use these elbow slings I had bought to make it easier for me to do knee-ups and target my abs. I locked my slings onto the nearest pull-up bar and got to work. I finished my first set, feeling that oh so satisfying tingle and burn in my lower abs. As I’m resting, mentally psyching myself up for the next set, one of the staff members comes over and asks me about my sling in Japanese. He asks me where I got them. I sincerely thought, he was just curious, so I told him I bought them in the U.S. Much to my chagrin, the conversation took a swift turn when informed me that I couldn’t use outside pieces of equipment in this particular, city-owned gym. Pure and utter foolishness I tell you!

Or here’s another good one. I remember a couple of gyms in Ibaraki making you write your name on a board before using the treadmill. One gym even made you re-sign in every 30 minutes. Huh? So if I want to run for a straight hour, I can’t?!? Jesus Herman Christ.

I’m not really big on taking pictures of myself in the gym, but there are tons of people who are. It’s a great way to track your progress. But I guarantee you if I take my phone out and start trying to take pictures, somebody’s gonna walk over (very politely, mind you) saying “Sumimasen…”. Now I totally understand not taking pictures of other people, but I don’t think you should have to sneak to be able to take pictures of yourself in the gym, especially at the prices you’re paying!

Another thing that I find INCREDIBLY STUPID is Japan’s tattoo rule! You have to cover exposed tattoos in the gym if you’re lucky. Or, if you’re unlucky, you’ll be denied membership privileges altogether. Even if it’s small, non-threatening tattoo? Yep. You could have the smallest damn picture of Mickey Mouse on your neck, and you’ll still have to cover it. Really? Yakuza members sport Disney tattoos? Far more often than not, a foreigner in your gym with a tattoo is NOT a member of the yakuza.

I don’t have a tattoo, but this is a dumb, blanket rule that punishes everybody. Get over it, Japan!

What are the Major Japanese Gym Chains?

I know that I’m probably missing some chains, so if you have any to add please feel free to do so in the comments section ;) Here are some of the gyms I have visited:

Konami
Konami Sports Club
This gym had some of the most high tech training equipment I’ve ever seen. They actually had weight training machines with electronic interfaces. You would actually use your member ship keycard to track your progress from your previous workout. Even though it was high-tech, overall something was missing. Konami has pool facilities.
Did I join: No.

Tipness Fitness Club
Tipness sports club
I have to be honest. Tipness really disappointed me from the weight training side of things. I think a gym should be more than treadmills, ellipticals, and TRX. That’s what most of the gym was devoted to. While there were machine weights here (that’s good), the one I went to had this tiny little section off in the corner for free weight training. My hopes were instantly dashed the moment I walked in. Tipness has pool facilities, too.
Did I join: Nope.

Savas Sports Club
Savas Sports Club
Savas was very similar to Tipness with only a slightly better free weight offering. It still could be far better than what it is. Again, pool facilities.
Did I join: Nah.

Joyful Honda Athletic Club
Joyful Honda Athletics Club
I did think that Joyful Honda (at least the one in Moriya, Japan) was pretty good. They still have weird gyms rules but it’s Japan. Shoganai, ne?
Did I join: Yes, I was only a member for a few months because it ended up being a bit to far for me to manage without a bike.

Gold’s Gym
Gold's Gym Logo

I was a Gold’s member in the U.S. and I eventually broke down and became a member here, despite the price. What can I say, Gold’s is Gold’s. Although I don’t like the Japan-ified Gold’s Gym as much because there are still weird rules, it’s still one of the best gym chains on the planet.
Did I join: Yes. I’m still a member.

Very Limited Free Weights?

It’s a real problem if you can walk into to the free weights area of a gym and the heaviest dumbbell they have is too light for you. AND I’M TALKING ABOUT ME!! Again, not a professional bodybuilder, nowhere close. That’s a serious issue.

The moment I would start a gym tour, I would ask the gym staff to take me straight to the free weights area. This is how I would gauge whether or not the gym would suit me. Anytime I saw that the max dumbbell free weight was something I could lift fairly easily, I just wasn’t interested. Most Japanese gyms go overboard with machine weights. Resistance machines weights can be quite effective, but I think a good gym should have a combination of good machines and good free weights.

Why aren’t free weights so big in Japan? In general, I think it’s because the goal of the average Japanese gym-goer isn’t to muscle up (unless maybe you go to Gold’s Gym). Some go just to stay active. I’ve seen this time and time again with elderly members. Some are going purely to lose weight. If you’ve ever seen that person that comes to the gym JUST to walk on the treadmill everyday, you probably know what I mean. But I’ve also noticed that many people treat the gym as a healthy social activity. They’re going to socialize with friends. They’re going to play racquetball or get in some golf swings with their buddies (yep, golf at fitness club, different, right?).

Bad Lifting Form?

Surely I can’t be the only one who’s seen this. Have you ever gone to workout at a gym and seen someone with lifting form strange that it makes you stop and look? Sure, you will run into people with bad form at any gym you go to, but never have I seen more cases of it than right here in Japan. Here are two bad form classics you may have come across:

The Super-Elevated-Ass Bench Press
When a guy at the gym is bench pressing with his heels on the bench, thrusting his hips up (and thusly his ass) in order to push more weight.

The Momentum Lat Pulldown
On the lat pulldown machine (the machine where you’re seated and pulling down a weighted bar from above you), instead of using your arms and back muscles to pull the weight, you do this teeter totter from the waist up, in order to pull down more weight.

Now, this may actually be a method to cheat yourself into more growth, but you still have to do the lat pull motion for that, right? I saw a guy doing the exercise without even bending his arms. He was just kinda slinging his body back. He was grunting, huffing, and puffing, too. That made it even stranger. I remember seeing this and thinking “Wow.”

Inconvenient Time Schedules

In my quest to locate a gym that would suit me, I have taken a tour of just about every major Japanese gym chain you can think of. I figured that with so many people in Japan taking pride in waking up early, and rushing to their trains at the ass-crack of dawn, that gyms would also open early and potentially stay open later. Nothing could be further from the truth. Most of the sports clubs I’ve come across have 9:00am or 10:00am starts. This blows if you like getting your workouts in early.

You know what else I hate? The whole “We’re closed once/twice every month?!?” thing. I find this both unnecessary and kind of annoying. Unfortunately, I haven’t come across a gym that doesn’t do something similar. Even at a 24-hour Golds! If you’re closed one day a month or have special days where you close the gym at 10:00pm are you really a 24-hour club? No! Perhaps you should advertise it as “Almost 24-hours.” Back home, the 24-hours TRULY meant 24 hours. If you wanted to work out at 3:00 am on Christmas morning, you could! Now the staff probably wouldn’t be there but you could train freely as long you had your card to unlock the door. You sign a form with your contract saying that you workout at your own risk during those times. That was fine by me.

I assume that once a month the gyms close, pull shades down over the windows and have the most amazing catered, staff stripper parties to boost employee morale. Just a hunch.

Here’s another weird time schedule rule at the Gold’s Gym I frequent. There are two areas to do weight training, one on the main floor and then an “Athlete’s Gym” on the lower level. The Athlete’s Gym is where are the super heavy weights are. This is where the hardcore weight training happens. If the gym is 24-hour, why does the area for the most serious weightlifters open at 10:00am and close at 10:30 pm? Conversely, the “lighter gym” area stays open for 24 hours. It seems kinda backwards to offer a limited time schedule to the the people who desire to train the hardest.




Why Are Japanese Gyms Sooooooo Expensive?

Anybody else feel like you don’t get even close to what you pay for with a gym in Japan? Well I do! Back in 2007, the year before I came to Japan, I remember being a Gold’s Gym member in Georgia. Do you know how much my monthly membership was? Thirty-five dollars a month. That figure may actually be incorrect. It’s been a while, but I know also I received a teacher’s discount at the time. I may have actually been paying as little as $30/month!

Care to take a guess how much my Gold’s gym membership runs me in Japan? Brace yourself… A whopping 12,250 yen! In dollar speak that’s right at about $123/ month for the full-time 24-hour plan. Excuse me an “Almost 24-hour” plan. That’s over four times the freakin’ price!

How does the Gold’s gym price compare to some of the other popular Japanese gym chains?

Savas runs 12,915円 per month (about $119 at the time of this writing) for a full-time plan.
Tipness costs 10,290円 per month (about $119 at the time of this writing) for a full-time plan.
Konami is 12,537円 per month (about $119 at the time of this writing) for a full-time plan.
Joyful Honda costs 10,500円 per month (about $119 at the time of this writing) for a full-time plan.

I’m not exactly sure why the gym memberships are so expensive here, but my theory is because of all of the “other” stuff they provide in addition to just the weights? Aerobics, water aerobics, golf, yoga, etc.? Japan being a much smaller country might mean that sports clubs become these overpriced, all-in-one sports centers. Regardless, these features still don’t justify the price in my opinion.

The Solution

Not liking the gym prospects here in Japan? Here are five potential solutions I can think of:

    1) Cross your fingers and pray to Zeus Magnusson (the God of fitness) that your l ese city gym is awesome.

When I was living in the Ouji sharehouse for a brief stint, I found that the city gym was an old school type gym that had better training equipment than most of the major Japanese chains for a mere fraction of the price.

    2) Give serious bodyweight exercise a try

A lot of people who lift weights might scoff at this idea, but man when I didn’t have a good gym to go to there was a university that had a gymnastics club that actually allowed me to train with them here in Japan. Those dudes are some of the strongest, most ripped dudes. Being that I hadn’t tumbled in a while, It didn’t hurt that the hot college, gymnastics girls were so willing to help me out, either. Dear Lord some of them were so good-looking I wanted to bite their faces (in a good way?). But in all seriousness, when done right bodyweight resistance training can really increase your strength levels and change how your body looks.

    3) Join Gold’s Gym

Gold’s is an American-based gym chain that has quite a few locations here in Japan. Although they aren’t as widespread as they could be just yet, at the very least you’ll know that you have more weights than you could possibly know what to do with. Professional bodybuilders go to Gold’s, so I honestly don’t think you’ll find a better gym in Japan. It’s not really that cheap, though. But what GOOD fitness club in Japan actually is?

    4) Join another type of club

Sometimes you’ll find that sports clubs will also have weight facilities combined. I know at my Kyokushin Karate school there were also free weights and heavy bags. I’m sure boxing clubs and other martial arts programs would offer something similar.

Or

    
5) You could just let yourself go

You could always just give up on your fitness altogether. You could sit down, relax, watch TV and pop open a tub of the new Hagen Daas flavor, “Chocolate Lard.” Rinse and Repeat. I don’t recommend solution 5, though.

Is it just me? Any other weight training enthusiasts think that some of the major Japanese fitness clubs fall short? If so, why? If not, why?

Also if you have any weird gym stories YOU KNOW I want to hear about those.

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Donald Ash is an ATLien expat who has been living in a Japanese time warp for the last six years. While in aforesaid time warp, he discovered that he absolutely loves writing, blogging, and sharing. Donald is the creator, writer, designer, editor, programmer, and occasional bad artist of thejapanguy.com blog (that's just way too many hats, dude). Wanna know more about this guy? Check out his "What's Your Story" page.
  • Fran Ferran

    I’ve made attempts to go to sign up with a gym but I think it’s pointless to pay so much money for the few days and meagre hours that I want to use it. Maybe I’ll eventually join but not right now. Dancing will suffice for the time being.

    • thejapanguy

      Yeah, those prices are no joke sometimes, Fran. If dancing is what keeps you fit, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. I can’t dance so well so I lift instead.

  • http://zoomingjapan.com/ zoomingjapan

    I’m not really interested in weight lifting, but I’ve been thinking about joining a gym to be able to use things like treadmills and stuff.
    The thing is, however, that there is none nearby and I’d hate to drive far out just to get there.

    • thejapanguy

      I feel you on that, zoomingjapan. It’s something you really have to weigh. In some cases I actually believe joining a gym might not be worth the expense. In my case, I’m close enough to a good one to justify going. If I wasn’t though I would have to find other ways to train I think.

  • Katie

    I’m currently living in Tokyo for a gap year. I use the Chuo-ku Sports Center, and I agree with the funny rules thing. I don’t use the gym though. I’m a swimmer and that works best for me with running/core exercises on my own time to cross-train. I’ve actually lost well over 20 pounds since coming to Japan. But anyway.

    Access: I can walk to the sports center (it’s only about a mile away), so I don’t have to worry about transportation costs.

    Cost: Swimming uses 500Y for a 2 hour time slot. 250Y for a 1 hour time slot if you go between 7-9am but the pool is significantly more crowded. Expensive if you go 5 days a week. Plus, I’m not paying or a club membership or a structured workout or coaches, I’m just paying for pool time. Which in the USA is only $30 a month. Or free at my university. Or $20 for the entire summer for 2 hours in the early morning at my summer club. Exponentially cheaper.

    Weird rules: I’m a fast swimmer. I was just over a second off of the Olympic trials cut in 100 fly. I also have endurance. What annoys me is I’m not allowed to pass anyone because it’s rude. The lifeguards yelled at me when I swam around someone who was literally struggling to do freestyle. Some of these people hop in my lane (instead of lanes that are almost empty!) that are so slow that if I do not wait for them to swim (slowly) 50 meters I am going to be up their butt in less than 25 meters. Which takes sometimes 3 minutes for them to do. Which costs me time and money and a good workout. In the USA, generally this isn’t a problem (if two people are in the same lane with one obviously faster, you halve the lane and then you don’t have to worry about passing, OR if someone who is faster than you is close to you, you stop and let them go) but in Japan, I’ve been literally floating on my back sometimes waiting for someone to hit the wall and stop so I can pass them without getting the lifeguards upset, only to have them push off the wall again! Then I have to wait another 50 meters before I can go again, which is very frustrating. The only solution I’ve found is to try and go when there are less swimmers, usually around 10-11 am.
    Also, in the locker room, if you drip on the floor, you get death glares. You’re supposed to clean up any water that falls off your body with a little mop in the corner of the room.
    Oh, and after 55 minutes, the lifeguards make everyone get out of the water and they do this thing where one strips down to his suit and swims down every lane to check lane lines and push platforms back in place. Five minutes later, you’re allowed back in. This amounts to around 10 minutes lost for the 2 hours. Plus the two hour time-ticket includes locker room time, so you have to allot at least 10-15 minutes for that. More if you want a shower. So really, you’re paying 500Y for around an hour and a half of pool time.
    Also, the pool is kept at around 88-90 degrees. That’s fine if you’re not moving around too much or using the walking course. But my usual pool in the usa was kept at a frosty 78 degrees. That ten degree difference makes it feel like I am on fire literally. My whole body is like a lobster (and I’m a latina with very dark skin, I usually never get flushed) and I get very dehydrated because the water is so hot. But we aren’t allowed to keep water behind the lane!!! It has to be kept on the water stand, a good 10 feet away! And I can’t get out of the pool in between sets for a sip. It’s very inconvenient.

    I agree with the bodyweight stuff. You’d be surprised how much it can help. But even with diet regulation, it’s hard for me to keep the weight off with running and bodyweight alone. So I need the pool.

    • thejapanguy

      That is so crazy. I thought it was just me! I too am a swimming enthusiast (nowhere near Olympic trial cuts, though LOL). I happen to be a breast stroker myself. But when I was living in Tsukuba, I went to the local pool and it was the EXACT same thing. Everybody had to get out of the water and wait for the whole “checking process.” It really did seem like a total waste of time. I’ve never seen that at ANY pool I’ve gone to in the U.S. So if you wanna go longer than an hour, I guess you can’t?? smh

      That’s one of those rules that I totally forgot about! Thanks for mentioning it, Katie.

  • Enricopallazzo

    Bodyweight is really the smartest way to train. It’s absolutely free! Check out youtube for a wide variety of challenging routines.

    Working out in front of girls really motivates me so I’m a member of a gym now. What I love about it is the private showers. I don’t have to listen to all that snorting that orientals are not embarrassed about doing. But the hours are terrible. And the dumbbells max out at 30 kilograms.

    Evenings are family time. I want to do my training early in the morning.

    People working out in right front of the dumbbell rack, sitting at a machine and using their smartphone, grunting and hissing, and not wiping off their DNA from the benches seems to be a worldwide problem.

    I am looking for a nice bench that has a lat pull and an adjustable bench for decline bench pressing as well as incline pressing. No doubt I will have to pay 4 times as much as I would in the USA.

  • Katarzyna Pawlus-Ono

    I think I know what could be the problem for gyms in Japan and availability of their weightlifting equipment…

    After many chats with my j-husband, he made me realise that japanese girls are not into, how he calls it, ‘Macho men’.

    When he visited Australia for the first time, he was surprised to see how many guys aimed to get those big guns and pecs, he said – it never happens in Japan.

    Instead, you’ll see dudes with toned calfs and thighs, because more popular sports are baseball and football (whoops sorry I mean soccer).

    Japanese media makes the ‘feminine herbivore’ (my husband got this term from somewhere) more desired model for a perfect boyfriend than dudes who aim to get their upper body bigger. Maybe because muscles are associated with engineers and working class? Beats me..

    Another thing he mentioned were the prices, he said – only rich people can get really fit, because gyms in Japan are so expensive hehe!

  • Gnome

    Have you ever tried going to your local community center gym? I went to one when I lived in Higashi-Jujo (it was 2 stations away on the Keihin-Tohoku line) that had free weights, weigh machines, treadmills and exercise bikes. It was 300 yen per visit. 2400 yen per month, and around 6200 yen for 3 months (you purchased tickets from a machine near the entry way). Although it wasn’t open 24 hours a day and it did close on certain days for some special events or holidays, there were no contracts, initiation fees or other such gimmicks. I avoided going to any gym-chain in Japan for a long-time simply because I didn’t think paying 10,000 per month to exercise was worth it (unless the fee included a personal trainer). Finally, a friend told me about community center gyms. Best wishes to you in finding something to your liking!

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