Are you living in Japan? Do you workout? If so, and you’re attending one of the Japanese gyms…odds are it sucks. More on that a bit later. For now, let’s start from the beginning:
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 gyms here? Why do so many Japanese gyms 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.
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!
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:
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
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.
Joyful Honda Athletic 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.
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.
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?).
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.”
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.
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.
Not liking the gym prospects here in Japan? Here are five potential solutions I can think of:
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
Donald Ash is an Atlanta, Georgia-born, American expat who has been living in a Japanese time warp for the last eleven years. While in that time warp, he discovered that he absolutely loves writing, blogging, and sharing. Donald is the creator of thejapanguy.com blog. Wanna know more about this guy? Check out his "What's Your Story" page.
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