Living in Japan, the Ultimate Weight Loss Solution?

By Donald Ash | Articles

Exercising at my local gym in Tsukuba, Japan

I left for Japan on the cold winter morning of January 10, 2008 via Hartsfield International Airport in Atlanta, Georgia. I remember kissing my sister goodbye and getting on the longest flight I had ever been on at that time, 12 hours. Arriving at Narita Airport and just scanning around was quite fascinating. Looking at all the shorter and thinner Japanese people around me made me self-consciously touch my rather puffy stomach…

I weighed exactly 101 kilograms, or about 223 pounds, when I got to Japan. I didn’t consider myself overweight by any means. I lifted weights, ran, and did karate; I was just a bigger guy (maybe a little stubborn fat in my stomach area), and I was okay with that, right? However, within 8 months of being in Asia. I went from 101 kilograms to a lean 89 kilograms, about 196 pounds. That’s a 27-pound difference!! I really wish I had taken before and after pictures, but I don’t have any that effectively show the weight loss. Yes, I know it’s hard to believe…I couldn’t believe it myself when I stepped on the scale! The last time I weighed 196 pounds was in late high school/early college. I had always been worried about losing strength if I lost weight, but that’s a complete wives’ tale. I was (am) significantly stronger at the leaner weight, too. My bench press and squat maxes were also up by 35 pounds and 50 pounds (respectively). What caused me to lose the weight? In my opinion, it was several factors. But living in Japan has completely changed how I live, eat, and exercise.

Japanese Food

Food makes a huge difference in how your body looks. If you eat lots of sugar and fat, you probably have a little more fat accumulated around your midsection. If you eat lots of protein (and lift weights), you probably have a more muscular look. If you have a little bit of everything, you’re probably have a moderate to lean build (depending on what activities you do). The old adage “You are what you eat” is so fittingly true.

In Japan people really love to eat their vegetables. This is the first culture that have been in where the people actually say vegetables are delicious (oishii). In the US vegetables are often treated as a necessary evil. “I don’t want to eat em’ but I have to.” But the Japanese diet isn’t completely a vegetarian one, they eat a all kinds of different foods: beef, pork, eggs, raw eggs, noodles, rice, seaweed, chicken, fish, potatoes, carrots, apples, just all varieties of delicious foods. I’ve also noticed that Japanese cooking isn’t overloaded with a whole lot of oil and grease (in most cases).

I am more than satisfied with the food choices here. I really enjoy eating fresh vegetables, lots of fresh fish, and seafood. I now eat tofu and soybeans almost everyday. I also eat smaller serving sizes of everything. Smaller meals more often (from what I understand) is better for creating a much leaner body, and it works. I don’t feel hungry at all, and after I got used to the smaller portions, it was quite satisfying.

Another major difference is the use of sugar. In the US I used sugar far more often. In Japan, I don’t even have a bag of sugar in my apartment. I drink tea without sugar. I don’t use sugar on cereal, it’s great. Speaking of sugar, the sweets in Japan aren’t loaded with sugar and fat. Of course you can find your foreign sweets in grocery stores here, but you’ll notice that many Japanese think American sweets are too sweet. Japanese sweets are smaller and don’t use a lot of the extras (caramel, nuts, nougat, etc.). Some of my favorite sweets, use natural ingredients: sweet potatoes, and anko jam, which comes from a bean that has a naturally sweet flavor (more so than even a sweet potato).

The last important food difference is that I seldom eat fast food anymore. I’ve been to McDonald’s here in Japan a whopping 4 times in almost 3 years. I have been to Subway between 10 and 15 times during the same period. Even at that, my US fast food consumption would have dwarfed what it is today. Food choices have helped me to lose weight.

Japanese Lifestyle

This single most important change to my life has been that no longer own a car. And, to be quite frank, I don’t really need one. I ride my bike to work everyday (about 7 minutes), and if I need to travel longer distances, I just take the train or the subway. Walking, riding bicycles is an everyday thing, not just for young people, or people getting in shape…but everybody. I’ve seen kids, mothers, daughters, fathers, and even grandfathers and grandmothers riding bikes or walking. It’s so cool! Initially, I thought riding a bike everywhere was going to suck. But it doesn’t seem like a big deal anymore; I’ve grown to like it. It’s not a hassle anymore, it’s just a part of my daily routine.

Exercising in Japan

In addition to having a much healthier diet, and using leg gasoline everyday, I exercise a lot more than I did back home. The gym I go to here in Tsukuba is not that great, but it’s cheap, and it’s close. It takes me 7 minutes door to door on my bicycle. So during my initial months. I was consistently working out 4-5 days per week. Weightlifting, became my best friend during those lonely days when I couldn’t make heads or tails of the language.

I also developed a love for running. Tsukuba has some really beautiful scenery, and it’s such a safe place (sometimes I feel like the biggest guy in Tsukuba). I go running whenever the mood hits me, whether it’s midnight, or five-o-clock in the morning. I remember having the exact same back pain and knee problems that everyone else complains about, upon arriving. I hate to admit it, but I also remember being so winded after trying to run even 2 miles. But so much has changed. My average run now is about 5 miles (on a bad day) and if I’m really feeling it that day…8-10 miles. I used to have problems with my knees, but after losing the weight, I don’t have any of those troubles anymore.

Am I rubbing this in your face? Am I trying to impress you with what I’ve done? Am I trying to make you feel bad? No way!! I want you to know that living here can be a magical experience in more ways than one. Even for the people who aren’t exercise fanatics, their bodies have changed along with their lifestyles…for the better.

If you’re frustrated with your weight, or with your life…I know moving to Japan sounds extreme, but you might like it…and maybe even shed some of those excess pounds in the process.

Update:**I have since gained back some of that weight, but it’s mostly due to a new training & protein regimen, so most of it’s lean weight. But I am still nowhere near the 101 kilograms that I used to be. Currently I weigh 93 kilograms…205 pounds of sheer glee.””

To your health,

Donald Ash

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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 blog (that's just way too many hats, dude). Wanna know more about this guy? Check out his "What's Your Story" page.
  • Clive Bugle

    Cracking article. Very inspiring

  • Clive Bugle

    Cracking article. Very inspiring

    • Donald Ash

      You know what’s more inspiring?? Clive freakin’ Bugle! I hear he’s like the Keyser Soze of Japan. He’s in one place, and then like that “poof” he’s gone.

      Hahaha ALWAYS good to hear from you, bro! 🙂

  • Vivian Morelli

    Great article. It’s true for the most part- except I notice foreign girls generally *tend* to gain weight here! Many reasons- we like sweets and desserts, which are readily available at convenience stores, and also overeating to compensate for the lack of um, dating. Just kidding about that one, but it’s partly true… haha.

    • Donald Ash

      I didn’t event think about that, Vivian. I guess that could totally be true though. Which reminds me, maybe I just need to pick some female brains about the dating situation while living abroad. I know it varies from person to person, but it’s interesting stuff.

    • Itumama

      Maybe for you. All of the gaijin girls I know have lost weight and have managed to pick up a couple of Japanese guys.

  • Sunshine

    I don’t know how I ran into your blog but I am so glad I did! I am visiting Japan again and I can recalled this weight loss I had the first time I went. I drop down 5-10 pounds the three months I’ve been there. I gotta be honest it had to be the food they get, it way healthier and less greasy. I also was there during the summer, whew was it hot!! I remember when I got back my parents ask what happen, did I starve myself but I told them it was the opposite; I ate so much and walked a lot! I hope this time when I visit again, I am hopeful to shed a few more pounds! hahaha

  • Forfunzies

    Currently living in Japan, and I’ve been here for about a month and a half now. I have done nothing but exist here. I don’t ride a bike– I ride the bus, daily. I have eaten at a wide assortment of restaurants, often, and have still managed to gradually lose 6lbs! If I did the same thing in the US, I would have probably gained 10lbs.

  • A great discussion. I too am a gym rat. So what are your goal for your work outs?

  • moya

    David ,you already look great the way you are . I don t think you need extra training or protein, Too much training creates inflammation which ages us fast . you have already got very healthy. No more is needed.

  • Eustacia Loupe

    I’ve been overweight for 10 years and tried so many things. Different things work for different people and I was lucky enough to find one that worked for me. I lost 19 pounds in one month without exercise and it has been a life changer. I’m a little embarrased to post my before and after photos here but if anyone actually cares to hear what I’ve been doing then I’d be happy to help in any way. Just shoot me an email at [email protected] and I’ll show you my before and after photos, and tell you about how things are going for me with the stuff I’ve tried. I wish someone would have helped me out when I was struggling to find a solution so if I can help you then it would make my day

  • zanalies .

    Great article! Very inspiring and true. I have been here for 2 months and I lost 2 kg already. Like you said, food choices and cycling, not owning a car. I feel great. I haven’t even been to a gym yet! Will share this with my boyfriend, he needs some inspiration…

  • Trần Cường Steven

    I studied abroad in Japan for 1 year and naturally lost like 20 pounds from just living daily life in Tokyo. I lost an additional 10 pounds by going to the gym. 🙂

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