Fitness centers. Personal trainers. Open 24 hours, 365 days a year. What Red, White and Blue, starred-and-striped concepts. At any hour of the day, you can drive to the brightly lit complex in a spacious car, enter a parking garage with spaces that seem to stretch for miles, and that easily, hit the gym. On the inside of the automated doors, the options are limitless, which shiny equipment spanning the length of a strip mall. For the price of a gold star membership card, you are free to ride a recumbent bike, do weight training circuits, swim laps or practice yoga. If loneliness strikes in those wee hours of the night, real live human trainers are on call to assist you, cheer you on, or psyche you up for your workout regime. If you're not in the mood to hop or pump for your sweat, instead, you can choose to dip in the whirlpool or clear out the pours in the sauna or steam room. It truly sounds like a luxurious way of life and leisure. In Japan, there are sports clubs, and thrive they do, but the concept sings quite a different tune than the American National Anthem.
Almost as a national standard, fitness centers open at 10 am. This doesn't exactly cater to the working crowd that favors strapping on a workout before going to work, nor does it aide the non working crowd of early risers that feed off of getting those endorphins up with the Land of the Rising Sun backdrop. Often times, just getting to a gym is an aerobic routine. Gyms are usually located near train stations, which limits parking to possibly none. As a result, a trip to the gym starts with riding a bike to a train station, hiking up and down flights of stairs within the station and transfers, and finally walking to the gym from the station once you arrive at the destination. Perhaps one benefit of a 10 am start is that it is running on more of a flex time than the rush hour business commuter traffic in the earlier hours of the morning. Another major difference is evident in the plausible objectives of the clientele. I'm no pump you up muscle builder, but I come from a culture that tends to fill gyms with those that favor exercise for building mass. Currently, I am living in a culture where the masses fill gyms in favor of exercise for leisure and relaxation.
Daily life in Japan is much more physical than the American way. After a few years here, the idea of having to take a break from routine to "go get some exercise" became completely foreign to me. It didn't take the need to resole my kick about town walking shoes a second time to realize that my daily to do list serves as my stand in personal trainer, and that my private gym (although helpers are welcome) is larger than any Gold's Gym competitor worldwide. The machines I've installed include my bicep and tricep curl washing machine and my pull up and pull down machines are comprised in the outdoor clothes hang-drying line. My dumbbells look like Texas fly swatters, but they are to whack out futons and fluff bedding the way the locals do on sunny days. My small hand weights are built in to my kitchen sponges thanks to not having a dishwasher or garbage disposal. I can practice updog and downdog yoga poses when properly scrubbing the tatami (straw mat) floors that require pushing and pulling clean, damp towels over the weaves in a symmetric pattern. My exercycle is a 2 wheel, 3 gear shopping bike with front and rear baskets. I can up the resistance level by loading 2 bags of groceries in the baskets and one on each handle bar. My elliptical machine is found in any commute by train, which comprises flights upon flights of stairs and includes mad dash sprints to make the train before the doors close on my work(not workout) suit. My group exercise class is substituted with the camaraderie of the hundreds of passengers trying to endure the journey with me, packed in the train, side stepping to make room for purses and brief cases, two stepping to the left and then the right at every stop, in order to allow fellow commuters on and off the train.
Outside of the State-side gyms, you can easily spot beautiful suburban parks and urban wooded areas featuring bike paths for the outdoor enthusiasts for the weekend warriors. They ride for exercise. In my daily life in Japan, I spot men in full business suits, with their briefcases in the front basket and necktie flung up over one shoulder, zooming off to work (or first stop, the local station) on a shopping bike. I salute the women that perform the drill in high heels and hose and manage not to stain their nylons on the bike chain en route. They are cycling for transport, all the while incorporating the mental and physical exertions that Americans have to write into their daily schedules in order to accomplish. Over time, I have come to see the idea of a stationary bike as robbing me of not only valuable time, but also the satisfaction of checking off that "to do" list of errands. I have trail-blazed my own beaten bike path -- a circuit from my parking slot to the bank, to the post office and I round it out with a stop at the market before looping home. Many Americans employ a cleaning person or babysitter to tend to domestic duties while they head out to the gym or path to exercise. Outside help for indoor chores is an unfamiliar mode of operation in Japan, where natives take pride and seem to get great satisfaction out of a housekeeping task completed with care. Although I don't take the greatest pleasure in tackling the mold in the tub during the peak of rainy season, I can feel like am mildew free, as well as economically sound since my strength-building scrub-it-yourself monthly rental covers an otherwise would be costly gym membership.
In the early years of the cultural ups and downs, I made the mistake of thinking that an escape to a gym would feel like "home" to me. I wasted some energy, not in a workout, but in my mindset, expecting that all gym customs were internationally equal. But as I adjusted to the lifestyle, it dawned on me that I would need a heart monitor during domestic duties more so than on a cardio machine at a fitness center, I was happy to see exercise as more of an art and leisure activity than a thriving competition. Sometimes I wonder, where are my "30 Minute Limit" signs for the all the cleaning machines at home like the ones that drape aerobic machines in the States; after all, I would enjoy occasionally being forced to stop from the grind out of "fairness" to the other members. On the upside, I don't have to concern myself with keeping up with gym fashions -- I don't need a set of matching swim cap goggle set and suit nor the latest craze in coordinates for Pilates. In fact, in Japan, all indoor cleaning exercises are performed without shoes, so there's another built in savings to the cultural difference. I'll admit that there is an appealing electricity sent off when a group step or spin class is counting or hooting and hollering in joint-motivation. I can attempt to recreate that kind of energy by 1-2-3-4'ing around the kitchen on my own pushing a mop, but I can't seem to achieve that same "we're in this together" feeling. Fortunately, in the end, I can gratify the craving for the most decadent treat a commercial gym has to offer -- a nice soak in a whirlpool or sauna following a challenging workout. After a full day of Japanese domestic life, I can get that relaxing warm dip at home too, just after I do one more rep on the tub with the scrubber in the right hand and de-molder in the left.