Quick, what are the very first words or images that come to mind when you think of Tokyo?
Cute. Godzilla. Giant robots. Ramen. Sushi. Anime. Tentacles. Etc., etc.
The point of that exercise was to make you think of the amazingly glorious bizarro world that is Japan, but also that you simply don’t equate fitness, muscles, or even being in a gym with Japan. But inquiring minds need to know:
Where the hell are all the gyms in Japan?
This guide will discuss the gym and fitness situation for digital nomads and visitors who will stay long-term, but are not necessarily on a resident visa. Sure, Japan may be lightyears ahead in cool tech like trains that bring you sushi and toilets that squirt at your bum, but gym culture and weightlifting are still stuck in the 70s. I sense that they’ve been picking up more in recent years, but there’s still some time to go.
The Barriers to Accessing a Gym in Japan
During my own time in Japan, I learned a lot about gym memberships for long-term and short-term stays, as well as Japan’s unique gym and workout culture. Here are my findings:
Gyms in Japan Are $$$
When I first arrived in Tokyo, I wasn’t sure where to start looking. Eventually though, I realized that there were actually plenty of gyms around Tokyo and other parts of Japan. The big chain gyms include Central Sports, Konami Sports Club, Tipness, NAS, Anytime Fitness, and Gold’s Gym.
The problem is, not every gym has a weight room. If your main love is weight training, Gold’s Gym in Japan is a great option. Gold’s biggest benefit is that you can easily find many other locations throughout Japan.
But…gym memberships in general are really. Freakin’. Expensive. Like “three dollar signs” expensive.
This perspective is obviously based on my anchor point, the price point that I’m used to. In America, I paid $30 to $40 on average per month to use the gym. In Harajuku’s Gold’s Gym, I almost shit a brick when I saw the prices. Here’s the English pamphlet they had:
Let me break it down for you:
- One-time sign-up fee: ~50USD
- Monthly fee: Between 172USD and 86USD
- Single day pass: ~30USD
Clearly, gains do not come cheap.
Also, gyms in Japan charge memberships based on when you’d like to use the facilities. Want to be able to use it at any time? Sorry, you have to pay extra for that. They have separate prices for daytime-only usage and full-day access, presumably because nighttime is prime time and really hits the salarymen’s demographic. That means a general membership doesn’t necessarily give you anytime access, unless you pay for that feature. It’s bonkers to me as an American, but whatever.
Typically, daytime-only is cheaper, so if you can go during the day this would be the better deal. The real problem comes next.
Getting Gym Memberships As a Foreign Visitor Is Tricky
In my experience, if you want to sign up for an actual gym membership, you need:
- A permanent resident card or visa.
- A Japanese bank account or credit card which you use to pay your membership.
Without either of those, I was denied gym membership at just about every place, including Gold’s Gym. That means you’re left with paying outrageously expensive month-to-month or day visitor passes.
OR try negotiating.
If you’re fluent enough with the language or can find English speakers, request to speak directly to the franchise manager. Explain that you’re only in the country for however long and are willing to pay for a membership that’s <insert the amount of time you’re there> in one lump sum. First, try telling them that you’ll pay in cash.
If they balk, another method is to find a close Japanese friend who trusts you enough and is willing to use his or her bank account to open the gym membership account. You’ll also need your passport, natch.
One gym I spoke to was willing to deal with the latter method of transferring funds through my friend’s bank account, but I never went through with the deal because I found a better alternative (see below). That strategy won’t work with all employees and gyms, but it’d help your case to be very courteous and understanding.
The other option is to have a pre-existing membership with Gold’s Gym or Anytime Fitness so that you either pay a small fee to use the chains in Japan or can access them with little issue. I had a friend who was already with Anytime Fitness prior to visiting Japan and was able to waltz into the Anytime Fitness gyms with no issues.
Your Best Bet Is a Public Gym
Thankfully, there are city-run gyms in many parts of Japan. These are available to the public and residents of that area. They’re cheap, too. Not all public gyms have a weight room, but a select few have the sorts of things you need without paying out the wazoo. I’ve personally been to:
- Cost: 400 yen per day
- Location: Daikanyama, near the big Tsutaya area
- What you get: Dumbbells, weight machines, foam rollers, cardio machines. There’s no squat rack or barbell, so if you really want a heavy lifting session this place isn’t it.
- Cost: 600 yen per day. You can pay monthly as well. If I remember correctly, it was about 60USD for monthly membership; no visa required.
- Location: Sendagaya, take the JR Chuo line and it’s right by the JR station exit
- What you get: There are two weight rooms. One is the free weights area that has squat racks, bench press, and a couple of other things. It’ll definitely suit your needs. There’s another area with weight machines, a stretching area, and a cardio machine. This place also sells protein powder and other fitness goods and snacks.
After I found Sendagaya’s gym, I pretty much never went to any other one, but this resource from GaijinPot lists other public gyms. I can’t guarantee those have adequate weight rooms though. Alternatively, CrossFit gyms are cropping up in many places around Tokyo. If CrossFit is more your style, you can consult this to find CrossFit boxes in Tokyo.
In Kyoto, you can visit:
- Cost: 350 yen
- Location: You can take the JR line to Enmachi station and it’s about a 10 minute walk from there.
- What you get: It’s got a training room with squat racks, benches, and various machines. It’s good for basic needs, but not if you’re into fancy stuff.
What You Need to Bring
When you pay for using a gym in Japan, you are paying to use the facilities. That’s it. No towels. No nothing. Whatever you need, you’ll need to bring those things with you, including:
- An extra pair of ‘indoor’ shoes: The Japanese have an interesting, bordering-on-obsessive emphasis on cleanliness. So much that they require you to bring a separate pair of shoes exclusively for indoor gym use. I got away with not ever doing this at Sendagaya, but my shoes didn’t look hobo-ish so they gave me a pass, or no one noticed (shhhhhh!)
- Cash: Generally, at these places you typically use cash to pay for an entry ticket at a machine. The options are all written in Japanese, but if you look lost and confused the kind souls at the gym should be able to help you out.
- Your own towels: This includes your own gym and bath towels, if you plan on using the showers after. You also need to bring your own soap and such.
Gym Etiquette in Japan
In Japan, the gym culture is…dainty.
Daintiness is the most appropriate way to describe how we all need to act in the weight room: with delicacy, respect, excessive courtesy, and like a child that’s always on the verge of being scolded. I respect the rules, but they discourage certain exercises like heavy-ass deadlifts. The otherJapanese gym-goers look down upon people banging and dropping weights and generally making a lot of noise. Can you imagine dainty deadlifts? Me neither. Sigh.
The list of do nots might actually be longer than the do’s…
- Don’t hog the equipment: That means supersets are harder. People generally don’t understand the concept of “working in,” where you take turns working in your exercise set. In Sendagaya, you have to reserve your spot for a certain machine, at which point you have a strict time limit if other people are waiting. As a good alternative, you can use bodyweight exercises or something with dumbbells as your second or third exercise in trisets or supersets.
- Don’t leave weights around: People are really anal retentive about keeping things organized, or “by the book.” One guy got mad at me because I started racking weights back into “his” machine. Basically, put things back exactly where you got them. I appreciate this rule, though, because many of the gyms in America often look like the Tazmanian Devil tore up the place just to make finding matching dumbbells near impossible.
- Don’t make loud sounds: Grunting loudly is typically discouraged, but I guess that’s anywhere. You can still deadlift sort of, but if you do heavy ones, just know that you will be very harshly judged.
- Don’t use your phone: They’re much more strict about phone usage while you’re using the machines or weight room. Don’t chat, text, use your phone to record or take a selfie, or even look in the general direction of your phone. (I kid about the last one, but seriously, just leave your phone in your bag.)
- Don’t leave your gross sweat behind: Another rule that I appreciate. Everyone respectfully wipes down their equipment here. At least make a showing of wiping down your equipment when you’re done, even if it looks “clean.”
Other than the deadlifts and the indoor shoe thing, I’m a fan of a gym culture that’s focused more on keeping things tidy and less gross for others.
Should You Hire a Personal Trainer in Japan?
It’s just that fitness, especially strength training, isn’t quite up to speed in much of Japan. Of course, that’s not saying all the personal trainers here are useless, spikey-haired flops, nor that nobody knows what they are doing. I personally wouldn’t pay a trainer in Japan for strength training, especially if they’re not going to let you deadlift very heavy.
Other Non-Gym Options
And hey, if the gym ain’t your thang, there are plenty of activities to satisfy your fitness craving. For one thing, you already walk everywhere in Japan. That helps a lot. In my time, I did…
I made do with bodyweight workouts at playgrounds and parks when I couldn’t find access to a gym. It helped me buck the trend a bit and find creativity in the most boring everyday objects. A bench and pull-up bar are really all I need. Oh, it also helps to have a set of suspension trainers. (I linked to the official TRX ones, which are great, but I personally have one from a company that’s not in business anymore. It’s stayed with me for many, many years though.)
Indoor Rock Climbing
Rock climbing is pretty popular, so you’ll easily find rock climbing gyms. I went to rock climbing gyms in Shibuya and Higashi-jujo (this one was really small). For more options, Time Out has a great list of the many rock climbing walls in Tokyo.
If you’re mainly camped out in Tokyo, your options for hiking are more limited, and even then, you have to venture out typically for an hour and a half to get to these hiking spots. Aside from Mount Fuji, Mount Takao and Mount Mitake are great options for hiking. If you go, try to go during autumn or cherry blossom season.
Ultimate frisbee has been a fun way for me to get active and meet people. Join this Facebook group to see their announcements and where they play. They often play at Hiro-o Junior High School near the Ebisu JR station. In my experience, they’re a friendly crew and welcome all skill levels. (Most are highly experienced players.)
Cover image credit: Karen Hong Photography.
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