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Swim and Gym Rules in Japan

If you stay in a fancy hotel or join an expensive gym, you’re less likely to have to follow many rules.  But this is Japan, so be forewarned that there will probably be rules.

These are some to look out for:

•    You must shower well before entering the pool, but you may not be able to use soap, shower gel, or shampoo.  I’m sure there’s no need to explain that these make the floor slippery and could cause injury.  Pools in Tokyo are less likely to still have this rule, but you need to check if you don’t want to get scolded in a no-soap facility.

•    In almost all public pools and aquatic parks, there is a mandatory synchronized 5-10 “rest period” every hour, or at the very minimum twice a day.  At a pool the lifeguards will blow their whistles or a bell will ring signaling it’s time to get out, and again when it’s time to get back in.  At aquatic parks there will probably be chimes or sirens.  In any case, you’ll know because everyone will get out.  At many pools, people will sit quietly and then stretch in unison to piped in music until the “back in” signal.  It doesn’t matter if you don’t feel like resting or just got there, this is the rule. I was once told that this rule existed because pools are so crowded in Japan that it is the only way the lifeguards can see if there is a body at the bottom of the pool. Good point. Who wants to be swimming around with dead bodies.

•    Swim in the right lane at the right speed.  Often there are one-way lanes, the adjacent lane is for the return trip. If you decide to take the “round the pool” swim tour, make sure you are swimming in the right direction: some courses are clockwise and some are counterclockwise.  Choose the right lane for your speed; you shouldn’t pass anyone or hold anyone up.  Some smaller pools have fewer lanes so you can pass, but make sure you find out what the protocol is for that pool – generally passing on the left, but only where allowed.

•    When in the pool area wear a swim cap.  This goes for men and women and even if you are bald or just passing through the swim area.  Apparently a beard doesn’t count.

•    In many, many places, no Tattoos unless you can completely cover them.  This goes for hot springs (onsen) and many gyms because of the association with the Japanese mafia (yakuza).  There is a big push to change this in Tokyo to accommodate all the international visitors expected to arrive in 2020 for the Olympics.

There may be different changing areas for kids and adults.  There will, of course, be different facilities for men and women, but don’t be surprised if an old lady comes in the men’s room to clean while you’re changing (same goes for gyms). Traditionally, Japanese public baths were co-ed until the American occupation, who in their infinite wisdom, imposed their own set of rules.

Usually called Sports Clubs, Gyms in Japan are very expensive and there is plenty of paperwork to justify the expense.  Be sure you bring your passport and follow their rules which will probably be posted throughout the gym and possibly illustrated in manga-style booklet. Here are the main things:

•    Bring a separate pair of clean gym shoes. You must leave your “outdoor” shoes in the locker and wear your clean pair to exercise in the gym, then change shoes again just before you leave. Gym shoes are for inside the gym – other shoes are for outside.
•    Bring your own towel to wipe off your sweat and, in case there is not one already by the machine, to wipe down the equipment when you are done. If you sweat a lot, you may want an additional small towel to wipe off your sweat. You also need a towel for the shower. You may be able to buy towels at the gym and may also be able to rent Japanese-sized gym shoes.  

•    No talking on the phone, period. Not even short conversations.  Texting and listening to music with headphone, however, is fine.

If they have a soaking tub and you don’t already know Japanese public bath rules, be sure you read this  Know the Naked Rules of Onsen Etiquette before you climb in. And if they have a pink area reserved for women only, well, I think you can figure out that rule.


By Diana K. Rowland


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