Understanding 2 Uncommon Japanese Gym Customs

“Where are your gym shoes?” questioned the short, dark haired Japanese receptionist with a smile on her face.  “I’m wearing them,” I replied as I stood reading the sign behind the desk at the 5 level fitness center in Okinawa, Japan.  No outside shoes and no tattoos displayed quite clearly on the wall as obviously as a 2 year old unapologetically staring at me.   These were certainly 2 uncommon but understandable Japanese gym customs for a Westerner like me.

Understanding 2 Uncommon Japanese Gym Customs

Allan and I playing dress up in Okinawa. The kimono I'm wearing is for women, but it was much more interesting than the drab costumes for men.
Allan and I playing dress up in Okinawa. The kimono I’m wearing is for women, but it was much more interesting than the drab costumes for men.

No tattoos and no outdoor shoes did not surprise me, but I came unprepared in the attire department.

Fortuitously the lovely lady behind the desk looked torn. Does she respect the fitness center rules or her innate desire as a Japanese person to accommodate?  Thankfully she opted for the latter and handed me a towel to wipe off my “street” shoes.  She advised me next time to bring an extra pair of clean sneakers.

Although I recognized the indoor shoe rule it frankly escaped my conscious.  

I focused on the necessity to burn calories through jogging after eating copious amounts of delicious Asian food.  We traveled to the island of Okinawa, the largest of the Ryukyu Islands of Japan, for Allan’s benefit.  He reminisced about his 2 years stationed on the island during his military service 50 years ago.  So we explored the island eating everything in sight. 

My body craved a workout.  Japan in August bakes with oppressive heat and humidity.  I opted for the safer and healthier inside exercise option versus killing myself outside.  The existence of these 2 unusual Japanese gym customs failed to cross my mind.

Uncommon Japanese Gym Customs: Keijiro Restaurant in Okinawa, Japan. Allan eats the best pork ramen noodle soup we've ever had. I now compare all ramen soup to this benchmark meal.
Keijiro Restaurant in Okinawa, Japan. Allan eats the best pork ramen noodle soup we’ve ever had. I now compare all ramen soup to this benchmark meal.

Perplexing me more, the shoe “rule” complicates once you enter the locker room. 

Another change or two of foot ware lie ahead.  One patron advised me on the proper steps.  I removed my outdoor sneakers when entering and donned the provided slippers sitting next to the door.  Next I switched to “toilet” sandals when using the lavatories.  Finally, after my workout I removed everything – I mean EVERYTHING, to use the open-air showers, hot and cold pools, sauna and steam.  Even today I still doubt whether or not I should have worn sandals in the shower. 

All these steps are required because Japanese separate outside germs from the clean indoors.  Not removing your outside shoes when entering a gym, someone’s home or even some restaurants can be seen as rude and dirty.  The Japanese possess the reputation of being the cleanest race on the planet.   Now I understand why more clearly.

Uncommon Japanese Gym Customs: Japanese kids visiting the Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine in Tokyo. Some gal asked them to pose like this for a photo, so I quickly got out my camera. Notice the left hand of the guy to the left.
Japanese kids visiting the Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine in Tokyo. Some gal asked them to pose like this for a photo.  Quickly I reached for my camera. Notice the left hand of the guy in the black and blue kimono discreetly telling her to get lost.

On the other hand forbidding entry to the gym to anyone with visible tattoos seems outdated to me.

In today’s era tattoos abound at least in the Western world.  Do the polite Japanese kick out people with skin ink?  Perhaps in a small island like Okinawa they would, but what about in cosmopolitan cities like Tokyo?  I understand the Japanese tattoo taboo but I merely question its application today. 

Japanese gangsters (yakuza) mark their bodies with tattoos.  Ink your body and you immediately represent someone dangerous and not trustworthy.  Since spas are central to Japanese culture, and most gyms have spas (and everyone is naked), someone with tattoos stands out – and not in a good way. 

Gyms are centers of socialization.  Implementing the criminal component associated with tattoos inhibits the openness and sharing required to fraternize.  

Uncommon Japanese Gym Customs: The original motif of the three wise monkeys: Mizaru, Kikazaru, and Iwazaru displayed on a barn at the temple in Nikko, Japan. You see this motif globally on mass-produced art.
The original motif of the three wise monkeys: Mizaru, Kikazaru, and Iwazaru.  They appear on a barn at a temple in Nikko, Japan.  You see this motif globally on mass-produced art, but it originated here.

Whether or not I agree with these 2 peculiar Japanese gym customs is immaterial.

Being a respectful visitor is imperative to me. I don’t want to offend anyone.  As a consequence on my next trip to Japan I’ll pack an extra pair of running sneakers to serve as my “indoor pair”.  Since I’m never getting a tattoo I don’t have to worry about that rule.  They look good on other people, but I prefer my body to remain natural looking.

For those of you with tattoos perhaps wear clothing that covers them and stay away from the locker room.  Avoid being underprepared like me in the face of these 2 peculiar Japanese gym customs.

Have you ever been to a gym in Japan?  Have you noticed any cultural differences worth mentioning?

Please let me know in the comments!

Happy travels,

Matt Weatherbee

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Matt Weatherbee
Matt Weatherbee

Hi, I’m Matt.  In 2008 I quit my job, sold everything and drove from Boston to Mexico to start a business.  Now I live and work in the Carribean, and spend my free time traveling the globe.  Learn more.

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