Japan is an incredible country with an impressive culture and appreciation for fast swimming. The infrastructure is amazing, and the people are kind. The greater Tokyo area is the most populous metropolitan area in the world – nearly 40 million people!
Tokyo is divided into wards (23 of them), and each has a big sports center, which usually includes a pool. On a recent trip to the city for our partnership with CASIO, I made sure to visit the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium and get in a swim.
The Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium (東京体育館) is a sporting complex in Sendagaya, Shibuya, Tokyo, Japan. Built in 1954 for the World Wrestling Championship, it was also used as the venue for gymnastics at the 1964 Summer Olympics, and will host the table tennis competition at the 2020 Summer Olympics.
The gymnasium features a central lobby where members submit their membership card for entry. It’s very similar to riding the subway. You swipe in, and swipe out each time you pass the entry/exit gate. For ¥ 600 (about 6 USD), anyone can access the swimming pools and weight room for a period of 3 hours.
This Gymnasium is home to a 25m and 50m pool. I was so excited to swim in the facility that once held the 1954 Olympic Water Polo competition I nearly got lost inside the venue. Luckily the kind front desk staff equipped me with a map and directions to the men’s locker room.
At a high level, swimming in Japan is like swimming anywhere else – there’s a pool, it’s filled with water, and people are going back and forth. The details however are where it gets interesting and culturally significant. There are some of the fundamental differences to swimming in Japan compared to western (American) swimming etiquette.
When you arrive at the locker room, as with standard Japanese customs, you take your shoes off before proceeding. At the entrance of the locker room there’s a dedicated space to sit down and take your shoes off. Gym goers bring a separate pair of shoes for the gym different from the pair they arrived in.
Similar to other pools I’ve visited in the United States and in Europe, the locker room and pool are separated by chambers. The locker room is one section, the next section is where the showers and hot tub are, and the final chamber is the swimming pool all separated by an automatic sliding door (fancy).
You must shower well before entering the pool, but some pools may not allow you to use soap, shower gel, or shampoo. When in the pool area you must wear a swim cap. This goes for men and women and even if you are bald or just passing through the swim area. I wonder how beards are handled…
In most pools, you can have no Tattoos unless you are completely covered. From what I can tell, most Japanese do not have Tattoos, and they are especially discouraged when in a swim suit because of potential associations with the Japanese mafia (yakuza).
Additionally, the Japan Swimming Federation prohibits its swimmers from dying their hair and wearing garish nail polish. Alongside the more conservative culture, most women wear less revealing knee skins for swim suits. Men at this pool were equally split between briefs and jammers.
It’s important to swim in the right lane at the right speed. Often there are one-way lanes; the adjacent lane is for the return trip. The lanes are labeled ‘Slow’, ‘Medium’, and ‘Fast’. I swam in the ‘Fast lane’. It was interesting how the traffic in my lane moved clockwise (circle swimming), while on the roads in Tokyo, the cars drive on the left side of the road (counterclockwise).
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.
The five-minute break every hour (or, at some places, the ten-minute one every two hours) is meant for resting. At many pools, people will just sit quietly and then stretch until the “back in” signal. It doesn’t matter if you don’t feel like resting or just got there, this is the rule.
Pool rules are enforced very strictly. When it comes to swim equipment, the 50m pool I was at did not allow any equipment (fins, paddles, etc) except for a kick board and pull buoy. Equipment needed to be worn in the adjacent 25m pool. Similarly, you cannot wear any watches or wristbands besides the locker key wristband you get in the locker room to keep all your belongings while you swim.
It should also be noted that you can not use phones or cameras on the pool deck or in the pool area. Please forgive me for breaking this rule. If you’d like to learn more, please drop me a message at firstname.lastname@example.org.