Keeping Fit

Mark Guthrie pounds his iron and discovers that keeping fit in Japan isn’t as easy as you might imagine.

When I first came to Japan, I couldn’t wait to go home. Not that I was homesick or anything. No, the reason I couldn’t wait to go back was that I would be slim. Oh, I couldn’t wait for that. You see, I’ve always been something of a husky kind of fellow. Short and stocky, built, for working down the pits. However, combining this natural genetic persuasion with a (in my opinion, equally genetic) lusty appreciation for beer and carbohydrates, I had become big boned. A little rotund. Okay, a right fat bastard. But not in Japan. Oh, no! In Japan I would be living off fresh vegetables, sushi and all manner of healthy delights. I mean, look at your average Japanese, svelte as the day is long. I’d be just like them, and then I could swagger into my local boozer and everyone would say “fuck me, who’s that slender, athletic, yet ruggedly handsome man?” So, imagine my surprise when, after merely a month of my new Japanese life, I began to pile on the pounds. Mind you, I shouldn’t have been surprised at all.

Since coming to Japan I hadn’t exactly been living the lifestyle I had envisaged. For a start, there was the karaage. Oh, karaage, how I adore thee. You are the light in my life, the dance in my soul and you make my heart go all of a flutter. Though that may be congealed fat. Then there was the takoyaki. And the yakitori. And the yakiniku, and the okonomiyaki. Yaki, yaki, yaki! Fried food coming out of my bloody arteries. It was no wonder I was swelling up like a fat woman’s shoes in summer. Something had to give. My waistline or the wall of a coronary artery. I decided to fight the flab.

I am fortunate to live on the edge of Meijo Park, so I thought that what better way to get fit than to go jogging in a beautiful environment. Of course, the most important thing when jogging is to have the correct footwear. I looked forlornly at my beat-up Converses and off I scooted to the local Sports Depot. I picked up the least garish pair of running shoes possible (I am yet to understand as to why joggers feel the need to adorn their feet in shoes like chameleons going through epileptic fits) and I accosted the first store clerk I could find. “Can I have these in a size 30 please?” Now, I know what you’re thinking, that I’ve got pretty big feet. Well, you know what they say about men with big feet, don’t you? That’s right: they find it impossible to buy shoes in Japan. That is what they say, and anything else is just lies. Unfortunately.
A month later, once my dazzling new shoes finally arrived, having been ordered from some far-flung land (China, no doubt), I stepped out into the street, ready to pound the pavement. And then I stopped. There’s one thing that they never tell you about jogging: it’s bloody hard work. And in the Japanese sun, it’s hotter than truck drivers’ balls. And not just hot, but sweaty, humid, cloying and plain old fucking exhausting! It was after I had been lapped by a man taking his ferret out for a walk that I gave up. I homewardly hobbled and threw my trainers into the closet, never to be seen again.

So, Jogging was out. Swimming though? I’d always liked a swim, and had even represented my local swimming club internationally as a child (and yes, I’m counting coming last in a single race in Cardiff as an international event). So, back I trotted to the Sports Depot, this time picking out a nice pair of Speedos, and off to the baths I trundled. Standing there, toes curled over the pool’s edge, love handles curled over my trunks, I looked down at the glistening water and felt a sense of well-being. I was ready. I was so ready that I almost dived in from fright as I was virtually rugby tackled by a lifeguard that had presumably confused his job title. I looked at him in terror. As some sort of explanation he waved a chlorine-scented cloth under my nose. This did little to allay my fear. He tried again. I took it from him and opened out the swimming cap. I chuckled and patted my freshly shaven bonce. “Ee desu,” I told him. “ I don’t need it.” He smiled, sternly, and motioned around the hall at a row of swimming-capped noggins all gazing in my direction. I stopped chucking. “Seriously, I don’t need it.” He retained his insistence. I became indignant. “I’ve got more hair on my chest than I do on my head.” Again, he motioned towards the cap in my hand. He wasn’t going to budge on the matter, and nor was I. This was now a battle of wills. Neither of us was going to back down.

After I had backed down, I dived, swimming-capped head first into the luxurious water, submerging myself, allowing the coolness to envelop my body and soothe my soul. When I re-emerged, I was alone. The pool was now empty and above my head played delicate, chiming music. My first thought was that the cap was on too tight, restricting the blood and I was now having a stroke. As I rubbed the water from my eyes, I could see that everyone was stood at the water’s edge. Dutifully I climbed out. As I did so, a soothing, yet barked order came from the PA and, as one, everyone reached for the air. Another order and they reached for the ground. I followed suit. This continued for a couple of minutes until, with a slight pinging sound in my hamstring, I collapsed to the floor. Now, I don’t know what it was that caused my pain, and it is quite possible that I had developed a psychosomatic injury thanks to the sudden realization that I had inadvertently joined a pensioners’ calisthenics class dressed only in a cap and Speedos, but all I know is that my trunks currently reside with the running shoes in the recesses of my closet.

I’ve always hated gyms. There are many reasons, but the main one is the clientele. On the whole they tend to be a bunch of posing, preening pricks. Whether it be the roided bouncers powering their guns, the elegant office women in inch thick make-up as they spin, spin, spin, or the perma-tanned metro men who spend more time checking out each other’s abs than they do actually working out. Imagine my surprise then, when I arrived at a community gym. The people were, well, normal. Of course there were the body building types, bulging muscles suspiciously covered by long shirts and bandages, but they chatted amiably with the old women ponderously perambulating on the treadmills. These old women in turn offered encouragement to the Junior High kids working out in full uniform (do they have no other clothes?). For their own part, the kids happily towelled down the machines for unbelievably strong old men who would help spot for the beefcakes. Everyone seemed so happy.

So, with my misgivings to one side I threw myself into it with such an abandon and cheerfulness that something had to go wrong sooner or later. Now, the old men beating me for speed and stamina on the treadmill, that I could deal with. I deflected the withering glares of teenage girls, half my size, upping the weight as they took over from my machines. I could even cope with the despairing looks of the gym staff as they yet again helped clarify the kanji on the bikes.

All of that was no problem. It was the old women that broke me in the end. Wizened, miniature, hunchbacked women, 150 years old if they were a day. They came doddering in, bent double, perched themselves on a mat and began to stretch. And they stretched. And stretched and stretched. Like suspiciously stern pubescent Chinese gymnasts, these life-battered old crones defied the laws of science and probability by twisting themselves into implausible, impossible and (whisper it) sexual positions. Yes, that’s right, I said sexual! These women looked old enough to have tutted at my grandmother for her modern, new-fangled ways yet, as I was pounding away at my iron, sweating like a rabid dog at customs, I was thinking ‘I bet you could do all sorts with her.’ That was enough. I wiped down my machine and headed for a cold shower, a cleansing scrub and a bit of a cry.

I have not gone back, and probably never will. I now know that, one day I will waddle back into my local and, as the jeers ring out, through shame and despondency I shall hang my head. If my chins allow it of course.

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