Half of you (especially if you’ve never lived in Japan before) looked at the title for this post thinking, “What on earth is she going to talk about? It’s a cinch!” while I’m sure the other half of you clicked on this thinking, “Finally someone’s talking about this!” Now that you’ve clicked and are reading, let me first give an overview of what I mean.
Before I came to Japan my first time, I believed the stereotype that Japan is extremely healthy and that I will lose several pounds by not even trying during my 9 month exchange student period. With this expectation in mind, before leaving the States, I loaded up on Snickerdoodle cookies (which I still don’t entirely regret because they’re delicious) and otherwise went about my normal week walking to class every day around my 1,933 acre campus, eating healthy food until the weekends, and taking Zumba classes at the gym every night.
Boy was I hit with a slap in the face when, after just a few weeks into my stay in Japan, I realized I had to try to make sure I didn’t gain weight and be almost even more careful of what I was doing than in America. I was being fed extremely processed white bread for breakfast and was served heaping portions of mainly white rice or noodles for lunch/dinner. My afternoon snacks of fruit were forcibly replaced by packaged cakes and candies by my host family since fruit is more expensive here. I walked 20 minutes to the station, 10 minutes to the college campus, and back, and that was all the movement I was able to get in a day.
“Japan is healthy” isn’t necessarily a lie. “I lost so much weight in Japan!” is also very true for many people. But it’s a very subjective reality. What I came to realize is that on the spectrum of healthy and unhealthy, America has two vastly different extremes, with whole wheat/whole grain everything and salad bars on the one end, and deep fried Oreos on the other.
Japan has a much more limited scope that fits somewhere in the middle. Portions do not tend to be as huge as in the US, but I have been on the receiving end of many massive bowls of ramen and plates of omuraisu that I really wished I could take home half of. Fish is the staple meat, along with other easily accessible protein substitutes like tofu and natto (for some good recipes for all the haters, try something from here), although consumption of red meat is also on the rise. Japan does have quite a variety of fried foods (karaage, tempura, tonkatsu), but at least the portions don’t tend to be quite as large in the States. Vegetables do tend to be integrated into cooked meals more than they tend to be in the US, but on the other hand, carbohydrates tend to be the focus of most Japanese cuisine (rice, noodles, etc.) and no meal is set without them. Bakeries are also everywhere, and melon-pan gets me every time. The key word here in almost all of these statements is “tend.”
Basically, refer to this diagram if I lost you here.
Therefore, whether Japan is “healthy” completely depends on what your lifestyle and diet were like at home. For example, I’ve heard countless Japanese (and otherwise) exchange students at my home university complain about how much weight they gained after coming to the US. Upon probing, I found that in the majority of the cases, these were the people who ate fast food nearly every day (rather than cook for themselves and therefore control what they ate) or ate in the fast-food-esque lines at the cafeteria instead of the healthier alternatives, and never used the gym membership that they paid for as a part of their tuition. Everyone always marvels at American restaurant portion sizes but never portions a part of it out into a to-go bag, which is in any case a rarity in Japan. While it tends to be easier to make bad eating (etc.) decisions in the US than in Japan (again, because of the spectrum and the “tend”), that they gained weight was, essentially, their own choice.
I’m not saying that I’m the perfect epitome of a healthy American lifestyle. I do enjoy my deep fried Oreo, but the chance to eat them only comes around once or twice a year. My philosophy is cook healthy at home, eat whatever I want at restaurants once or twice a weekend. At such restaurants, most of the time I take some amount home, loving to get both a lunch and dinner for the price of one. I stick spinach and a good variety of vegetables in nearly everything I cook. I hate running and using exercise machines, but also hate sitting in class/at work for the majority of my day, and found walking around to class instead of taking the campus bus and Zumba and other dance-exercise classes to scratch my lazy leg itch.
If you ask Japanese people how they maintain their weight, you’ll get a lot of various answers. They walk or bike everywhere. They eat white rice, not bread, the thought being that if you eat bread, you need to heap on the butter and jam, but you can eat rice just as it is. (As I don’t eat either necessarily as a staple, and do not see white rice as “healthy,” I especially have qualms with this personally.) They eat more fish and vegetables. Fad diets (like the banana diet) are popular and “work” for some people. Standard portions are smaller. They drink green tea almost every day (as have I since high school).
As you can tell, all of these reasons don’t really explain it to me very well. I tend to be even more healthy than what they sugggest above and am still not as stick-thin as the standard woman here. I acknowledge that thinness or thickness is to an extent a result of lifestyle, but to another extent, after watching tiny girls inhale giant bowls of ramen and then plates of gyoza (pot stickers) and then eat a piece of cake, I have come to the conclusion that part of it is just a very good metabolism as well. Therefore, I consider myself mostly on the healthy side of the food spectrum, right before you hit the Japan line in the diagram above, although I do acknowledge that I may be something of a minority. Minority as I may be, I know there are so many people who struggle to maintain a healthy lifestyle like me in Japan.
Now, how do you accomplish this?
This is a tough one, but at least now with the internet and the increasing internationalization of the country, it’s becoming easier and easier.
Rule #1: Stop eating melon-pan. Like I said above, the Japanese exchange students coming to America gained weight mostly because they didn’t have enough self-discipline. This goes the same way in reverse. This time around, I returned to Japan and bought all (exaggeration, but not by far) the kashi-pan (pastries) at the convenience stores and bakeries because it had been so long since I had any, and they are so good. Before I knew it, what I had originally planned to be a treat after a long while had turned into a habit. Break your bad habits early. Sure matcha kit kats are amazing, but if you buy them, put them in a place (corner of a cabinet, drawer, etc.) that’s not somewhere you look immediately, because the phrase is true to an extent: out of sight, out of mind. Eat your sweet, sweet cryptonite every now and then, but make sure it’s not regular enough to form a dependence or a habit.
Additionally, watch out for the convenience store food. This is essentially one form of Japanese fast food (Western places like McDonald’s are everywhere, but they tend to be higher prices for smaller portions than the American versions) in that it is cheap and pretty delicious, but can be horribly unhealthy. Just like how you can order a McSalad, you can buy a salad at the convenience store. Or you could order nikuman, corn dogs, spaghetti and meatballs, omuraisu in a demi-glaze sauce, katsu don, okonomiyaki, etc. I have grabbed the most delicious-looking item in the fridge section only to look at the health information and see that it is over 1000 calories by itself. Conbini food is cheap and pretty good quality, but just watch out. As with normal fast food, watch out for eating too much at places like Yoshinoya or Coco Ichiban (Japanese fast food restaurants).
Rule #2: Find the healthy substitutes. While I was in Nagoya, I managed to find whole wheat spaghetti in the import stores, and one bag of brown rice in the giant rice section of the regular grocery stores. After arriving in Utsunomiya, I found the spaghetti in only one of several import stores, and zero brown rice in my local supermarket (although the rice section was much smaller than the other supermarkets I had been to in Nagoya). Import stores were trying to make me pay an exuberant price for a tiny bag of multi-grain rice (no brown rice was in stock), which was ridiculous, also considering Japan does produce and sell brown rice; it’s just not as common (for only the extremely health conscious mothers or vegetarians, as I was told). For this (and many other foods from back home you can’t find too often, such as oatmeal or almond butter), Amazon.co.jp is your friend. If you just look it up, you can find giant bags of brown rice for reasonable prices PLUS free shipping (sorry for missing you the first time you tried to deliver my giant, heavy package to my 3rd floor apartment, delivery man). I just bought 5 kg of Akita rice for a bit over 1,600 yen, and that will last me quite a while. If it won’t many Amazon orders actually offer you a discount if you purchase a delivery plan for your rice (and other products). For example, if you schedule to automatically re-order the same bag of rice ever 1-6 months, you can get about 100 yen off each time.
As for whole grain bread, while you will definitely not have the same amount of choices as you probably would back home, if you look hard enough, you can find about one or two choices of whole grain bread in the island that is Japanese white processed bread. The one I find most frequently is this one:
They also offer a rye bread with more or less the same health information. While these still may be on the unhealthy side compared to what you eat back home, they’re definitely the better option in Japan unless you can find other imported varieties of bread.
Also, if you don’t want to pay the price for the comfort of home and health, find some substitutes with Japanese ingredients! I’ve found varieties of “ramen” in supermarkets with noodles made from konyaku, which is full of fiber and fun. Instead of buying overpriced wheat spaghetti, substitute your Western noodles with soba (buckwheat noodles). Get creative with your cooking, and the world opens up to you. Your Japanese coworkers will also be majorly impressed.
Speaking of noodles, if you need something quick, get one of these many healthier (low calorie) alternatives for cup noodles!
When searching online or at the market, here are some words to look out for:
低糖質 (tei toushitsu) or 糖質オフ (toushitsu ofu): “low-sugar/carb” or “reduced sugar/carb”
低カロリー (tei carorii) or カロリーオフ (carorii ofu): “low-calorie” or “reduced calorie”
低脂肪 (tei shibou) or 脂肪オフ (shibou ofu): “low-fat” or “reduced fat”
全粒 (zenryuu): whole grain
玄米 (genmai): brown rice (as opposed to “white rice” or 白米 [hakumai], which is standard and probably won’t be labeled specifically)
This is surprisingly one of the most difficult things. Walking 30-60 minutes a day total does nothing for me, but apparently works for the rest of the population. I’m used to doing that plus 45 minutes of intense exercise every day. However, this is by far not popular in Japan. Gyms are not a regular thing for most people, and tend to be few and incredibly expensive. Where I live, if I want to join a Zumba class, I have to ride my bike or take a bus for at least 45 minutes just to get to a gym and then pay 500 yen each time–no thank you. Therefore, unless you are incredibly lucky with a nice public gym near your house, you may need to get creative.
Rule #1: Exercise at home. This is easier said than done, as many people live in apartments, and due to the high humidity, carpet is something of a rarity across the country. As for me, I live on the top floor of an apartment complex with wooden floors, and just enough space for me to do an exercise video in my living room if I shuffle some furniture around.
How do I accomplish getting a good workout without making my downstairs neighbors try to attack me? Here are my tips:
- Buy a good (thick) yoga/pilates mat or floor rugs. While these won’t completely muffle the sound of you jumping around upstairs, they are significantly better for your downstairs neighbors than you jumping around on hardwood floors. You can buy some cheap ones again on Amazon or maybe check some stores in your area, like Don Quixote.
- Use YouTube. If you’re into Zumba like me, just look up your favorite song + Zumba (or “dance fitness,” or the like), and odds are something will come up. Make your own playlists, and make your own class! I’ve also really gotten into Doonya (Bollywood fitness) and hula fitness lessons. The same goes for yoga, kickboxing, etc. Recently I found this activity called Buti Yoga, which combines yoga with dance exercise, which is relatively quiet for your neighbors but still a good workout. Basically, the internet is your friend.
- Don’t exercise at odd hours. As I said, odds are a normal yoga mat or floor rug will not muffle everything you do, so make sure you don’t exercise when people are most likely sleeping, etc. Use your own discretion here.
Rule #2: Fit exercise naturally into your life. I, like many other people, am busy, and don’t always have the time or energy to do a 30-45 minute exercise routine after or before work. Therefore, it is important to naturally fit more movement into your day. Buy a under-the-desk pedal like this and do some desk exercises. If you’re nervous about what your coworkers think of you, maybe try something else. Bike to work instead of taking the bus if you’re far. If you’re close, walk to work instead of biking. If you walk to work normally…maybe run around for a while.
I work on the 7th floor of an office building and have been taking the stairs as often as I can (if you work out a system, it’s not as tough or crazy as it sounds). The main hall has spaced-out “grand” staircases with platforms to walk to the next staircase in between until the 3rd floor, which makes a good warm up (in addition to the 20 minutes I walk to work), then from there, I take the normal stairwell up the next 4 flights. From there, I walk around for about a minute to let my heart rate go down. If you still think I’m crazy, take the elevator up halfway, and go up the stairs from there. Do whatever works!
Basically, take a look at your surroundings, and think of a system to get that heart pounding (because of fitness reasons, and not because that car almost hit you running around)!
To end here, while not everyone can afford to do everything I suggest here, these are just some potential tips to get you started. Hopefully this sheds some light on the realities of both American and Japanese stereotypes, and can help out those like me struggling to stay healthy and sane in the land of the rising sun. If you have anything to add, please leave a comment, as I am always looking for new ways to stay fit in Japan!
Featured original image credit here.
This dog-loving former Tochigi CIR hails from its sister-state of Indiana and loves traveling the world and eating everything. She graduated after completing a thesis discussing the links between human trafficking and idol culture, and now works in Tokyo for an international human rights NGO.