If you’ve been following me for awhile, you probably know that I’m a huge fan of CrossFit tourism. Having written about what to expect when dropping in to other CrossFit gyms in the U.S., I thought it’d be worth sharing a few tidbits that I learned while traveling in Asia and experiencing the CrossFit culture there. Not surprisingly, CrossFit has gotten extremely popular all over the world with the advent of the CrossFit Games and the Open. In many countries, CrossFit gyms are opened by U.S. (or other English speaking) expats who see an opportunity to bring in new and innovative types of fitness to that area, or individuals who had been following the main site for some time and have gathered enough friends/interest/funds to open up their own gym. Greg and I had visited Tokyo three years ago, and I can assure you that when I did some research, there was literally one CrossFit gym in Tokyo. And I think it was in someone’s garage or backyard. In just the greater Tokyo area, there are now five official CrossFit affiliates, one of which is Reebok-sponsored! Talk about impressive! While that number may not seem like a lot (for reference, there are 15 affiliates in the 7×7 square of San Francisco alone), the fact is that CrossFit’s growing internationally, and based on what I experienced, it’s gaining interest fast.
I find it incredibly fascinating that you can now go just about anywhere in the world, walk into a CrossFit gym, and immediately have something in common with complete strangers or people of a different culture. Say “muscle up” or “Fran” to anyone in an international CrossFit gym and you’re already speaking the same language as they are. And not only that, but I got some GREAT food and local activity recommendations just from hanging out with some of my classmates and coaches after doing workouts as well. I also picked up some really cool swag where I got two awesome T-shirts, and a few awesome photos that I treat as equally special as all my touristy food photos! At the same time, in addition to all the points I mentioned in my previous CrossFit Tourism post (stay safe, don’t feel pressured to do anything you don’t feel comfortable doing, be respectful of different coaching styles, etc.), I thought it would be worth sharing a few observations and points to consider when going to a gym in either Japan or Korea, mostly because these are things I wish I knew prior to going to class. While no one chastised me or embarrassed me for not knowing the rules, it’ll save you a little bit of the embarrassment I had when I figured out I was clearly acting like I didn’t know what I was doing 🙂
Bring two pairs of shoes
And when I say bring two pairs of shoes, I don’t mean your lifting shoes and your Metcons. Both Japanese and Korean cultures are really big on cleanliness, particularly as it relates to indoor activities versus outdoor. One of the biggest faux pas I committed was the first day I dropped in to the gym in Tokyo. It was raining that day, and since I was committed to getting additional exercise, I walked from my hotel to the gym. It was raining REALLY hard and was really windy, such that I walked into the gym a little soggy, and definitely with wet shoes. As I looked around, I saw that a number of locals had anticipated the rain, and wore their “rain” shoes to the gym, and changed into their gym shoes before walking onto the workout floor.
In Japanese culture, wearing the same shoes you wear outside into the training room is considered offensive. This applies not just to gym footwear, but also upon entering someone’s home. This means, you always remove your shoes at the doorway, and usually there are house slippers available for use in the event you aren’t wearing socks or don’t want to walk around in just your socks. The house slippers NEVER touch outside. Similarly, your gym shoes in Japan NEVER touch outside, and are used only on the gym floors. So, you can imagine everyone’s small state of shock when I walked in off the street in sopping wet shoes and onto their meticulously clean gym floor. I learned my lesson at that point, and always remembered to bring my gym shoes with me in my bag and to show up with my street shoes.
Also, in Korea, irrespective of whether you were wearing gym shoes or street shoes, there was a strict implied rule that no shoes were allowed in the locker room. I would imagine that walking in with shoes on would be similar to the reaction you have when your dog runs across your pristine white carpet with muddy feet after a thunderstorm.
Do the math with kilos
Thankfully this wasn’t that hard for me since I’m coming off of weightlifting season where everything is kilos and the need to do the quick math is a formula I keep in my head all the time. One of the more amusing moments I had while I was visiting was watching an American guy quickly try and download a converter app on his iPhone to figure out what the proscribed men’s weights were for the workout while in Tokyo. In talking to a few folks in the gyms about my background and my weightlifting experience, it was easy for them to relate to what I was training with when I referred to all my lifts in kilos. It helped create a smoother conversation stream rather than forcing them to figure out what I was lifting from pounds to kilos.
At the same time, the gym in Korea posted all of their workouts in pounds, but all of the weights that were made available to you were in kilos. Strange, right? I guess there’s something to be said in doing additional math? In any case, just know that the rest of the world don’t really use pounds, and will appreciate the effort of converting things over to kilos.
Keep your shirt on and get over the smells
Sweating a lot in CrossFit is implied, and even profusely sweating on the floor is accepted in gyms. What isn’t really accepted is CrossFitters’ tendencies to systemically remove clothing throughout the workout. In Korea, the two workouts I did were insanely taxing and difficult. At one point, I thought I was going to cry because things got so challenging. But, contrary to what you’ll see in the U.S., NO ONE took their shirt off. The fact of the matter is, most parts in Japan and Korea are relatively conservative (particularly Tokyo!), and I’m sure there would be a number of folks who might be offended at the idea that you’re working out in your underwear. So, keep the shirt on and suffer with everyone else.
If you’ve been to Europe, then you know that the lack of application of deoderant is everywhere, and is the worst in the summertime when EVERYONE is hot and sweaty, exercising or not. The same goes for Asia. The idea of wearing deoderent is something that is still more of an American thing than anything else, so keep that in mind when you’re in the middle of doing your heavy front squats and someone walks by you who seems to have forgotten about the shower part after a workout.
The group mindset
As with many things in Japan and Korea, things are highly centered around doing things as a group. You do a group warm-up, you go over the workout as a group, and after the workout is over, you leave some extra time to stretch as a group and congratulate each other on a job well done. One of the coolest things I experienced while in Korea at the gym I visited was doing the workout, finishing a little early, only to see the rest of the class cheering on the last member until he had finished the workout. After he finished, everyone helped out in cleaning up where they stripped his barbell for him, took the weights back, and wiped down the floor next to him. Afterwards, everyone got into a big circle, did some post-workout stretching, and ended class with double fist pumps to each person telling them “good job!” I absolutely loved the spirit of this, especially since everyone was all smiles at the end. We sometimes get so used to doing a workout and peace-ing out right after it’s over, but sometimes, it’s like what they do in movies; it’s worth staying until the end of the credits to get the special “extras”.
One of the things I hadn’t really anticipated or thought of while dropping into a CrossFit gym was the fact that they may not see very many Americans or haven’t had a ton of experience with them. A number of the members I talked to mentioned that they see a lot of people visiting from Australia (which makes sense, geographically), but they don’t see very many Americans walk in to their gyms. Being a woman as well, the curiosity only gets a little higher since women CrossFitters are few and far between in Japan and Korea. One of the more interesting experiences I had while I was in both Japan and Korea was having coaches and members come up to me and ask me if I was a “professional” athlete. I tried not to laugh at the question, and assumed that things had gotten lost in translation, but as I got to talking to one of the coaches later, he mentioned that it’s very rare to see American women who CrossFit, and that most people’s experiences in seeing American women in CrossFit is from watching the CrossFit Games. You can imagine how surprised I was when I showed up on the Olympic lifting day in Tokyo to find that a few people had shown up to the gym just to watch me lift on the platform next to the gym’s best male lifters. It’s sort of hard to explain, but having their best male lifters next to me was a way of the gym trying to show respect, not to show me down. There were a number of requests for photos afterwards, and I can’t tell you how many people asked me if I lived by the Golden Gate Bridge or had been on a cable car before. I am by no means any sort of celebrity, but having the patience to answer everyone’s questions about where you live, where you train, what you do for training, or even advice is something that I know they all appreciate. I always go back to the fact that when you drop in to a gym, you’re a representative of your home gym, and when you’re away in another country, you also turn in to a representative for your country.