Friday, August 11, 2006

Japanese Swimming Pools Rules

A friend recently told me that she had five criteria for what she considered to be a reasonable swimming pool in Japan. There were (1) it was outside (2) she didn't have to wear a swimming cap (3) she didn't have to wear goggles (4) she could wear whatever type of swimmers she liked and most importantly (5) she DID NOT have to do any exercise.

It reminded me of my first trip to a Japanese swimming pool......

I had quite a bizarre experience when I went to the local public pool for the first time. Before entering the locker room, I checked out the number of people in the pool, which was about 30 at the time, not bad at all by Japanese standards. After showering, changing and putting on my regulation swimming cap, I came out to the pool again, but now, there was not a single person in the pool, or the wading pool, or the walking pool, or the spas. They were all sitting in chairs around the edge. I realised how paranoid I had become when I thought the reason may have been that they had heard a filthy gaijin was about to enter and no one wanted to be in there at the same time.

Using my broken Japanese I asked a woman what was happening. After a number of attempts, I finally understood that every hour, on the hour, there is a compulsory ten minute break. I joined everyone else in the chairs and waited. As the minute hand ticked over to ten, bells rang and everyone stood up. I made my way towards the pool, eager to hide my gaijin body under the water and start my laps. I stopped quickly as I noticed no-one else had moved more than a step away from their chairs. Then the music started. It was accompanied with a recorded voice chanting “ichi, ni, san, ichi, ni, san” and the whole room began choreographed stretching exercises while watching the lone, very confused gaijin at the starting blocks. I crept back and unenthusiastically joined in so I wouldn’t stand out any more than I already did, though I flatly refused to do the star jumps in my swimmers.

Eventually we were allowed back into the pool and I was thinking I had stumbled upon some sort of strange, nerdy Japanese cult. A very friendly gentleman with surprisingly good English explained to me the point of the ten minute break was so the lifeguards could ensure no-one was dead at the bottom of the pool. So, the moral of the story seems to be, if you are planning on drowning in Japan, it is best to time it towards the end of the hour or you may be waiting a while to be rescued.

About a year later, I took a group of students to Nagashima Spa Land, a giant water and amusement park. I emphasise the word giant. It contains one of the largest roller coasters in the world. So we trooped up with about forty students in the heat of summer, through crowds that only Japan can produce. Luckily we had reserved our "spot". This "spot" was in a large, multistorey concrete building with no walls. Basically it was a car park for people. Our area was roped off with the school's name signed at the front. We put down our bags and were ready to hit the water. Well, squeeze into the water may have been a better description. They may have served well hiring the subway pushers to fit everyone into the pools. No sooner had I finally managed to get wet from head to toe when the chimes rang.

After living here for a while, I had become accustomed to Japan and its love for chimes and had developed a great ability for ignoring them. No-one else was ignoring them however and were obediently leaving their precious places in the water, gathering by the edges. I had also been teaching in Japan for long enough to follow like an obedient sheep when students were around. Ever the good gaijin. So what was going on? The water park also enforced a ten minute break every hour! I laughed at the thought of them trying that back home.

There were a couple of guys that intelligently thought this was the perfect time to get a real swim in with the whole pool to themselves. They were of course gaijin. Who else would flaunt the rules?

The lifeguards were at a loss. They looked in disbelief. They looked at the swimmers. They looked at each other. They looked back at the swimmers. No, it wasn't their imagination. They were still in there. They pulled out their whistles and blew a piercing sound in unison. The swimmers looked up and looked back at all the free space in the water around them. They weren't going anywhere. They were determined to get a good swim for their $50 ticket. I watched them amused and slightly envious. I longed to join them, but to do so in full sight of students would be scandalous. The lifeguards were yelling through megaphones, all five of them surrounding the pool. This was as ineffective as the whistles. There was only one option left, to go in there and get them. They looked terrified. Who knew what effects the water might have during the sacred ten minute break? It might have turned to acid, you would have believed it if you'd seen the look on the lifeguards' faces. Just as they were cautiously wading in they were swallowed by the crowd eager to get back in the water, as the stretching exercises had been done on mass and the chimes to indicate the end of the break had rung. The lifeguards waded out looking relieved. A confrontation with the big, scary, disobedient gaijin had been avoided. Ahh gaijin, what troublemakers they are.


Mel & Seigo said...

Happy to help whenever I can... :)

Anonymous said...

There's a ten minute break every hour at the pool I go to here in the United States. There is no exercise, though. haha I don't know if it's just my country club or every pool. though, seeing as this is the only American pool I can remember being in.

Pool's I've been to in Lebanon, however, have no such rule, and people swim for however long they want to.