Get Used To It:
Swimming in Japan
Whether you’re headed to a public or private facility, lap swimming in Japan’s pools can be a steep learning curve and frustrating experience.
If you’re a seasoned swimmer from abroad, there’s a high likelihood you will be baffled by all of the pool rules. Many of these rules are unique to Japan so it’s a good idea to know the rules and what to expect.
We’ve compiled a list of pool rules you’re likely to encounter when lap swimming in Japan. Keep in mind that rules vary by facility (especially public versus private) and may even change at any one facility.
NO TATTOOS OR JEWELRY
The (very strict) restriction against tattoos is commonplace at public facilities, including gyms, bathhouses, and onsen. Everything from the butterfly tramp stamp to the full sleeve tattoo must be covered up – it’s okay if the cover up is obvious.
Additionally, visible piercings (including studs in the ear) must be taken out. With the exception of simple band rings, all jewelry needs to be removed before entering the pool.
Solution: Cover tattoos with moleskin, rashguard, or tights. Wetsuits are not permitted at most pools.
Most pools implement a 10-minute break where everyone must exit the water and hang out poolside before re-entering. From every 50 minutes to three times a day, the frequency of the break varies greatly by pool.
5-to 10-minutes prior to a break, there will be an announcement (usually only in Japanese). The break starts and ends when the lifeguards blow their whistles. During the break, one or more lifeguards will “search” the pool, presumably for bodies.
Solution: None, you have to suck it up. Do some planks, push-ups, or sit-ups to pass time.
NO SWIM TOYS (MOST OF THEM)
Hard (plastic) paddles, fins, and snorkels are not permitted. Soft (webbed) paddles are allowed. Most if not all, pools provide pool buoys and kickboards for swimmers to borrow freely.
Solution: Some pools, like the Sagamihara Green Pool, allow toys during very specific hours, usually once a month.
NO ELECTRONIC DEVICES
Another (very strict) restriction. All mobile devices (like your smartphone) and electronic devices, such as Garmin watches or GoPros are prohibited both poolside and in the pool. Jury is out on whether waterproof audio devices or tempo trainers are permitted – seems to vary by pool.
Solution: A very small selection of public pools (we only know the Minato-ku Sports Center) allow Garmin devices so long as it is covered by a soft wristband – the pool will usually lend you one. Or, join a swim squad – they often allow electronic devices because the entire pool is rented out. Check out Athlonia (drop-in’s welcome) or Triathlon Lumina (membership-based) for swim squads.
NO WATER BOTTLES POOLSIDE
Not much to it. Water bottles – whether they contain whiskey, blue Gatorade or water are typically prohibited poolside. That means nowhere past the locker room. Sometimes, the lifeguards will turn a blind eye or water bottles will be allowed (but it should *look* like water).
Solution: Return to the locker room for your own thirst-quencher or drink the tap water from the faucets usually located poolside.
Sunscreen and tanning oil are prohibited at outdoor pools. Yes, it’s mind-blowing but they won’t change the rules for you. While we’re at it, make-up and hair products are supposed to be washed off prior to entering the pool.
Solution: Go into a bathroom cubicle or shower stall and slap on that sunscreen. Ain’t nobody got time for melanoma.
NO SHOWER OR POOL SHOES
Shoe policies vary greatly by facility but whatever the policy may be, there will surely be countless signs to demonstrate ‘the way’.
- Generally, outdoor shoes are taken off at the locker room and stored in the locker until your departure.
- Flip flops (any kind of shoes) are not permitted at most (if not all) pool decks; outdoor pools may be an exception.
- Flip flops (any kind of shoes) are not permitted at most shower rooms and locker rooms. There will usually be explicit, graphic rules demonstrating such.
Solution: Just pray that you don’t get some incurable foot fungus.
TWO-LANE SYSTEM (DUCK THE LANE ROPE)
Many pools will have swimmers swim down one lane (usually the right), duck the lane rope, then swim back up the adjacent lane (usually the left). Yes, it is as annoying as it sounds.
In these ‘special’ lanes, swimmers are usually not permitted to flip turn or turn quickly, i.e. you are expected to come to a complete stop, duck under, then resume swimming.
Solution: Some pools have lanes for circle swim in one normal-sized lane. Flip turns are usually (but not always) permitted in the circle swim lanes.
Good luck finding a pool open before 0900! Very few pools in the Tokyo area are open before 0800 – public and private.
- Open pool hours at elementary/middle/high schools are usually on select weekdays during after-school hours and select hours on weekends.
- Public pools tend to open late but also close late, usually between 2100 and 2200.
Solution: Those seeking a morning swim should look into swim squads with NAS gyms (click here – in Japanese) or check out this public pool in Chuo-ku (click here – in Japanese) or this pool in Tsukishima (click here – in Japanese) – both open at 0730. The Arawkawa Sports Center pool opens at 0800 (click here – in Japanese). Shibuya-ku pools also tend to be open earlier than the norm. Or you know, just swim after work.
NO PAPER / SET BOARDS (NOT EVEN IN A ZIPLOC)
Do you write out your set on an index card and place it in a Ziploc bag? Not allowed. Use a mini whiteboard? Not allowed. Print it out and ‘paste’ it on a kickboard? Give it a try, some pools allow it.
It can be challenging to try to remember your set AND count laps during your swim.
Solution: We haven’t really come up with one. Simplify your sets? Try your best to memorize it?
SWIM CAPS MANDATORY
The majority of pools make all swimmers wear swim caps (unless you have no hair at all, then you get a pass). There’s nothing like random strands of hair floating around when you’re swimming – help keep the pool hairball free!
Solution: Keep a swim cap in your swim bag. Think of it as a great opportunity to show off your most recent or coolest race swim caps.
This one is a little tricky but the rule of thumb is that you shouldn’t assume that passing is permitted.
Some lanes are purposely wide enough for two swimmers side-by-side, i.e. at the Minato Sports Center and the Shiba Park outdoor pool. If it’s wide enough, you can (usually) pass. If your lane is of average width and swimmers are circle swimming, you almost definitely cannot pass.
Solution: If it’s your first time at a pool, observe other swimmers or ask a lifeguard. Oftentimes, there are also illustrations showing the direction of swim and appropriate lane usage.
PROOF OF RESIDENCY OR EMPLOYMENT
Swimming in a public school pool usually requires submission of documents proving residency or employment in the school’s “-ku”. For example, you must live or work in Minato-ku to swim in the Minato-ku school pools.
This is not a uniform policy across all “-ku” however, and many public pools will allow entry regardless of residency or place of employment.
Qualifying documents are usually outlined online and include utility bills, national health insurance card, or a document with your company or office’s official seal (hanko stamp) – business cards are not acceptable.
Initial registration requires completing a form in Japanese (the pool staff will usually help). You will be given a receipt which must be exchanged for an identification card in about 1-2 weeks. The card can be used at pools in that specific ward.
In our experience, if the pool entry ticket is purchased by a vending machine, you may be able to bypass the registration process – but sooner or later, it will catch up to you.