Goodness, I have been rendered speechless in the first week of swimming in a Japanese public pool. First, the coordinates: the main swimming pool, measuring 50m X 20m, is located in Sendagaya, adjacent to the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Game Stadium. It is called the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium Indoor Pool. Sendagaya is an area next to Shinjuku, the better-known area of contemporary Tokyo. A second pool is located in a level below and adjacent to the main one, and it is only half as big, 25m x 13m. Opening hours are from 9am to 9pm, all year round; this being an indoor pool, the weather outside has no bearing. The Sendagaya swimming pool does close one or two days a month. Usually one can see this in a schedule posted in the foyer or lobby area.
Two identical ticket vending machines are located outside of the building, few feet away from the entrance. There are several options: adult single (¥600), junior high student or younger (¥260), an adult with a child, and a “debit” card. You are on your honor as far as which ticket you get. This being Tokyo, it costs a whopping ¥600 for a one-time entry for an adult. In Japan, buying a card (instead of individual passes) does not necessarily entitle anyone to a discount. The highest-priced card in this vending machine, for example, cost ¥5000. I inquired to the staff if that might mean the admission price became ¥500, which would then allow me ten entries for the price of that card. She replied that with such card, I have to add a supplement of ¥400 which would bring the total to ¥5400 and thus would allow me 9 entries (which means no discount at all.) I found that very curious, indeed.
The card issued is like a business card with a magnetic stripe on the back. You put the card into a slot at the turnstile, and pick up the card when you pass through. There are two lockers (divided by gender, naturally), each with its own turnstiles and card readers. When you enter the locker area, you are greeted with a sign that politely asks you to remove your shoes. This being Japan, a plastic bag is offered for your convenience (to contain the shoes so as not to soil you and/or the locker.) One would need to put a ¥100 coin in the locker slot in order to close the door and retrieve the key. Later, when you open the locker with the key, the ¥100 will fall out into the bottom slot, where you can retrieve the coin.
There are signs everywhere, as well as a brochure for first-timers, that spell out certain rules like a swim cap must be worn at all times during swimming, and that nobody should use shampoo, conditioner, and/or soap to cleanse themselves after the swim. The reason is that the water is being recycled and re-used within the facility. Another rule was to have no jewelry whatsoever during training. I took of my earrings, but refused to take off my navel ring. As a result, I had to sign a waiver, which was then kept in the record book. If any guard ever stopped me from entering, I could just refer him or her to the record book.
There are eight lanes with a gradation of speed assigned to them: the outer two lanes are for the slowest speed swimmers, and the innermost two lanes are dedicated to those who try to catch up with Michael Phelps. At any time of the day, the pool seems always teeming with people, mostly young men and older women (I have only observed the main pool, not the second pool.) Most of the men seem to be high-scholars, with occasional grade school boys and old men. Most of the women seem to be in their 40′s-50′s, and almost always they appear to be friends who have come together and use swimming as a healthy social outlet.
The first time I dipped into the pool, the water felt very nice. The temperature was just right. I was in awe once I submerged myself completely: the visibility was so good that I could actually see the wall and other swimmers standing at the other end of the pool, about 50 meters away! I have swum my entire time in the States, both in public and private pools, and mostly indoor ones. Those pools are never of this size but the water temperature is usually poorly regulated and the visibility is very bad. Even after a cleaning, I would never be able to see the other end of the pool.
When I started swimming, it was a joy to turn my head left and right just to see the other gliding bodies racing at different speed. Because of the high turnout in this pool, circle swimming is mandatory (more rules: observe your speed and choose the correct speed lane, no passing, always stay on the right of the lane.) In the U.S., it is not uncommon to find a maximum of three swimmers in a lane during peak time, but here, there is no maximum number. Sometimes I see up to nine people swimming in the same lane.
The only flaw in this system is that because you are not allowed to pass, once you reach the wall, if the one preceding you is not going yet and s/he would not let you pass, then you are stuck with waiting. In my case, when I want to do an aerobic (as opposed to anaerobic) exercise, I want to keep going from lap to lap with no stopping in between. Usually when I find myself having to pause between each lap, I start to look around for a different lane. Sometimes it is all right to go to the slower lane with lesser number of people, but you just distance yourself so that you will not swim too fast and start slowing down behind somebody else.
The admission price is rather high. You can get a one-month gym pass with a pool at Tipness, for example, for about ¥3000/month, and you would have plenty opportunity to swim and to exercise at the gym. But, I have yet to explore that option. So far, I have been to the same pool for two weeks now, and each time, I still marvel at how blue and how clear the water is. I also enjoy seeing people young and old being very active in doing physical exercises. I have yet to arrive to an empty pool. Perhaps an early arrival or a late visit will present me that opportunity; until then, I will distract myself with the clear visibility of this cool pool.
Sendagaya Swimming Pool
at the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium
Tel: +81 (03) 5474-2111
¥260 for children aged 3 yrs-old until junior high school