Health and Fitness

On Losing Weight in Japan

It’s been a bit of time since my trip to Japan, but I find that my mind often wanders back to those exciting Tokyo streets and those misty Kyoto trails. I think it’s safe to say a part of my heart was left behind in Japan. I was delighted to find that if you play your cards right, it’s really not all that expensive to travel to Japan, really, especially from the U.S. West Coast with all those direct L.A. to Tokyo flights, so the land of the rising sun certainly hasn’t seen the last of me.

That being said, I wanted to talk today about losing weight in Japan and the cultural differences I noticed that greatly contribute to their country being so much….well…thinner…than mine.

I’m not going to sit around and talk about how we Americans slurp three gallon buckets of soda and chomp on deep friend Big Macs all day, because I think that’s an unfair stereotype. Are there people in this country who are living that way? Sure, but I live in Southern California, so I hear people talking about hiking trails, juice cleanses, and the various ways in which one could prepare kale on a near daily basis. That’s not to say we’re a bunch of perfect health nuts here on the West Coast, but I think it serves to illustrate a point on just how people shouldn’t paint a whole country of three hundred million people with a single brush.

Ok, rant over.

Kaiseki breakfast

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On a more personal level, I’ve certainly had a few struggles with fatness of my own. I’m actually quite active, spending my evenings and weekends walking around town, hiking, cycling, swimming, or kayaking. The bigger issue I seem to have, which seems to be common around these parts, is self-control. Being the foodie hipster that I am, I’m much more likely to be sampling every conceivable variety of fancy cheese I can get my grubby little hands on or spending an evening gleefully devouring Mongolian Hot Pot than I am to be washing down fast food cheeseburgers with Coca Cola (I don’t drink soda. ever.), but we all have our issues. Still, most of the things I eat are pretty healthy, but still, I struggle. That’s why I suppose I found it so striking to be in Japan where the vast majority of people seemed to be pretty thin.

So clearly, they were doing something right over there. It got me to thinking about just what it is about Japanese culture that pushes the members of their society into healthy habits, so I wanted to write about it. Of course, these are just my observations from two weeks in Japan as well as some reading I did online. I can’t claim to be an expert on all things Japanese, but I did want to write about my observations.


I lost 5 pounds in two weeks when I traveled to Japan.

I spent my time there gleefully eating everything I wanted to eat and never once deprived myself because I wanted to “diet”. Sure, I walked a lot, but I exercise at home, too, and I wasn’t doing any strenuous workouts or anything, just walking around town. Still, I came back with my tummy happy and my pants a little looser.

Things we ate in #Tokyo

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So here’s what I noticed that the Japanese are doing that we’re not:

They walk. A lot.

Japan is set up for getting around on foot. It doesn’t appear to really be all that easy to get around in a car, especially in Tokyo, so most people rely on public transportation to get around. That means walking to the train station, often down quite a few stairs. Then walking out of the station and up some more stairs. Then they walk to work, or wherever they are going. If they want to get lunch, they walk there, too. At the end of the day on their way home, more walking. All of that movement adds up, and some of those train stations are pretty big sprawling complexes, so you really can get quite the workout just getting around town. Compare that to here in the United States where most of our cities (places like New York and San Francisco not included of course) and most of us have to rely on our cars to get around. Where I live in North County Coastal San Diego, it’s actually pretty nice and walk-able compared to most of the country. I can walk to the beach, some corner shops and restaurants, etc., but I still have to drive if I want to get to the larger grocery store, where I work, and many local attractions. If I wanted to, I could ride a bike to a train station, then ride a couple miles from the closest station to my work, but the honest truth of the matter is that it would be an inconvenience to try to get to work that way and it’s much easier and more efficient to drive there. Many towns aren’t as walk-able as mine and some places are very spread out and even lack sidewalks or safe places to walk. For many, even if we want to incorporate more walking into our days, a considerable effort will need to be put into it. In Japan, they have built in exercise throughout their day because it’s the easiest way to get around.

Their food is lighter.

Meat.

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Sure, we have steamed kale and green vegetable juice all over the place, but it’s not exactly….appealing (don’t hate me if you’re a kale and vegetable juice fan). In Japan, they eat a lot of fish, rice, vegetables, and tofu. Portion sizes in places like restaurants are much smaller, and although many Japanese eat some of the same crap we eat over here, I would say that in general they get healthier food and smaller portion sizes. If I want to go out to eat here, I know the plate will be pretty enormous and although I know it’s a good idea to pack up half for later, it’s sometimes difficult to stop and make that decision in the moment.

They don’t seem to snack as much.

Kyoto street food… potato thing, crab stick, yams.

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Sure, Japanese people have snacks and junk food just like the rest of us, but I didn’t see people snacking all over the place. I saw people pausing near a food stand for a quick bite sometimes, but nobody ate on the run. Nobody was snacking in the subway or eating chips while they walked. They just don’t seem to do that there. Even at the food stands, the snacks were actually pretty healthy. See my above pictures of a spiralized (not heavily seasoned or sauced potato, a crab stick, and some sweet potatoes).

Did I mention walking a lot?

Seriously, they walk a lot.

Conclusions…

It must be pretty nice to live in a country that is set up for optimal health, but even those of us in less than optimal situations can learn a few things from the Japanese. I’ve started going on a morning and afternoon walk around the block before I drive to work and after I get home. I’ve started spending my lunch breaks walking around the area where I work. In the evenings, I go to the gym, go on a run, or even enjoy an evening stroll with my husband. If I need to go somewhere that I can walk to, I’ll walk. Otherwise, parking a little farther away and walking a little more to get there and back isn’t a bad option. You can simulate a less car-centric lifestyle with a few small tweaks like that, and it won’t take too much extra time or effort out of your day.

As for food, it’s always good to focus on smaller portion sizes and try to eat mostly whole, unprocessed foods. Cook at home more. Pack your own lunch. Try a Japanese breakfast of rice and miso soup (yumm!). Have a piece of fruit for your afternoon snack. Pretty generic advice, and I’m sure you haven’t learned anything new from this piece, but sometimes it’s helpful just to reflect on your own life and habits and see if there’s anything other people are doing that works and could be incorporated into your own life. I know I’ll be trying to live a more Japanese lifestyle.

Thus concludes another session of cultural observations with Art. Travel. Eat. Repeat.

See you next time!

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14 replies »

  1. Well it’s very unpolite to eat while eating but Japanese people do snack, they are in love with French cakes and there are lots of bakeries and cafés so they are fatter than they used to be. Also portions of cakes are quite small and can be expensive so Japanese girls will sometimes save to try a fancy place. There are lots of snacks in convenience stores though. The first times I visited Japan I always lost a lot of weight and wondered how people could get fat in Japan now … not so much but the focus on thin girls with slim faces is very strong.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, definitely impolite to just snack everywhere there. I did notice snack foods…everywhere…but people definitely weren’t guzzling them 24/7 like here, hahahaha. I like the idea of saving up to try a fancy place. Quality over quantity!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I definitely found this to be true when I was in Japan. Holy moly the amount of STAIRS everywhere! Visiting each shrine was a workout in itself, particularly in Nagasaki. Also the food was unreal but even the snacks I’d buy in the convenience store (heeeeeyyyyyy onigiri…..) were way healthier than the pack of Monster Munch and Dairy Milk Whole Nut I’d typically grab over here.

    God I loved Japan. Take me back!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Excellent blog! You put into words so much of what is the reality here in Japan. I am a Brit living in Yokohama with my family, by the way. Yes, yes, yes! Walking, smaller portions, healthier food, less snacking.
    Public transport really is so good in the towns and cities that you can get by without a car. We only drive at weekends and then rarely. Have to say the roads are so narrow that driving can be more hassle than it’s worth sometimes.
    “smaller portions” has taken on a new meaning here. The quantites keep getting reduced! A tube of Chip-Star is now literally half-empty. Sorry but air does not satisfy my hunger!
    I always feel totally full up after eating British cuisine (which I dabble in and use my friends as guinea pigs in my experimental cooking) but after a wa-shoku meal, i feel comfrotable. So many dishes feel like they are cleaning my system out.
    Obesity is on the rise here. Kids are playing the hand-held games a lot. You see kids in the park sitting down in a huddle playing them. You’re outside! Run around like a headless chicken the way we did in the 80s!
    But you can snack well here. Some nori-maki and a bottle of green tea tides you over till the next meal and is delicious!
    Anyway, enjoyed reading your blog and love the photos! I should try harder to take better snaps of food.
    Cheers, Peter

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your comment, Peter! Yes, the roads are absolutely so narrow there! I noticed that when I was taking taxis around, especially in Kyoto! You’re lucky to be able to live over there and have such wonderful experiences. I definitely feel like it would be easier to stay fit if I lived in Japan rather than in California where although there is a health culture and an abundance of healthy food available, I can also pop into In-N-Out Burger or get myself a huge plate of tacos for less than $10 per meal. The struggle is real! I’m so glad you enjoyed the post, and would love to see your food pictures!

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  4. I lost over 20 pounds since moving to Japan. Like you said, a huge part of it is how much walking people do here on a daily basis. Another major factor is that a large variety of vegetables is served with almost every meal. I used to have maybe 1 side of vegetables with my meal when I ate in the states. The rest would be a large portion of meat and carbs. Japanese people consume a huge portion of carbs too (in the form of white rice), but the sides usually include anywhere from 3-20 different kinds of vegetables.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, vegetables are also a huge factor! We eat a lot of veggies (generally) here in coastal California since so many people are health-conscious, but the typical American diet definitely isn’t very vegetable heavy. That’s great that you lost 20 pounds in Japan, wow!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Great post! I’ve always kind of wondered what exactly it was that made me lose so much weight every time i’m in Japan and I think especially the walking part is very accurate. Even though I walk a lot back home, I don’t walk nearly as much as I do here. Living in Tokyo means a super-active lifestyle without even trying. Which is definitely a good thing in my opinion

    Liked by 1 person

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