Monday, October 12, 2009

Confessions of a wannabe Olympic weightlifter

For the past six months, I have been trying to join one of the sports clubs at Kyoto University. I wanted to join the swim team but was told it was for Japanese students only. The long-distance running team welcomed me with open arms but it turned out to be more of a drinking club than a running club. I toyed with the idea of joining the karate club until I found out that having watched the Karate Kid, like, 10 times didn't count as "valid" experience.

But I'm happy to report the long search is now over. I have finally found a sports club at Kyoto University that has accepted me. I am the newest member of -- wait for it -- the Olympic weightlifting team. Yes, that's right. Olympic weightlifting.

Trust me, no one is more surprised by this turn of events than I am. Olympic weightlifting was last on the list of clubs I wanted to join. For me, Olympic weightlifting was synonymous with bulging muscles, big bellies and bad hair. I was worried I'd get a mullet and start dating women if I spent my spare time clean and jerking.

But all of that has changed. My preconceived notions about the sport have gone flying out the window. I no longer think snatch is a dirty word.

But maybe I should explain how I came to join the Olympic weightlifting team before I start busting myths and stereotypes about the sport. Here's how it all went down: A Japanese guy by the name of Yoshi approached my friend Javier at the Kyoto University gym back in the summer. Yoshi, who is a member of the weightlifting team, asked Javier if he wanted to join the club. Javier, whose arm is easily twisted, said yes. Javier asked me if I wanted to try it too. Javier is my regular workout partner and I didn't want to lose him so I decided to go along for the ride. I wasn't sure I'd like it but I'll try anything once (well, except for steroids and mullets. You have to draw the line somewhere).

The Olympic weightlifting team has its own private gym and there are never more than six people in it at a time. Although the guys who work out here don't call it a gym. They call it "the shed." I'm not exactly sure why but I think it has something to do with the fact that the gym is housed in a shed at the end of the football field.

The first time Javier and I met Yoshi at the shed, there were a couple of other Japanese guys working out at the same time. To call these guys "huge" would be an understatement. Their limbs and chests curved outward in cartoonishly exaggerated proportions. It was as if someone had cut open their skin, implanted slabs of concrete and sewn them back up again.

I immediately decided Olympic weightlifting was not the sport for me. I wanted to stay slim and feminine. This place, which was filled with the grunts and shouts of men attempting to lift staggering amounts of weight high above their heads before sending the barbells crashing to the ground, was the antithesis of femininity.

But I don't like to give up on things before I've given them a fair shot so I figured I would try it out for a month before deciding whether I liked it or not.

Yoshi spent the first few sessions coaching Javier and I through the basic techniques of Olympic weightlifting. Like anything new, it was awkward at first. I had to completely unlearn everything I thought I knew about weightlifting. The first misconception I had to toss out was that bodybuilding and Olympic weightlifting are the same thing. They're not.

Bodybuilding is about aesthetics while Olympic lifting is about function. Olympic weightlifting is a very technically demanding sport. You are not lifting the barbell above your head with just your arms. The lifts use every muscle in your body. You are using the muscles in your legs and butt to generate force. With the right technique, the explosive power generated in your lower body should cause your arms and the barbell to practically fly up over your head. It's not just about brute strength. It's about proper technique, concentration, speed and flexibility.

Bodybuilding, on the other hand, uses isolated movements (bicep curls, for example) that serve no real function outside of the gym. Except for maybe impressing chicks who are impressed by those sorts of things. Personally, I'll take big brains over big biceps any day. (I will, however, make an exception for my boyfriend Barack Obama, who manages to have both big brains and ripped abs.)

In addition to the snatch and the clean and jerk, an Olympic weightlifting routine contains all sorts of great strength training exercises. Squats, crunches, vertical jumps, push-ups and chin-ups are all part of the regular workout. I can't think of a better way to increase overall strength. Olympic weightlifting also develops tremendous explosive power, which can be transferred to other sports, like cycling and running.

The only downside is that I am the only female member of the club. I've had no trouble recruiting male friends like Sergey (now known as the Bulgarian Bodybuilder). But trying to get female friends to join the club is impossible. The women I've talked to want to work out on a stationary bike or do light weights. But the Olympic gym only contains barbells and plates. And most women assume lifting heavy weights will make them big and muscular.

But instead of giving me the shoulders of an East German swimmer, Olympic weightlifting has actually made me smaller. I've burned fat and lost weight since joining the club. Two months of consistent weight training has toned my legs better than years of running ever did. The best part is that I feel great. Plus, I can bang out a set of chin-ups, chug back a protein shake with the boys and still feel feminine. I have no desire to go on the juice or cut my hair into a mullet.

I had no idea I would enjoy Olympic weightlifting this much. It was the last club I wanted to join. But I have gained a whole new appreciation and respect for the sport. It's so much more than just bulging muscles, big bellies and bad hair.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Movin' on down

For the past 12 months, I lived in an apartment building for international students, researchers and professors at Kyoto University. It wasn't the lap of luxury but it had a few perks.

My sheets were laundered every Wednesday. I had a huge balcony, a kitchen with counter space, rent that was so heavily subsidized it was practically free, my own washing machine and friends on every floor (except for the fourth floor. I never met anyone who lived on the fourth floor).

But, like all good things, it came to an end last week. The maximum tenancy at Kyoto University's international house is one year. After that, you're on your own. You have to move out and find a "real" apartment. Finding an apartment in Kyoto is both easier and more difficult than you might think.

The easy part is that there are apartment rental agencies all over the city. You simply go to one in the neighbourhood you want to live in. You meet with an agent and tell them what you're looking for. They then search for suitable apartments in your price range and drive you around from apartment to apartment until you find one you like. They do all of the work and it is completely free. You can go to as many agencies as you like and view as many apartments as you like. It's all very polite, professional and efficient. There is no pressure to sign a contract.

The difficult part is that you have to do all of this in Japanese. You also have to sign a rental contract that is written in Japanese. So you may not know exactly what you're agreeing to if your Japanese isn't up to scratch.

The other sticky issue is that many landlords demand a lot of money upfront. Two months rent, a security deposit, plus "key money" (key money is basically bribe money. It costs around $1,000 and it's considered a "gift" to the landlord for allowing you to live in the apartment. You can ask for housing that doesn't require key money but this will limit your options).

I decided I wanted to stay in the same neighbourhood, which made searching for an apartment a lot easier. I live in the northeast corner of Kyoto, which is considered an undesirable area because it is 3 km from the university and 5 km from downtown. A lot of Japanese people consider these distances "far" and "inconvenient." So rents are a lot cheaper up here. Which is ridiculous when you consider there is a train station and a subway station nearby. Not to mention a huge park with great hiking and running trails through the mountains. There are lots of little shops, restaurants and grocery stores. It would be a highly desirable neighbourhood in Canada. It's the Japanese equivalent of High Park in Toronto or Kitsilano in Vancouver (but with less blond hair, breast implants and Lululemon).

The average rent for a one-room apartment in Kyoto is about $400 a month. And by "one room" I literally mean one room. You cook, eat, sleep and work all in the same tiny room. An apartment with a separate bedroom is twice as expensive.

I found a one-room apartment for $300 a month. The best part is that almost everything is included in the rent. I have free electricity, free wireless internet and a free rooftop laundry room. (The rooftop laundry room is awesome. I'm totally going to have a party up here.)

The apartment is clean and quiet (except for the dog across the street, who barks and whines incessantly). The only catch is that the kitchen is the size of a photo booth with absolutely no counter space.

And the toilet is a squat toilet.

And, um, there's no shower in the apartment. But there are shared showers on the other side of the building, past the bike parking area. On the downside, the showers are coin-operated. On the upside, I don't have to clean them. It's like staying in a hotel! A really cheap hotel!

The strange thing is, none of this bothers me. If I were living in a one-room apartment with a squat toilet and shared showers back home, I would probably be in the depths of depression. But only because I would be surrounded by friends who own houses or rent large apartments. I would feel "poor" by comparison.

But over here, everyone is in the same boat. All of my friends are on the same scholarship, so we are all forced to share the same standard of living. We all live in one-room apartments. We all pull in the same income each month. Some of my friends live in places where they share kitchens and toilets. I feel rich by comparison. It's all relative.

So here it is. My new home. (Can you spot the items from Ikea?)

I haven't met the neighbours yet. They live in a traditional-style Japanese house. With barbed wire. They don't seem very friendly. I'm starting to suspect I live next door to the yakuza.

My landlord, on the other hand, is incredibly sweet. He is a huge road cycling enthusiast and a former triathlete. I think a major factor in his decision to rent the apartment to me was the fact that we both share a love of bikes. We ended up talking about cycling for an hour when he showed me the apartment. One of his dreams is to ride across Canada. He saw a TV show about Canada once and has wanted to visit ever since. Maybe that explains the cute nameplate he made me for my mailbox.

It may not be as nice as my apartment at Kyoto University's international house. There's no laundry service and no friends on every floor. But I'm getting used to it. It's home. For now.