Swimming for kids in Tokyo

By on July 27, 2010

When the summer heat is just too much, there’s nothing better than a dip in the pool. Dive on in and stay cool. Stop! Rule number 1: Under absolutely NO circumstances may you dive into a municipal pool in Tokyo.  Okay.  So you step gently into the pool using the steps provided and off you go.  No, stop!  You’ve forgotten about a million other rules in the five seconds that just lapsed and are about to be unceremoniously evicted from your local watering hole …

To avoid such embarrassing and needlessly exasperating situations, there are a few things that the foreign swimmer should know before heading off to their local pool. Tokyo’s municipal swimming pools are usually extremely well maintained, clean beyond belief and cheap. So it’s well worth getting to know rules, both written and the more eclectic unwritten ones so you can take advantage of all the municipality has to offer those in need of a dip.

The “Written” rules (the easy ones)

1. Shoes off! The minute you get a whiff of this chlorine heaven, take off your shoes and put them into the plastic bag provided. No poolside flip-flops allowed nor any other pool-shoes are admitted. Here, barefoot is best.

2. Use the lockers! You might only have a towel with you and know full well that no one will run off with it, but in most pools, you must have the locker bracelet to enter the pool.

3. Shower before entering, shower at the poolside, shower on exiting, and when in doubt, be seen to shower at least three times before even putting a toe near the water.

4. Swimming hats are a must. It keeps the water clean.

5. Only children over three years of age are allowed to enter and they must be accompanied by an adult. One adult per child under age seven. No nappy-wearing toddlers welcome in any shape or form.  Mother-and baby swim classes are unfortunately few and far between here.

These written rules, though strict, are all explicable in terms of poolside cleanliness, water-cleanliness and general high levels of pool maintenance. It’s the unwritten rules which can be a tad more cryptic.

“Unwritten” rules

1. No tattoos! In the rest of the world, it is considered “body art” and beautiful, but here it’s still a little taboo. If your tattoo is visible in your Speedos, you may well be asked to leave. Try to explain that it doesn’t leak, it’s not contagious nor can it run into the water and see how long you last.

2. No jewellery.  It might have been welded onto your wedding finger for the past twenty years, it might be solid gold and definitely not in danger of rusting into the immaculate water, but if you dare enter a Tokyo municipal pool with a ring or any other piece of jewellery on, you will be asked to remove it or leave.

3.  Mandatory rest time. At five to the hour, one of the ten lifeguards blows a whistle, everyone one leaves the pool and “rests”. At this point, the staff does a very thorough check of the pool with dramatic sweeping arm gestures to indicate that they have indeed checked every inch, length, and breadth of the pool. A quick water quality test is also performed. Once no corpses have been spotted, no radioactive water molecules or strange germs discovered, and the allotted five minutes have passed, swimmers will be very politely invited to re-enter the pool (gently, quietly, no jumping, diving, leaping, or other loud bodily movements will be tolerated).

Swimming clubs

Swimming is one of those life skills that children love to learn and parents love to teach. It’s one of the best forms of exercises you can do. It’s a sport so natural and healthy; it’s enjoyed by the smallest puppy-fat-clad babies to the oldest arthritic grannies. Water is therapeutic for us all. And so in spite of all the rules here, both written and unwritten, from the silliest to the most sensible, most parents with small kids will at one stage seek out a swimming club for their children so that they can learn to love the water.

Your local municipal pool option

Many parents opt to teach their own children to swim. With the public pools here being so cheap and clean, it really can be a great choice.  Some parents I know have also hired private swim coaches for their kids so that once a week their children have the advantage of a learning how to swim with the undivided attention of their own coach.  In summertime, there are some public outdoor pools that allow under- threes. If you want to take your little munchkin to the pool and can’t find one that “accepts” babies, check out Setagaya Koen’s outdoor pool during the months of July and August. Or Meguro’s Kumin Centre (Meguro Citizen Centre), with both indoor and outdoor pools where little folk can make a splash.

As well as regular “swim classes” provided in public pools here, you can often find other “water-sports”. For example, aqua-aerobics and water volleyball are popular at our local pool. Or this weekend, a basic course in “survival swimming” which teaches kids how to deal with emergencies or accidents around water.

Japanese swimming schools

After much research and plenty of pool visits, I sent three of my kids to Setagaya Swimming School. They’ve been going for over a year now and although one of them roared her head off for the first few sessions (she didn’t like her teacher because his voice was too loud and his tummy too fat!), they are all turning into regular little dolphins.

I chose this club for many reasons. First and foremost, was the training technique. Secondly, the safety factor was well covered with the teacher-swimmer ratio is at most 12 kids per group to two teachers in the water. Also, it catered for the younger age groups at times which suited our schedule, i.e. age-three and age-four groups swam during the same time slot. And last but not least, it seemed reasonably priced at ¥6,300 per month (four classes) per child.

The “training” technique is solid. They use a very gentle approach to teaching. Kids are not simply flung in from the bank and let splash their way to the top. The teacher (who is always in the water) demonstrates something and the kids will line up, one at a time, enter the water and be held as much as they need. This is great for little kids who can initially be scared of the water, the presence of the teacher being very reassuring.

There are of course things that I don’t like about it too. All the kids have to have the correct club-togs.  The children are lined up and march off in a line behind their sensei, which can seem a bit like the mini-aqua-army, as all the uniform be-goggled kids look up to wave bye-bye to the mums before class. There is a silly amount of paperwork and stamps involved each week. And I remain unconvinced of the need for the Anpanman warm-up dance that is performed ten minutes before class time on the pool-deck. But I am a cynic. The kids love it. They have a bit of craic. They’ve made new friends. They love the water and can pretty much swim at the age of four. Not bad.

An “international” option

The “Japanese swimming club” option requires a certain level of Japanese language ability of course, both from the parents and for the children. For many foreign families, this would be the main difficulty. But fear not! Swimfriends is at hand. I have friends who rave about Steve Siegel’s Swimming School, with branches in Daikanyama, Yoyogi and Shibuya, Swimfriends caters for all ages and levels; from three-year-old “Tadpole” classes in Daikanyama, to older kids more advanced and competitive groups called “Dolphins” who train in Shibuya, as well as adult training sessions and classes.  For more information on training techniques and how to register, visit: www.swimfriends.org/japan/

So whichever pool you find this summer for you and your kids to chill out in, have fun! Just remember to abide by all the little rules, laugh at the unwritten ones and plead ignorance with a great big smile if they try to kick you out

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