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Sunday, Aug. 19, 2007
Putting the fun back into feeling fit
By YOKO HANI
Although you may be a typically busy worker, in Japan there's no shortage of easy exercise options to help keep you in shape — whether "10-minute fitness" clubs where you can have a quick workout without even changing your clothes, varieties of home exercise videos or machines and, of course, any number of gyms, both private and municipal.
But some people always want something more — and different.
Calling itself a "sports theme park," Muscle Park in Tokyo's waterfront Odaiba district offers visitors opportunities to test their physical strength and condition while having fun in an amusement-park atmosphere.
Opened in December last year, and located in a complex full of shops and restaurants, Muscle Park covers more than 2,800 sq. meters on the fifth floor of Decks Tokyo Beach's Sea Side Mall. But whatever its name may suggest, the park has nothing to do with body-building, and instead features nine indoor amusement facilities where you can enjoy an exciting variety of sporty pursuits.
"By combining sports and entertainment, we've tried to create a new type of amusement park where men and women of all ages can enjoy themselves," Tadahisa Kameda, deputy manager of Muscle Park, explains.
In fact, like at those 10-minute fitness clubs, visitors to Muscle Park don't even need to change their clothes to try out any of the facilities. Some of the activities, however, require more physical ability than others.
Those rising to the challenge of Sasuke, for example — the hardest of Muscle Park's attractions — must first hang by their fingertips from a narrow ledge as if they were rock climbers, and then (try to) move sideways.
In the "Ranking Park," meanwhile, they can test their balance and coordination using specially designed equipment. In the end, as a dubious reward for such exertions, visitors are rewarded with an assessment by park staff of their physical ability. As an only slightly overweight 40-year-old, you may, for example, be told you have the strapping bodily attributes of a 60-year-old. (Don't be distraught, though, because in this writer's experience, Muscle Park's tests are all entertainingly difficult — especially when you try them for the first time.)
But don't be deterred — the nine areas also include a puzzle section and a kids' park, providing chances for all age groups with different physical abilities to enjoy themselves.
Meanwhile, at the Shooting Park attraction, where visitors shoot soccer balls to hit nine target boards, the park staff's voices ring out through microphones, saying, "OK, which number are you going to hit? Nine? OK. Hit the nine!
"Goal! Well done!"
If that strikes a familiar chord, it's maybe because Muscle Park is a spinoff from the popular TBS television program "Kinniku Banzuke (Muscle Ranking)," which ran from 1995 to 2002. In the program, athletes competed in various sporting activities to determine who was the best all-rounder in terms of physical abilities.
The show was so popular that "viewers contacted the program saying that they wanted to do those sports too, and that was the start of the idea of this amusement park," Kameda says.
To create the "real TV atmosphere," park staff deliver running commentaries through microphones for each player, in the same way the TV program hosts did for the show's football-shooting and baseball-pitching games.
In fact, through Muscle Park's nine areas, there are more than 50 staff members who explain the games, give running commentaries and record each player's scores.
If you are an athlete who pursues sheer joy and excitement through sports, you may well think that you can do that in any outdoor field under the sun — or mosey along to the National Stadium or any of those gyms with cutting-edge machines. So why would you choose to sweat in a pastel-colored amusement park inside a bustling mall in Odaiba, kicking or hitting balls and jumping up and down on machines with lots of people watching you?
Kameda, of course, can tell you just what's unique about his sports theme park.
"Odaiba is a dating place and a tourist place," he says. "Visitors here may not particularly like sports, and may not be serious sports players. But we created this park targeting those people as well, so they can casually play sports and find out how enjoyable they are.
"Also, during their date, couples can try the football-shooting game or the baseball-pitching game together, and that way boys may be able to impress their dates!"
As well, the park gives visitors a chance to experience "real" sports, he says.
"You cannot do penalty shootouts in your daily life unless you are a member of a football team. But here anybody can do that. Fathers who used to play football, for example, can do it casually with their family and show off their skill."
In fact, even this writer played the football-shooting game (years after I last touched a football), and can proudly report hitting two of the nine targets. I may not be a former soccer player, but I enjoyed it just as much as the elementary school kids who played just before me.
One day, perhaps, Japan may have a soccer star who came to love the game at an indoor sports theme park just like this . . .