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Paint it black: Fitness buffs flock to dark room gyms

Participants pedal to the music, and the rhythm given by an instructor, in Koto Ward, Tokyo. (Mainichi)

There's a new trend in fitness, but it's hard to spot, because it happens entirely with the lights off. That's right, the latest workout boom is to box, cycle, and generally get up a good sweat in darkened rooms. The Mainichi Shimbun looked at what is behind this new phenomenon.

    "B-monster" is a boxing gym that opened in Tokyo's Ginza district last June. Based on ideas popular in New York, the gym has in its dimly lit interior around 30 punching bags. Customers lay into the bags with jabs and uppercuts to a thumping pop music soundtrack as an instructor shouts "Side!" and "Up!" By the time the 45-minute lesson is over, the participants are drenched in sweat.

    A woman in her 20s said, "It's hard to go into regular boxing gyms, but this place is stylish, and since it's dark I'm not bothered by those around me."

    Makoto Tsukada, the vice president of the company that manages the gym, told the Mainichi, "The darkness makes it easier to concentrate, and it's suited to Japanese people, who are shy."

    At "Feelcycle" in Roppongi Hills, clients clock up the kilometers on 50 stationary bikes as top hits from the U.S. and U.K. charts wash over them. The facility is managed by Venture Bank, which opened its first Feelcycle gym in Ginza in 2012. Currently it has 22 gyms across Japan. Most of its customers are women in their 30s to 40s. Many customers use the gyms in the morning before going to work, with the 7 a.m. lessons nearly always full.

    One woman in her 40s who says she switched from a normal gym to Feelcycle says, "In the darkness I can set myself to the music's rhythm and concentrate."

    A PR representative for Venture Bank says, "When it's dark, people don't feel embarrassed that they'll be seen desperately peddling on the machine. The darkness gives them a confidence boost." The representative says that male customers make up about 30 percent of the total.

    Activities to enjoy the darkness more quietly are also catching on. One such event called "Dialog in the Dark" has been used since 2011 by companies for personnel training. According to the association that runs the event, about 500 companies have used it. Participants work on tasks together in the dark, or talk without seeing each other's faces, which puts them on even footing. The association says it deepens communication between the participants and encourages new ways of thinking. Since September this year it has also been used for at least one elementary school in Saga Prefecture.

    At Ryokusenji Temple in Tokyo's Nishiasakusa area, a meal in the dark has been held every month since 2006. In a dimly lit room, participants wear blindfolds and taste dishes one by one. There are 12 to 16 participants at a time, and the spots are quickly filled as soon as one of the events is announced.

    Head monk Kakuho Aoe says, "When people can't see, they can face foods and other people fairly, without preconceptions. In our current society, I think it is necessary to cut down on the overflow of information."

    Neurologist Kenichiro Mogi praises such activities in the dark as "massages for the brain." He says modern society gives priority to the sense of sight, with people exposed to a variety of words, images and videos all day long, causing the brain to become inordinately focused on the visual. Mogi says, "Through exercising in the dark, the neurons used for hearing, touching, and other bodily sensations are put into full gear. For food as well, we can focus better on flavors and smells, and better enjoy the taste."

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