I was in the municipal swimming pool in Nishi-Omiya, over on the far side of town from my neighbourhood of Owada, in the Tokyo suburb of Omiya. After paying a couple hundred yen, I changed and jumped into the metre-deep water. Little old ladies did walking laps in the lanes to the right, and I started crawling up and down my lane, my fingertips grazing the bottom on the occasional stroke.
After a couple laps, a whistle sounded. The lifeguard, a 20-something in a dodgy Speedo and cap, was blowing the whistle. Everyone climbed out of the pool, and I asked an old man in the next lane, in my best Japanese, what was going on.
"Oh, it’s rest time," he explained.
I figured this was optional, so I carried on swimming. When I reached the end of the pool, the lifeguard was waiting for me. "Time to get out," he told me. "It’s rest time."
"That’s OK," I told him, "I just got in. I don’t need a rest."
"But it’s rest time. Everyone must have a rest."
"But I’ve only been swimming for a few minutes. I’m not tired."
"But it’s ten to one. At ten to the hour, everyone must take a rest."
"Kimari desu," came the answer. It has been decided.
So, question asked, I got out of the pool. I sat in the sauna; I wasn’t about to sit shivering by the side of the pool for ten minutes. And then, on the hour, everyone went back into the pool.
At the end of my fourth or fifth lap, the lifeguard was again waiting for me.
This story originally appeared on Matador Network, a Dwell partner site.
Steve McCabe is a Mancunian travel writer who has come to live in New Zealand via Japan and the United States.