Japan is home to a plethora of themed cafés, bars and restaurants including maid cafés, a science lab-themed bar and a ninja restaurant. Those who have spent any time on TikTok or YouTube may have seen viral videos about Muscle Girls, the only female fitness-themed bar, not only in Japan, but the world.
Located in a nondescript building near Ikebukuro Station, Muscle Girls is nothing but remarkable once you step foot inside. Customers sit around the bar counter while muscular and friendly staff in brightly colored shirts chat to customers both in-person and on their Twitch stream. During the “muscle show time,” staff members scatter around the room and dance and cheer to lively music. During the evening, they will regularly flex or do a few reps on the ab machine to show off their strength. Depending on what services customers order, the main lights will go out and disco lights will splash rays of color around the room as staff members dance, flex and chug protein shakes.
We went to meet the Muscle Girls bar manager and one of his staff to find out more.
Muscle Girls and Their Mama
The bar, staffed by 25 young female fitness enthusiasts (at the time of writing), opened in June 2020. Mama, the manager of Muscle Girls, is the only male staff member. His nickname is a tongue-in-cheek choice as a “mama-san” is traditionally a female manager of a snack bar.
He shows us around the small neon pink bar that manages to fit a lot inside. There is gym equipment on a mini stage in the corner where the girls do workout performances, combined with some muscle flexing and dancing. Customers can also pay for extra services, such as getting a short personal training session, getting fed a protein shake from a syringe and taking a polaroid photo with the women.
You can sip on alcoholic or non-alcoholic drinks, even protein shakes. The muscle girls themselves won’t partake in alcohol though, in order to maintain their physiques as bodybuilders.
In Tokyo, you’ll also find Muscle Snack, staffed by muscular men. Both bars are managed by the same company, but are quite different. According to Mama, Muscle Girls is more like a theme park whereas Muscle Snack resembles a host club.
Female staff at Muscle Girls find a sense of community rare in other work environments. Employee Hari Muscle (real name withheld) says it’s fun to work with people who share the same hobbies such as working out.
“We’re not just work friends, but friends who share the same interests,” Hari says.
She started working at the bar after being recommended to the manager by one of her fans who watched her livestreams. Like most of the muscle girls, she was already into fitness and working out. Hari says she enjoys showing off her body, which she doesn’t do often at the gym. At the bar, she loves the compliments from appreciative and inspired customers.
“It’s so motivating and nice to hear,” she says.
Samantha Low, one of TW‘s writers who visited Muscle Girls, says she admires how the female staff defy stereotypes about Japanese women to start working out.
“They’re not just skinny. They clearly just like bodybuilding and don’t care that they don’t match the archetype. So that’s why it felt quite free and liberating in that bar,” Low says.
While previously Japanese society believed that being skinny made women attractive, Hari says that beauty standards are gradually shifting and not everyone wants to look that way.
Before every show, the bar staff introduce themselves by jumping up on the counter, doing pull-ups on the machine in the center of the room and flexing while a fellow staff member lists their physical achievements. For example, one employee walked from Shinjuku to Hakone while another employee announced that she squat 110 kilograms. In Low’s opinion, this is why the bar’s popularity goes beyond the novelty aspect.
“They’re talking about what they’re able to achieve with their bodies. It’s not just a weird thing,” Low says.
A Growing Fan Base
Muscle Girls Bar opened at the very early stage of the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequently faced many restrictions. The bar began uploading to social media regularly and asking famous TikTokers and YouTubers in Japan to film at the bar. For example, Patrick Smith, an American TikToker who has 1.9 million followers, posted about Muscle Girls. As a result, many Americans from the Navy started visiting the bar on weekends. When Japanese Twitch streamers began to stream at the bar, management realized its potential and started an official Twitch channel.
Vladislav Tsypljak, a customer we spoke to, visited Muscle Girls because of Twitter posts he had been seeing for the past couple of years. He was drawn by the novelty of the bar and its uniqueness.
“I haven’t seen or heard anything [like this] in Asia. We definitely don’t have this in Europe because it would just be a strip club, nothing like this,” says Tsypljak.
According to Hari, more women have been visiting the bar recently. She asked one of them why she came, and the female customer said she wanted to feel inspired in order to work out. Hari believes there’s currently a fitness boom among Japanese people, especially women.
“When customers say we’re inspiring them I feel happy,” she says.
Management hopes to expand the current bar space so they can accommodate more customers. While Low and Tsypljak said they enjoyed the bar experience, the size of the space surprised them, since it appeared more spacious on camera.
Hari hopes to continue studying English so she can communicate better with non-Japanese customers and tourists.
Reservations and Packages
The bar is quite small, so advance reservations via Line or Instagram are recommended.
It costs ¥1,500 for a 30-minute all-you-can-drink menu.
Foreign tourists can pay ¥5,000 for a one-hour package that includes the all-you-can-drink menu, a freshly-squeezed fruit performance where staff squeeze fruit into a cocktail with their bare hands, muscle show time and ten muscle dollars, which are used to purchase extra services.
All photos courtesy of Muscle Girls Bar.