Hideki Ajima spent months preparing for this year’s “Sasuke,” adjusting his gym routine to focus on specific muscles that would help him conquer the famed obstacle course. The biggest challenge he faced, however, was a mental one.

“It was the wait before,” the 19-year-old performer currently part of talent agency Johnny & Associates Johnny’s Jr. group Shonen Ninja tells The Japan Times regarding his debut performance on the show. “While I was waiting for my turn (to run the course), I became hyper aware of just what my number was. Watching as other people fell and faced challenges made me think over how I had trained, what I had done and maybe not done.”

Anyone, even a J-pop performer, would be intimidated by the physical challenges laid out by “Sasuke,” which airs its end-of-year extravaganza on Dec. 28 at 6 p.m. on TBS. Since debuting in 1997, the series has presented celebrities and regular folks alike with challenging courses testing their athletic abilities, from jumps across pits to having to cross a balance beam through what looks like rotating punching bags — the “Fishbone.”

That’s just the first stage. True “Sasuke” legends make it all the way to the grueling fourth stage. If they complete that, they achieve “kanzenseiha” — an accomplishment awarded only 25 times in the show’s 24-year run.

The sheer challenge of “Sasuke” is one of the reasons the show has become a global cult hit, spawning 27 local versions around the world: from the United States, where it’s known as “American Ninja Warrior,” to Romania and Mongolia. In the world of intricate fan-maintained wiki projects, the “Sasuke” fan wiki features particular depth.

“I’ve been watching it on TV since I was little,” says Ryoichi Tsukada, a member of the group A.B.C-Z. “I’ve been doing gymnastics since the first grade, and I’ve always been confident when it comes to sports, so I had always wanted to try it out.”

Tsukada is the veteran “Sasuke” participant within the Johnny’s stable, having first tackled the course in 2015. The 35-year-old is one of four performers from Johnny’s participating in the 2021 edition of the competition. The others include first-timer Ajima; Snow Man’s Hikaru Iwamoto, with six previous appearances under his belt; and 7 Men Samurai’s Rinne Sugeta, who made his debut on “Sasuke” last year.

The Japan Times got a look at how the four pop stars trained for “Sasuke,” which has already been filmed, but we won’t know how they fared until the show airs. If they could tackle that obstacle course, though, then they are certain to stay strong when it comes to keeping spoilers under wraps. Hearing about the training sessions first-hand was enough to make me want to put an ice pack on my lower back.

To some degree, the Johnny’s participants have a leg up on most of us in aiming for “Sasuke” glory. The choreographed dancing and demands of performance mean pop stars need to be in good health, so all four were already routinely working out, with each noting an interest in fitness well before signing up with the agency.

“Before ‘Sasuke,’ I was mostly focused on weight training,” Iwamoto says, while Tsukada notes that he runs 10 kilometers at least three times a week, along with targeted gym days (legs, arms, back, etc.).

“When I found out in July that I’d be taking part in it this year, I changed my approach to training,” Ajima says. “I placed an emphasis on clearing the first stage, so as much as possible I focused on training my arms.”

The first stage of the course includes the dreaded “Dragon Glider,” which requires the competitor to leap up, latch onto a pole, glide forward down a track on said pole and then jump to a different pole, grabbing and gripping it.

Tsukada echoes Ajima’s strategy. “So I trained my forearms for the Dragon Glider — which I failed the very first time I was on ‘Sasuke’ — and then did lots of squats so I could get up the ‘Warped Wall.’”

Iwamoto says he started bouldering to increase his grip, as did Sugeta. “I wanted to strengthen my fingers, so I’d do those sorts of activities with friends,” says Iwamoto, who adds that this was done with the intention of advancing past the second stage, which he wasn’t able to do last year.

Even the fanciest Tokyo gyms aren’t likely to have a moat or warped wall, though. It takes a keen sense of strategy to figure out what exercises you’ll need to complete the challenges.

“It’s meaningless if you can’t use the muscles you gained training for ‘Sasuke,’” says Tsukada, who does something that hardcore participants — the type who become fixtures on the show year after year — all tend to do: practice on homemade versions of the “Sasuke” course. In Tsukada’s case, this meant traveling to other seasoned players’ homes and training on mini-”Sasuke” courses in their backyards. He filmed those experiences for the official “Sasuke” YouTube channel.

For all four, finding small ways to improve their strength and stamina during their musical activities proved vital. Sugeta says he stopped using elevators and ran up stairs as much as possible while working on a show at Tokyo’s Imperial Theatre — emphasizing the “running” part — while also finding ways to strengthen his fingers, primarily by hanging off of things.

“I’d find ways to just hang during productions and live shows,” Iwamoto says of his work-exercise balance.

No matter how much you train, though, that first day of filming is likely to produce the kind of jitters that Ajima felt while waiting for his turn to challenge the course. Sugeta says he remembers the feeling well, sitting there and watching the Fishbone take out other competitors before him was stressful even for someone used to performing in front of scores of fans. Tsukada emphasizes the importance of getting enough sleep and eating well before “Sasuke,” while Iwamoto is more aware of his well-being. “I’m very conscious of not accumulating too much stress in the two weeks leading up to the show,” he says. A lot of us may not ever tackle the “Sasuke” course, but this also might be good advice for those hoping to tackle a Mount Fuji climb next year.

“One of the most important things you have to do is create the feeling that you will not lose,” Tsukada says. “You will press the red button (that signals you’ve completed the challenge) at the end of the stage.” He adds that wearing the right shoes is also vital.

Ajima says that by the time his number was called, the nerves and self-doubt dissipated, and he felt better actually hitting the course. Like in any form of dedicated training, “Sasuke” participants tend to set goals: Clear the first stage in your first year, aim to complete the second stage in your second year. Though he still doesn’t let on how he actually fared on the course, he does say that he is already imagining more specialized training to help conquer “Sasuke”-specific challenges.

All four of the competitors say that taking part gives them a sense of achievement, which is empowering.

“The biggest thing I really felt was having accomplished something,” Sugeta says. “Specifically, accomplishing something as a result of one’s own ethics of hard work, drive and training. ‘Sasuke,’ and being a part of it, has really inspired me, which to me is the most important part of the whole experience.”

The ”Sasuke” end-of-year episode will air on Dec. 28 at 6 p.m on TBS. For more information, visit www.tbs.co.jp/sasuke_rising.

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