Connected to the Club
Amid the Club’s temporary closure, Members are finding new ways of experiencing Club life at home.
On April 6, public health officials in Tokyo confirmed 143 new cases of coronavirus. Total infections topped 1,000.
For 92 of those new cases, government epidemiologists admitted that they were unable to establish how the patients had become infected.
There was no mistaking it: the virus was spreading in Japan.
“With the state-of-emergency declaration [on April 7], the feeling was unanimous that the appropriate thing to do was to close the Club,” says Michael Alfant, the Club’s representative governor, of the Board of Governors’ decision following weeks of incremental safety measures at the Club, including temperature screening and a restriction on guests.
The Club’s perennially popular sakura-themed First Friday celebration would not be held. There would be no afterwork, alfresco drinks on CHOP’s terrace. For as long as the public health situation in Tokyo remained uncertain, early-morning swims, lunchtime meetups and evening workouts would be on hold. It was an unprecedented development in the Club’s 92-year history.
But was it truly the Club that closed? Or was it just the clubhouse?
“One of [our] core values is a sense of being connected,” Alfant says of the Board’s deliberations following the temporary closure. “Even if the Club is physically closed, let’s keep everyone connected.”
Another Club first soon emerged: a series of My Club at Home initiatives. A menu of comfort food favorites for takeout and delivery, YouTube fitness classes, virtual one-on-one training sessions and Library services were all launched over the subsequent days and weeks.
“One of the things I miss about Traders’ Bar is being able to go over there and watch live sports, NBA, baseball, football,” says Member Peter Jennings. “I would purposely try to schedule lunches so I could watch Sunday or Monday Night Football, so I miss seeing and engaging with people there.”
Even if his favorite teams were playing games back in the United States, Jennings, 60, knows that rubbing elbows with fellow fans at Traders’ would still be off-limits. That sacrifice was made easier in mid-April when Jennings started pursuing his own Cal Ripken (the major leaguer who played in 2,632 consecutive games) streak of ordering from the Club’s online menu.
“I’m switching between spaghetti, the steak sandwich and I love the burgers,” he says. “That’s my rotation, which is fantastic for me.”
The meal is the main dish, so to speak, but in this time of isolation, Jennings admits that the stroll to the Club with his wife from his Moto Azabu home is an added benefit. While delivery is always an option, he says that would mean missing out on his daily chat with staff he has grown close to over the years.
(Image: Alice Machayekhi and her mom, Sona Kim)
“It’s a great way to catch up with people,” Jennings says. “[My wife and I] always say, ‘Who do you think’s going to be there today?’”
Jennings is a prime example of the Club reaching beyond its physical footprint, which begs the question: how far does it reach?
After moving to Tokyo last September, Member Marci Mitchell felt compelled to temporarily return to the United States in early March to be closer to her daughter, a sophomore at the University of Connecticut. Mitchell, 55, had to leave behind what had become a comfortable routine in her new life in Japan: three times a week, she’d join her husband at the Club for an afterwork or morning workout at the Fitness Center followed by a bite to eat.
“We’ve always worked out, but never together like that,” says Mitchell. “It was fun to do something as a couple.”
Back in Newtown, Connecticut, Mitchell found herself without a gym and a familiar routine. Strolling up and down her driveway was the best exercise she could manage in those early days.
Though thousands of miles and more than a dozen time zones separated her from the Club, when Mitchell saw the first workout videos uploaded to the Club’s YouTube channel, she jumped at the chance to reconnect.
“I did meditation with [yoga instructor Luiz Olimpio] because I attended a couple of his yoga sessions and really liked him and his style,” Mitchell says. “And then I did a couple of Booty and Abs workouts with Alyson [Jenkins], and I tried the qigong [active meditation] workout, which was great.”
But with myriad workouts available online, what was the draw of My Club at Home TV?
“I want [the Club staff] to know that this effort is appreciated,” Mitchell says. “I want the instructors to know that I value their time in taking the effort to make these videos.”
Open or temporarily closed, the Club clearly means different things to different Members. That difference, Alfant says, is its strength.
“The Club is really the nucleus of all these connections,” he says. “The Club is a nexus.”
Before the temporary shutdown, countless Members came together at the Club each week to unwind over beverages or to explore the award-winning wine collection. For the last few weeks, the Club’s online cellar of wine, beer and spirits has filled the gap—and Members’ glasses.
“We don’t have a car and the nearest grocery store is very far away,” says Brittany Turner, 31, of wine shopping during a pandemic. “So, for us, [the online Wine Shop] has been a convenient way to make sure we’re getting nice quality wine and not, you know, relying on the local Family Mart rosé.”
With varietals from across the wine world and free delivery on orders over ¥10,000, the Club’s online repository of libations is Turner’s go-to to maintain her customary glass alongside dinner.
Supplied with Club eats, workouts, cooking tutorials and drinks, adult Members could likely soldier through this period of uncertainty. But for the younger crowd, like 11-year-old Alice Machayekhi, online school lessons and long days indoors can feel stifling.
Every weekday at 8:30am, Alice flips open her laptop. For the next seven hours, she follows her teachers’ instructions through the monitor until 3:30pm.
“I prefer normal school better,” says Alice. “I miss my friends.”
“She was starting to get restless,” says Alice’s mother, Sona Kim. “I was toying with the idea of ordering books [from Amazon,] but I didn’t know how long it would take.”
Normally, Kim explains, she and Alice would make weekly trips to the Club Library, where Alice would pour through the Children’s Library and emerge cradling a half-dozen titles. As municipal libraries across Tokyo closed, the Club followed suit, and Kim wasn’t sure how to keep her avid bookworm engaged during the city’s so-called “soft lockdown.”
Then, on April 21, a deus ex machina: to complement its online selection of e-books and audiobooks, the Club made its 20,000-plus physical collection accessible. With a few clicks, Alice could order a batch of books to pick up from the Club.
“That’s actually the main reason we come to the Club,” Kim says. “Our family is really grateful that the Club is doing this drive-thru library [service]. I think it’s great.”
“[I’ve read] maybe 30 [books],” Alice says of her voracious reading since the Library reopened.
Unprecedented circumstances may have inspired the Club to pursue new on-demand and digital avenues, but they need not be a stopgap solution.
If anything, Alfant believes, it might be the case of a great crisis creating great opportunities.
“We’re looking at this as a chance to explore new ways to deliver value to Members,” he says. “The Club will be there going forward, and, in fact, we expect the Club will be an even more important aspect of people’s lives after this.”
Words: Owen Ziegler
Images: Kayo Yamawaki
Top image: Martha and Peter Jennings
The results are in. A few weeks of takeout orders and libation deliveries reveal the items most popular with Members.
1. Caesar Salad
2. Chinese Chicken Salad
3. 8oz (225g) Cheeseburger