Commercial public bath houses, called sento, are common in Japan. In recent years, however, the number of sento have gradually declined in number, mainly because more people now have bathing facilities at home. Nonetheless sento are indispensable to those who do not have baths at home, and they still play an important role as a community gathering place where people can enjoy communicating with one another.
Business of Commercial Public Bath House in Japan
“I was once again reminded that ‘sento are necessary,'” says Yuichi Tamura, a man in his 30s who operates a 80-year-old establishment in Tokyo’s Ota Ward. As a result of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami disaster, more than 200,000 people were left homeless, and fled to school gymnasiums and public buildings. In the devastated areas, bathing took on an important role by which the locals could empathize with one another, as well as giving them a place where they could relax.
“In olden times, a sento was part of the social infrastructure,” says Masaomi Takahashi, whose family has operated a bath house in Yokohama for 70 years. In the old days, Takahashi recalls, bath houses were the “center of the community,” where companies used to post signs and local businesses would inscribe their logos on the wooden buckets used for scooping hot water.
At the peak in 1968, Tokyo was home to some 2,600 establishments; presently the number has declined to 800 — less than one-third that of three decades ago. “The main reason is that more people have baths in their homes,” says Tamura. At any rate, the city’s bath houses have been closing at the rate of 50 per year. Tamura is one young person who’s determined to help keep them alive.
The bath house that Tamura operates gets about 100 customers per day. “Almost all of them are seniors,” he says. To make his establishment more familiar and accommodating to younger people, on the last Saturday of each month, he stages an event. Many of these patrons are younger people with whom Tamura became acquainted via Twitter or Facebook. The first event, held in August 2010, was “experiencing cleaning of the bath,” and he has since held “noodles served down a flowing water spout,” “preparing a bath with fragrance of yuzu (Japanese lemon),” “pounding out mochi (glutinous rice cakes),” “roasting sweet potatoes,” and others. While these are going on, “Whether before or after the events, participants will take bath,” says Tamura. “With more young people never having experienced going to a sento, I hope that, by giving them a chance to get to know a sento through various events, they will become more interested in it and go to a sento in their neighborhood,” he adds.
Bath houses also appeal to women. With more and more establishments shutting down, Masami Usagawa asked herself if there wasn’t something she could do. Then in 2007 she came up with the concept of staging events that “can convey the appeal of sento from the perspective of daily life.” At “Otome-yu no Tashinami,” she has organized sessions of Chinese Taiqi, Indian Yoga, Hawaiian Hula dancing, and a variety of live events. “I’d like to attract females who are interested in going to sento but who have never been there yet,” says Usagawa. The participants will get in the bath, but as some feel uncomfortable with nudity, they are not obligated. “But once you overcome your shyness you can anticipate the pleasure of communicating that transcends generational barriers,” she asserts.
Sento admission in Tokyo is set at 450 yen, about the same as a cup of coffee in a coffee shop. The kind of society Usagawa aims for is one in which “people feel as natural about going to a sento as they do about going to a coffee shop.”