TOKYO – Amid the dwindling number of Japanese public baths, which have long been social places where bathers can exchange their “naked” thoughts, new facilities overturning conventional images of the Japanese “sento” have emerged, including a Tokyo bath opening a beer bar and another sale of freshly baked pizza.
In August 2020, the “Koganeyu” public bath in the Taihei district of Sumida Ward, a short walk from Tokyo Skytree, reopened after renovations. Visitors entering the property are greeted by an elegantly designed reception with an adjacent beer bar. Its original Koganeyu craft beer costs 600 yen (about $ 5.25) a glass and has become an irresistible hit among visitors looking to savor a cold one after soaking in a steam bath.
The public baths have been run by Takuya Shinbo, 42, and his wife Tomoko, 43 – who operate the nearby Oshiage Onsen Daikokuyu local bath in the same neighborhood – since 2018, after the former owner of Koganeyu, who had been advancing since years, has approached them. on the takeover of the establishment. Behind their decision, there was a strong desire to prevent even one public bath from closing its doors for good.
In taking over Koganeyu, the couple racked their brains over how to retain the bath’s function as a social place for successive generations.
They found that people often want a beer after getting out of the bath, and this can lead to conversation among visitors. They renovated the area near the reception to create a “bandai” bar – a reference to the owner’s raised seat in a traditional public bath. A staff member suggested playing records there, saying the odd pairing of a public bath and records might attract attention. âI want to keep doing things through trial and error so that we can leave behind a good old bath culture,â Shinbo said.
Kamata Fukunoyu, in the Kamata district of Tokyo’s Ota Ward, is another popular bath in the capital for its unconventional approach to service. It sets itself apart with its freshly baked homemade pizzas, sold on weekends and on public holidays.
Kenji Okazaki, 40, is the third generation operator of the bath. He originally ran a ramen restaurant, but his love of pizza made him want to open a pizzeria. Then, 16 years ago, he inherited the public bathhouse run by his mother’s family.
Okazaki learned pizza cooking techniques from books and the internet, and didn’t want his knowledge to be wasted. He decided to renovate the aging Fukunoyu building and installed a pizza oven behind the counter.
Now he offers five types of pizzas made with the fermented pizza dough he perfected, ranging from margherita to mixed flavors. Small pizzas sell for 500 yen (around $ 4.37) and large ones sell for 1,000 yen (around $ 8.74) each. As some customers order pizza after a bath, the company is seeing more and more fans coming just for the pizzas. He sells about 30 to 50 pizzas a day.
“I wanted to offer something cheap and delicious. It’s hard to run a bathhouse and a pizza operation at the same time, but that’s what I wanted to do, so I plan to continue.” , did he declare.
Another renovated bath that reopened in September 2021 is the Kanamachiyu Public Bath in Tokyo’s Katsushika district, which has 78 years of history. Fourth-generation operator Shintaro Yamada, 30, a former office worker, is struggling to find a new form of public bath.
Yamada’s 61-year-old father Masatomo was planning to close the public baths due to declining guest numbers, but an event at the Takarayu Public Bath in the Senjumotomachi district of Tokyo’s Adachi district about three years ago prompted young Yamada to take over the business. It was an art exhibition called “Kerorin Museum”. Kerorin is the brand name for a pain reliever sold by a pharmaceutical company in Toyama Prefecture, central Japan, and bath buckets featuring the company logo were symbolic of the public baths of the Showa era (1926- 1989).
At the event, Kerorin buckets were stacked to form pyramids and other shapes. Yamada said her eyes were open to the possibilities of public baths.
Yamada searched the internet for ingenious public baths and decided to take on the challenge of running a public bath at the age of 30 and quit his job at a company to take over the business. During the renovation of the building, which has existed for a little over 60 years, he had an event space fitted out between the counter and the cloakrooms. While preserving the rustic elements of the public bath, such as a wall clock and a lattice ceiling, he tried to create a new space for bathers. Together with his wife Kana, 31, he designed a new, simple logo and promoted the swim on Twitter and Instagram.
Since it reopened, it has welcomed new visitors and regulars, and Yamada has heard customers say that it is now cleaner and easier to bathe in. âI would like to convey the wonders of public bath culture to many people and make them think, ‘I want to come to this city because Kanamachiyu is there,'” he said.
According to the Japan Association of Public Baths and Environmental Hygiene Services (Zenyokuren), based in the Chiyoda district of Tokyo, a total of 17,999 public baths were registered with the association in 1968, but in 2021, they were not registered with the association. ‘were only 1,964. Meanwhile, a Tokyo Metropolitan Government survey found that there were 963 public baths in the capital as of December 2006, but by the end of December 2020 that figure had nearly halved to reach 499.
One of the main causes of this decline is that since Japan entered a period of strong economic growth, it has become common for households to have their own showers and tubs. Public baths, meanwhile, have struggled to find people to take over the facilities, and huge repair costs have forced some to close their doors. Recently, the coronavirus pandemic has scared customers away and more and more public baths are seeing their income plummet.
Zenyokuren Director Shinichi Uno said: âSome people still need public baths, such as those who do not have a bath at home, and people who have one but whose stillness makes it difficult to clean. . There are also safety benefits, too, because if one person isn’t feeling well while bathing, there are others (other bathers and staff) to watch them. ”
(Japanese original by Kazuo Yanagisawa, Tokyo Office)