Japanese bathhouses are finding new ways to stay afloat

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Tokyo, (UrduPoint/Pakistan Point News – August 29, 2022): Just before it opens each afternoon, elderly residents gather outside one of Tokyo’s last old-fashioned bathhouses, carrying flannels, soap and shampoo for their usual bath.

With its communal bare tubs, bright Mount Fuji mural, and wooden sliding entrance under a peaked roof, Inariyu is a classic example of a Japanese public bath, or sento.

Once ubiquitous in crowded urban areas, sentos are now rapidly closing as more people take baths at home and owners grapple with failing machinery, high gas prices and a lack of successors, encouraging them to sell their precious lands.

Nationally, the number of bathhouses has dropped to around 1,800 from a peak of nearly 18,000 in the late 1960s.

But some, like Inariyu, have been given a new lease of life through renovations, while others are reinventing themselves as hip hangouts or using data analytics to boost business.

One person pushing to save neighborhood bathhouses is Yasuko Okuno, who discovered them as a way to relax after working late hours.

“Day after day, my mind was tired. Even when I went home, I couldn’t forget about work,” said the 36-year-old writer for the Tokyo Sento association.

“Then I went to a sento for the first time in a long time, and I felt like a weight had lifted. There was a big bath, and the regulars welcomed me kindly,” says she told AFP.

Over time, “it started to feel like home.” Japan has never imposed a strict Covid-19 lockdown, and places such as gyms and sentos have remained open even as many offices shifted to working from home and restaurants shortened their opening hours. .

Masks are commonly worn on trains and in other public places, but there is no requirement to wear them in sentos, although social distancing and quiet swimming are encouraged.

For many seniors, this is a “daily routine” they didn’t want to stop during the pandemic, and some feel safer bathing with others around in case they fall, Yasuko said.

Bathhouse closures can erode community ties, said Sam Holden, whose organization Sento & Neighborhood used a grant of about $200,000 from the World Monuments Fund to renovate Inariyu.

The group has endeavored to maintain the warm and welcoming atmosphere of the bathhouse, built in 1930 in a low-rise district in northern Tokyo, where narrow alleys wind between houses.

Inariyu has customers of all ages, including “lots of older people, many of whom might live alone and be prone to isolation,” said Holden, a 32-year-old American who has lived in the capital for nearly a decade. .

“My colleagues and I had a sense of urgency in wanting to preserve some of these historic structures before they were redeveloped into apartment complexes and the like.” Bathers pay 500 yen ($3.70) to enter the men’s or women’s bath, a fee set by the Tokyo government.

Leaving their shoes in a small locker, they undress in the locker room and take a shower before stepping into the tubs for a relaxing bath.

Unlike Japan’s hot springs, known as onsen, the water in sentos is usually gas-heated.

Shunji Tsuchimoto, who runs Inariyu with his wife, told AFP that the bathhouses were paying 50% more for energy than last year.

But he hopes holding events in the renovated buildings will boost revenue by attracting younger clientele.

“I want them to experience this sento culture,” he said.

One sento that has been successful in attracting a young clientele is Koganeyu in eastern Tokyo, which reopened in 2020 after a complete makeover.

On a recent Saturday, the bathhouse was packed with young patrons drinking craft beer and listening to vinyl records.

Technician Kohei Ueda, 25, traveled an hour to use Koganeyu’s sauna with a friend.

“I have the image of sentos where grandfathers and grandmothers congregate,” he said.

“But a sento like this that’s more hip and modern isn’t like that…I feel more comfortable coming here.” Kom-pal, another sento, may not have the appeal of hipsters, but 36-year-old owner Fumitaka Kadoya has managed to increase footfall thanks to the data-processing skills he learned in his previous job as a technician for optical equipment manufacturer Olympus.

Kadoya’s family has run the sento since the 1950s and when he took over three years ago, he created a database to track customer information and the timing of their visits.

The data helped her make targeted business decisions, such as hiring female staff to encourage more women to visit and opening on Sunday mornings to relieve crowds.

“Sentos have always been part of Japanese culture,” Kadoya told AFP, and these days leaving everything in a locker while you soak can be a kind of “digital detox.”

“That’s exactly what I think young people need these days.”

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