10,000 views of Mount Fuji, rising through the steam

by Rob Gilhooly

The view from the bath is picture-perfect. Through the thick steam rising from the piping hot water, foothills dotted with lush pines and rolling fields of greens and gold give way to a turquoise-blue ocean. From the center rises Mount Fuji, its snow-dusted peak circled in a halo of marshmallow-like clouds.

There’s no smoggy pollution or high-rises obscuring this view — even though it can be enjoyed from a spot just a 15-minute walk from my downtown Tokyo apartment.

What’s more, it is one of hundreds of such vistas in Tokyo, many of them created by Morio Nakajima. In his 36 years as a sento(public bathhouse) artist, Nakajima has painted enough views of Japan’s fabled peak to make Hiroshige and Hokusai look like a pair of slouches.

“Mount Fuji? I could paint it with my eyes closed,” says the 56-year-old Fukushima native, taking out a pen and a scrap of paper to prove he isn’t joking.

Penki-e (literally “house-paint painting”) are a common decorative feature of Japan’s sento. Displayed like giant frescoes above the tubs, the paintings — often depicting mountain scenery — are as soothing to the eye as the hot water is to tired limbs.

“Penki-e are there to create an impression of spaciousness, to help bathers mentally leave the cramped conditions of their homes and relax,” Nakajima explains. “Some sento don’t have any paintings, but they are stifling.”

It was this illusory effect that first attracted Nakajima to his profession when, at age 18, he moved — like tens of thousands of others — from his countryside home to a bustling Tokyo preparing for the 1964 Olympics and economic nirvana.

Nakajima says that as most homes in the countryside had their own family baths, for him sento were a bit of a novelty.

“I remember my first visit to a sento. It was near my room in Sumida Ward, which didn’t have a bathtub. There was a huge picture of Mount Fuji at the sento that gave me a warm feeling amid the cold and gray of the big city. I thought to myself, ‘Whoever drew that, I want his job.’ “

Some months later he came across a newspaper advert from a sento artist looking for an apprentice. Nakajima, who had started painting oil and watercolor landscapes as an elementary school student, went for an interview and started work the following day.

“That’s how busy they were in those day — busy enough to advertise for staff in the papers!” he says. “For the first few years I was teamed up with a senior apprentice, and we would be painting at two bathhouses a day, every weekday.”

The very first penki-e was — surprise, surprise — a painting of Mount Fuji that appeared at a bathhouse in Kanda in the early Taisho Era (1912-1926) at the request of the sento owner, Nakajima says.

That picture became such a talking point that other sento owners would visit to take a peep, each in turn then looking for painters to adorn their sento in a similar way.

This led to a surge in demand for sento artists in the metropolis, and advertising agencies later cashed in on the popularity of the paintings.

When Nakajima entered the trade in 1964, there were four painters at his company, which was competing for business with 15 others in the capital. All these firms were actually advertising agencies in the business of placing commercial advertisements below the pictures in the sento, he explains.

“On the wall, just above the bathtubs and below the pictures, there would be a row of advertising plaques for various companies and products. The paintings were basically a ‘service’ that didn’t cost the bathhouse a penny,” he explains.

With more than 2,500 sento operating in Tokyo in the early 1960s, and lots of enterprises competing for their ad space, there was no shortage of work for the ad firms’ painters, he says. During the ’60s and ’70s, Nakajima says he was painting between 600 and 800 penki-e a year.

Thirty-six years later, however, dwindling demand has forced Nakajima to skip from part-time job to part-time job to supplement his art.

The number of bathhouses in the metropolis has dwindled to around 1,200, and with private businesses looking to increasingly more sophisticated and prominent forms of advertising, many sento owners are reluctant to budget for a service that was formerly free, Nakajima says.

Those who do continue the tradition only do so when necessary, he says. “As the paintings are designed to withstand the steamy conditions of sento, this means sento owners only require new ones once every two or three years. Coupled with the dwindling number of sento, this means less and less work for the artists,” he explains.

Even though there are now only three sento artists remaining in Tokyo, Nakajima says he is lucky if he has 100 commissions a year.

Some, however, are more demanding than others. At one bathhouse, he is required to paint a 15-meter-wide, 5-meter-high picture of Mount Fuji that stretches across the entire sento wall.

Whatever the size, it is always a battle against time. Starting work at 9 a.m. usually guarantees that he is putting the finishing touches to his work an hour before the sento opens for business — usually at 4 p.m.

Though he has to work fast, Nakajima has long been known among fellow sento artists for the amount of time, and money, he spent studying his subjects. He explains this, saying, “Getting the right sense of perspective and depth is difficult, so I always used to travel around the country to Mount Fuji, and as far away as Hokkaido, and make sketches. Nowadays, though, I don’t need to; it’s all up here,” he says, tapping his head.

Nakajima estimates that he has painted around 15,000 penki-e during his 36-year career, around 80 percent of which have featured Mount Fuji. Others include equally standard fare, such as the pine-topped islands of Matsushima or other peaks like Mount Bandai in his native Fukushima.

“Sometimes I am asked to paint something unusual — a large ship, a Disney scene or something. But, if you ask me, Mount Fuji is the most suitable for Tokyo bathhouses,” says Nakajima, known by children in his neighborhood as “Mr. Fuji-san.” “Anything else looks out of place.”