Music rocks ‘sento’ public bath, breathes life into fading tradition

by Noriyuki Suzuki

Kyodo News

Sitting on a temporary stage against the backdrop of a wall painting of Mount Fuji, American musician Jim O’Rourke is playing his guitar and singing softly.

It is early December, and his audience of men and women, mostly in their 20s and 30s, is soaking up the atmosphere.

Soaking is the operative word because the musical experience they are enjoying is called “furo (bath) rock” at the Bentenyu “sento” (public bathhouse in) Kichijoji, western Tokyo.

Bathhouses are disappearing as public bathing goes out of fashion, but furo rock is designed to lure the public back.

It’s easy to see the appeal. In the intimate setting, with the covered bathtub serving as a small stage, the audience sits on the floor for the performance. Everyone is fully clothed because the performances are held Thursdays, when the bathhouse is closed to bathers.

It is like a collaborative work between artist and audience. And above all, there are the amazing acoustics as the sound reverberates off the tiled walls and arched ceiling.

“It’s better than I imagined,” 33-year-old company employee Yoshie Hiruma said after the show. “At first I thought the echo would be bigger because the performance was inside a bathhouse. But in reality, it was under control.”

University student Ryuhei Oka and a friend hit on the idea of furo rock in 2005, hoping it would help restore the Oka family’s bathhouse to what it once had been — not just a place to get clean, but where people share information and interact with one another.

Furo rock may sound like it is limited to rock music, but it’s not. Recent shows have featured artists performing alternative, easy listening and traditional Japanese music.

“The sento has been a place for social interaction, and it’s actually quite versatile. You can use it in different ways,” the 23-year-old Oka said. “I thought we needed such a place in times like these.”

The organizers asked artists in Kichijoji to play the first two shows as a way to “give something back” to the community. Over time, as word of furo rock spread, it has become easier to ask established musicians, such as O’Rourke, to perform.

“I’ve been doing it for fun, but at the same time it feels like a job now,” said Oka, who studies business management at a university in Tokyo.

“I wanted to use the appeal of Kichijoji, where music is part of the culture . . . and build a community-based network. I also thought I could help out my grandmother as she doesn’t seem to have a head for business.”

The area around Kichijoji Station, which is used by more than 400,000 people a day, attracts both young and old and is often picked as one of Tokyo’s more desirable places to live.

But as so often happens, the well-established area has undergone changes. Large-scale chain stores have moved in where once the local scene was shaped by small mom-and-pop shops.

In 2007, the city of Musashino, which includes the Kichijoji area, crafted a plan to redevelop and revitalize the area around the station while maintaining its livable status. The plan also calls for nurturing the kind of people who support the subculture and form the backbone of the community.

“If we don’t do anything to develop the area, we will be left behind,” said Masato Otsuka, head of the city branch in charge of planning in Kichijoji. He fears that if nothing is done, what makes Kichijoji special will be lost.

Oka and his fellow furo rock organizers felt music could be a key to a better Kichijoji. But he has a different take on the kind of changes taking place in the community and feels they aren’t that bad.

“I think it’s important that we change ourselves, just like the town does. We don’t necessarily have to be that pessimistic about change,” Oka said of the drive behind furo rock to help save public bathhouses and come up with a new way for people to connect.

The number of public baths in Tokyo slipped below the 1,000 mark in 2006 and stood at 879 at the end of 2008, around 30 percent of the peak in 1968, according to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.

Although the government says such facilities are “essential” to people’s lives and health, tough socioeconomic conditions and declining demand due to an increase in the number of homes equipped with bathtubs have undermined the appeal of going to the sento.

Public bath organizations, for their part, have been trying to promote the appeal of public bathing. The Japan Sento Culture Association conducts questionnaires to gauge people’s knowledge of the traditional and current bathing cultures as a way to generate interest.

“They might say ‘make the sento a cultural asset and save it.’ But that’s defensive. We need to be more aggressive, in a sense,” Oka said.

He plans to add more value to the traditional public bathhouse experience.

In April, a space outside Bentenyu that used to be occupied by a coin laundry was reborn as an eatery that becomes a small bar at night. Since then, it has become a place for people to meet both new and familiar faces in front of the decades-old public bath.

“A father in his 30s and his kid, probably a second-grader, come and get crispy fried cheese and Cokes on Sundays. It’s like their routine,” said 24-year-old Morio Seki, who works at the bar and is one of the furo rock organizers. “It’s just heartwarming to see them.”