Walking around Tokyo, you may have noticed a number of tall, narrow chimneys rising above the skyline every so often. Such stacks are a good indication that you’ve stumbled across a sento, or communal bath house.

Long-time residents, however, will perhaps have noted that such chimneys aren’t quite as common as they once were. While hundreds of sento have closed in the past decade, no new bath houses have opened in the capital over the same period.

“In the past, a sento was simply a place to bathe,” says Teruo Shimada, owner of Akebono-yu bath house in Edogawa Ward. Akebono-yu, which was founded in 1773, is the oldest bath house in the capital.

“These days, however, everyone has a bath or at least a shower in their homes,” Shimada says. “We need to promote other aspects of the culture (surrounding sento), including the health benefits and the social elements. It’s also great to be able to stretch your legs out in a large bath. It’s a relaxing and fun experience.”

The origins of sento can be traced back to the Buddhist temples of India, from where migrants subsequently took it as they made their way north and east to China, and finally over to the Japanese archipelago during the Nara Period (710-794).

Due to its religious origins, baths in Japan were initially restricted to temples. These baths were typically steam ones and, while they were at first only used by priests, the Kamakura Period (1185-1333) saw a loosening of the rules and sick people were allowed to access the facilities. Before long, wealthy merchants and members of the upper class began to add baths to their residences, and sento became a more regular aspect of life.

Sento went through a complete makeover during the Meiji Era (1868-1912), introducing significant design elements that started to resemble what we see in the country today. The traditional narrow entrance to the bathing area was replaced by a wider sliding door, the height of the ceiling was raised and, in many cases, doubled, and bathtubs were dug into the floor so they could be entered more easily.

By this time, most sento used hot water instead of steam, allowing windows to be added so that the bathing area received more light.

Many of these nascent models of sento failed to survive the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake or the widespread firebombing of Tokyo during World War II. Their destruction, however, helped accelerate the transition of bath houses from the more vulnerable wooden models to their tiled counterparts.

The lack of bath houses in the wake of World War II led to an increase in the incidence of communal bathing, and out of the ashes rose temporary baths that were constructed with materials that were readily available. Few people had access to their own private baths because countless homes were damaged or destroyed, resulting in an increase in customers who wanted to meet their bathing needs — and the bittersweet heyday for the sento.

Cultural legacy

Shimada is 64 years old and represents the 19th generation of his family to work in the sento business.

The baths at Akebono-yu tap directly into a natural hot spring — defined as a spring that contains at least one of 19 specific minerals — as opposed to the standard treated hot water that is used by most bath houses.

The bath house opened its doors in the Edo Period (1603-1868), but Shimada says that his family didn’t originally plan to get into the bathing business.

“We didn’t even plan to make an onsen, let alone a bath house,” Shimada says, recapping the history of his premises. “My family had built a well on the premises for use in our daily lives, but we heard that other people had been lucky with hitting a vein, so we checked it out and, coincidentally, it turned out to be a natural hot spring.”

The family had originally established itself as a specialist intermediary between shipowners and charterers who use ships to transport cargo. After learning the family was literally sitting on a natural hot spring, however, it decided to rethink its approach.

Many decades down the line and Shimada has inherited the position of operating the oldest bath house in the capital. Although he expresses pride in his bath house, he admits to feeling pressure when it comes to continuing the family business, as well as the culture that surrounds it.

“I feel as if we have a responsibility to continue the sento tradition,” Shimada says. “When I took over Akebono-yu around 30 years ago, about 2,000 sento were operating in Tokyo. These days, however, there are only around 600 in business.”

Indeed, the golden era of the sento was waning by the 1970s.

Private baths were by then common fixtures to most new buildings, many of which featured a bath and shower unit in every apartment. Convenient access to private baths led to a decline in customers visiting public bath houses and, subsequently, the number of sento operating in Tokyo has been declining ever since.

Shimada says the situation is increasingly dire.

“If you don’t continuously upgrade the facilitates and provide a fun experience, customers will slowly trickle away,” he says.

He is quick to highlight the positive attributes of sento culture.

“People who come every day talk to each other — it’s a great form of communication,” he says with a grin. “The population is aging, so bathing in a sento is a good way for elderly people to get out of the house and communicate with other people. Also, I go into the baths every night — after closing time, when the water levels are low and there are no bubbles — and I never catch a cold.”

Indeed, his skin has a healthy glow that defies his age.

Shimada says that public bath houses face inherent financing problems that are difficult to overcome.

“It costs a fortune to construct a bath house,” he says. “It cost us around ¥100 million to renovate just one floor, which we borrowed from the bank and pay back in installments. The cycle will need to start over again in a decade or so.”

Akebono-yu has been run by men since its inception. However, Shimada understands that he will ultimately need to break with tradition if his bath house is to survive.

“I have two daughters and they’re both single, but neither of them want to have anything to do with this work,” he says. “They’ve seen me here since they were babies, which means that they know I haven’t really had any consecutive days off throughout their lives. For the past three years, my wife and I haven’t had any days off at the same time because one of us needs to be here during opening hours.”

That said, Shimada notes that his perseverance appears to be paying off.

“Around 20 years ago, we only had one floor of baths,” he says. “However, we’ve had more customers since we added an extra floor. If I’m to be completely honest, the number of customers has actually risen slightly in the past couple of years.”

Being the oldest sento in Tokyo is also apparently good for business. “Because of our history,” he says, “the media covers us from time to time, which then attracts celebrities as well.”

Dark future

While Shimada appears to be reaping the benefits of his ancestors’ decision to invest in a bath house, countless others have gone down the drain.

In response to this, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government has pushed for sento culture to be better promoted, which has led to the establishment of the Tokyo Sento Association (bit.ly/2elAbJ9)

“The association has come up with some new ideas — for example, launching a day service that takes elderly folk to and from bath houses — but many of the ideas simply aren’t feasible,” Shimada says. “We’re too busy as it is. We start work at 9 a.m. and are only able to open the doors at 3:30 p.m.”

Shimada doubts the activities of the Tokyo Sento Association will have much effect on slowing bath-house closures.

“The people at the association appear to be targeting sento ‘freaks’ as opposed to new customers. I think that’s fine — necessary even — but I think that we also need to take better care of our largest customer base: the elderly,” he says. “Sento fanatics are so busy trying to visit a wide variety of baths, they will only visit a place once every year or so. I’d prefer to treat my existing regular customers as well as I can.

“In the sento world, word of mouth is the best PR. When someone visits and tells their family and friends about their experience, word travels through the grapevine. Of course, it works the opposite way, too, but we’ve been fortunate recently.”

Although the traditional sento is struggling to remain relevant in modern times, a number of owners are attempting to adjust to new public tastes and are offering a wide variety of experiences. Where some bath houses emphasize their humble tradition, others have evolved into massive complexes that are aptly called “super sento,” which offer a multitude of services, including restaurants, karaoke, video game arcades, hotel rooms and even water slides to distract hyperactive children.

Shimada, however, is determined to ensure the family business continues.

“As long as I’m healthy, I want to continue working at this sento,” he says. “If one of my daughters changes her mind and decides to go into the family business, then we would start planning another renovation to allow it to continue for at least another decade or two. I’ve been asking them for years now to at least consider it, but I still haven’t received a positive response.”

Looking at the future of Tokyo’s iconic sento, it appears that the number of bath houses in the city will continue to dwindle. Shimada is pessimistic about the future.

“If you look at the big picture, I don’t think the future of sento in Tokyo is very bright. They take up too much space,” he says. “A lot of people are still out there, investing time — and money — to keep their sento in good shape. Ultimately, however, sento owners are aging and there’s no obvious replacements, which will eventually force them to close.”

In the face of such a depressing outlook, what motivates Shimada to continue?

“I like sento,” Shimada says. “They are a special part of Japan’s culture. I was married into this family and my father-in-law loved this work, so I feel that I need to continue the family business. Sometimes I think that if I were a typical businessman, then I would have more money in the bank. However, a businessman can still lose his job. In my case, I can quit when I want to.”

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