Morio Nakajima, a 60-year-old muralist, may not be on the list of Japan’s most famous artists, but he is still probably one of the most experienced when it comes to painting Mount Fuji.
While Japan is trying to get Mount Fuji recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site, Nakajima, who has been obsessed with its beauty throughout his 41-year career, has just one problem on his mind these days — his main canvas is disappearing.
Unlike the famed ukiyo-e works of Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Hiroshige, who also were inspired by Japan’s highest peak, Nakajima’s paintings do not hang on the walls of climate-controlled museums. Rather, they cover the walls of steamy “sento” neighborhood bathhouses, which thrived before homes started installing bathing facilities.
Nakajima, who grew up in the countryside, had his first encounter with a sento mural in Tokyo at age 18, when he got a live-in position at a small factory.
“After my first day at work, I was taken to a sento right next to the factory by one of my colleagues and there it was,” he said. “It just struck me — like a blow to the head.”
Nakajima left the factory at age 19 after finding a job as an assistant to a bathhouse artist, as he had liked painting since he was a child.
“As an apprentice, I was only allowed to paint the blue sky for the first three years,” he said.
“Later, I painted at two sento a day. I was very busy,” said Nakajima, who has painted more than 10,000 Mount Fujis during his career. “But in 2005, I could only do my beloved work at about 50 places.”
The declining number of sento is the main reason he cannot paint the 3,776-meter mountain as much as he would like to.
Another reason is that the steamy sento walls — which can average 3 meters high and 5 meters wide — are rarely being used for advertising nowadays.
“Back in the old days, sento were the most effective and popular places to put up ads because they were integrated into local communities and were a part of everyday life,” said Nakajima, the youngest of three remaining sento artists.
Bathhouses did not have to pay for the murals because their costs were covered by a row of advertisements that ran beneath them.
“But there are no longer any sponsors,” said Nakajima, who now makes his living as a cleaner at a produce market. “Not many sento owners want to pay for repainting out of their own pockets.”
As incomes went up, the number of sento fell. Tokyo had just 1,024 as of Dec. 20, compared with its peak of 2,687 in 1968, according to the Japan Public Bath Association.
Now that most homes have bathtubs, about one sento has closed down every week on average in Tokyo over the last 30 years, said Kenzo Murakami, the association’s executive director.
The number of sento nationwide last year stood at 5,267, down from 5,532 a year before and way off its peak 1968 peak of 17,642.
“At the height of their popularity, each sento attracted an average of 800 bathers a day,” said Murakami, 62, owner of the Konparu-yu sento in Shinagawa Ward, Tokyo. “Now the average is about 130. Our business is not easy.”
The association found itself faced with the dilemma of trying to attract more customers while also having to raise admission fees.
Given that about 50 percent of sento users are still those with no bathtubs at home, raising the fees will not improve the situation, Murakami said.
Reflecting the prolonged deflation, the 400 yen adult rate in Tokyo — which is set by local authorities — has remained unchanged since 2000.
“Once or twice a month is enough. I hope young fathers and mothers take their kids out to a sento, just like they eat out. A big bathtub is really relaxing,” Murakami said. “A sento is also a good place to teach manners and communicate with various types of people.”
The first public bath mural, using industrial paints, is said to date back to 1912 at Kikai-yu in Tokyo’s Kanda district.
The picture drawn to attract children was Mount Fuji, which today is still the most popular image seen at traditional sento in and around Tokyo.
“Mount Fuji stands out by itself. Everyone can easily tell what it is,” said Nakajima, who usually paints a large mural within three hours.
He said the image of the volcano, combined with the blue sky above and the clear lake below, has great visual impact. It also helps bathers relax and is a symbol of happiness.
“Mount Fuji has been a motif in Japanese art for more than 1,000 years,” said Yoshiya Yamashita, curator at the Shizuoka Prefectural Museum of Art.
The oldest image is a mural from Horyuji Temple in Nara Prefecture, drawn by Hata no Chitei in 1069.
Fuji and its surrounding scenery have been viewed by the Japanese as a utopian landscape for a long time, Yamashita said, noting the mountain’s simplicity and the snow’s brilliance have become key aesthetic elements.
He said it is understandable Mount Fuji has been painted at so many sento.
“Your body and soul are liberated when you take a bath. It is like you find yourself in utopia,” the curator said. “Mount Fuji fits very well with sento because it itself is a utopia.”
But Nakajima has a hard time relaxing when he bathes at a sento.
“I cannot relax because I have to see my old work,” he said.
“I always feel satisfied with my work at the time I finish it. Otherwise, I could never finish,” he said. “But the next time I see it, I always feel that I could have done it better.
“My ultimate dream is to paint a Mount Fuji that is about 200 meters wide and 100 meters high.” Nakajima said. “If I could achieve this, I would have no regrets in my life.”