National

'Sento' attract modern clientele but tradition isn't circling the drain

by Takuro Kishimoto

Kyodo

“Sento” in Tokyo that try to stand out are drawing new customers even as the popularity of communal bathhouses continues to decline from the days when most Japanese homes lacked baths.

Shimizu-Yu in Minami-Aoyama, a fashionable part of Minato Ward, now looks like a cafe or beauty parlor after the 100-year-old bathhouse underwent a drastic makeover in 2009 by owner Masahiro Okura, 52.

To lure young people, Okura made “fashionability, quality and cleanness” his priorities in rebuilding the sento. For example, he installed a special machine to boil water believed to be good for beauty and installed the kinds of baths usually found in resorts, such as a highly concentrated carbonated spring bath and a “silk bath” of fine bubbles.

According to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, the capital boasted some 2,700 sento around 1965 but only 682 as of the end of July. A survey by the government a year ago found that 45 percent of sento owners were thinking of shutting down.

Okura likewise once considered getting out of the business but decided to try a “new approach to please contemporary people.”

The decision has proved successful: Customers have more than doubled since the bathhouse was refurbished.

Jakotsuyu, a long-established sento in the touristy Asakusa district in Taito Ward where Sensoji Temple is situated, has become popular with foreign visitors in recent years, with as many as 40 or so coming in per day.

The sento installed a ticket machine with instructions in English, Chinese and Korean to help foreign customers and issues them a leaflet explaining the etiquette of public baths.

“I would like to cater to foreign customers while maintaining the traditional atmosphere of a sento,” says owner Shigeo Murozuka, 61.

Motonobu Matsumoto, the 43-year-old owner of Matsumoto-Yu in Nakano Ward, hooked up with a health care provider in 2012. Seniors bathe with caretakers at the sento and eat lunch in its lobby before it opens to general customers.

Shigeru Miyamoto, 80, of Shinjuku Ward, praised the new service. “I felt safe due to the presence of caretakers and became fit by bathing in a big bathtub,” he said.

Owner Matsumoto: “I would like to continue working out measures that meet the needs of the times.”

Sento Bain Douche caters to people who go for an after-work run on the nearby jogging course around the Imperial Palace.

They change at Bain Douche — a traditional sento despite the chic name — go for a run and then return for a soak.

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