National | AT A GLANCE

Japan's public baths hope foreign tourists will help keep the taps running

by Satoko Kawasaki

Staff Photographer

Japan’s public baths, known as sento, represent an institution with hundreds of years of history. They provided an important public service in the days before homes had their own hot-water bathtubs.

The entrance of the Inariyu sento in Tokyo
The entrance of the Inariyu sento in Tokyo’s Kita Ward is designed like that of a temple. It was a common architectural style for sento in Tokyo. | SATOKO KAWASAKI

Sento can range in style from simple hot springs piped into a large tub to modern facilities resembling theme parks and offering a range of therapies.

This sento has a large dressing space with lockers for customers

In the Edo Period (1603-1868), sento were so popular that every town had on. They were important centers of the community.

Yasuhiro Tsuchimoto, the fourth owner of the Inariyu sento, pours warm water over the floor when the facility opens in the early afternoon to keep bathers

Sento are on the decline both because homes now have fully fledged bathrooms and because retiring operators find it hard to find successors to take on their businesses. There are now around 630 establishments in Tokyo, down from 2,700 in 1968, a peak year for sento.

One of the baths at the Inariyu sento in Tokyo
One of the baths at the Inariyu sento in Tokyo’s Kita Ward bubbles away for customers to soak in. | SATOKO KAWASAKI

Faced with this trend, the Tokyo Sento Association is trying to tap demand from non-Japanese residents and tourists.

A sign in English at a sento helps non-Japanese customers, in a bid to draw more custom.
A sign in English at a sento helps non-Japanese customers, in a bid to draw more custom. | SATOKO KAWASAKI

It has installed explanatory signs at each facility showing non-Japanese speakers how to use a sento in five languages. It also plans to create an app for people to search for sento in English.

This section, appearing in the first week of each month, explores in photographs neighborhoods of interest.

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