Masazumi Kato sighed deeply as he lowered himself into a tub at a public bathhouse, enjoying a return to a tradition that was largely off-limits during the capital’s coronavirus emergency.

With the lifting of a nationwide state of emergency Monday, onsen are gradually reopening. And fans like 52-year-old Kato have few qualms about returning.

“I believe they are taking anti-virus measures, like chlorine,” he said as he soaked in the outdoor tub with other naked men submerged in pools nearby.

“I trust them and I like to use this place,” said Kato, who frequents the Yumominosato facility in Yokohama. The five-story bathhouse is typical of the hugely popular onsen that dot the country.

It hosts a range of indoor and outdoor pools, usually with spring water and sometimes equipped with jets to massage pressure points or mineral-rich water said to offer health benefits.

The facility is also home to a restaurant, massage rooms, a comic book library and various relaxation rooms. For many, an onsen trip is a daylong experience, with bathing punctuated by naps, massages and lunch.

But most large onsen shut their doors when the government declared a state of emergency in April for Tokyo and six other prefectures. But the closures, like the emergency, eventually expanded nationwide.

The government designated smaller bathhouses called sento — which in the past often catered to people lacking baths at home — as essential businesses, allowing them to remain open.

They were asked to increase ventilation in closed areas, maintain social distancing and wipe down areas people touch, including lockers and door knobs.

A man relaxes at a onsen in Yokohama. | AFP-JIJI
A man relaxes at a onsen in Yokohama. | AFP-JIJI

But Yumominosato was closed for around two months and is now hoping it can convince customers it is safe to return.

Kato said he was not worried about the virus, despite the enclosed indoor spaces and the impossibility of wearing a mask while in the tubs.

“We already know how it transmits from a person to person and from objects to people. So you don’t go out and touch everything in your sight,” he said.

“I think individually I am taking the necessary measures.”

Disease experts have not specifically discouraged the use of public baths, though they have stressed that patrons should observe good hygiene practices and social distancing.

You Sasaki washes himself at a Japanese hot spring. | AFP-JIJI
You Sasaki washes himself at a Japanese hot spring. | AFP-JIJI

At Yumominosato, customers must now have their temperature checked before entering, and are asked to keep their distance both in and out of the water.

They are also asked to wear masks outside of bathing areas and make use of the bottles of hand sanitizer placed throughout the building.

Before the pandemic, the facility regularly welcomed up to 1,000 people a day, and demand is gradually picking up again, said manager Hiroshi Saito.

The first two days after it reopened saw 500 customers visit.

“First and foremost, I am relieved,” Saito said.

“Of course the coronavirus is not completely gone. The possible second wave of infections is also something that is in people’s minds. So we have increased our sanitation efforts … so that our guests can fully relax and really enjoy our facility.”

A man sits in an outdoor tub at a Yokohama onsen. | AFP-JIJI
A man sits in an outdoor tub at a Yokohama onsen. | AFP-JIJI

And that is just what businessman You Sasaki was doing as he sat in an outdoor tub, enjoying the early summer sun and a gentle breeze.

“This feels good. Feels great,” the 50-year-old said.

He said he had adhered to “stay home” calls during the emergency but had been counting the days until onsen reopen as an aficionado who was using them three to four times a week.

“The last time I came here was the end of March. The onsen is always special. It’s hard to explain in words. Dipping in a large tub is just so relaxing,” Sasaki said.

“This is part of our lives. I don’t think you can separate us from this, the bath. It’s true for me. It’s true for every Japanese.”

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