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Some public bathhouse operators and inns in the deluge-hit city of Hitoyoshi in Kumamoto Prefecture are making their hot spring baths available for free to local residents affected by the disaster, helping them to recover from fatigue from living in shelters and to feel refreshed.

Free hot springs are also giving comfort to volunteers who help afflicted people in the city, where many houses and other buildings were flooded due to the overflowing of the Kuma River as a result of torrential rains earlier this month although some have voiced concerns over the possibility of people catching the new coronavirus at crowded baths.

The Sagarahanganjoji Onsen bathhouse kept operating after the heavy rains caused severe damage to the city on July 4. Even before the Kumamoto prefectural government started handing out free vouchers to affected residents, it decided to welcome them for free. More than 100 people now come to take a bath there every day.

“I just thought I have to do something. Some guests were so delighted that they cried,” Taeko Shinbori, the 74-year-old owner of the bathhouse, said. Shinbori is also working as a volunteer with the high school students she is taking care of as boarders.

“No matter how much work we do, there is no end in sight. It’s tough,” Asuka Ogata, a 17-year-old third-grader at Kuma Technical High School in Hitoyoshi, said after finishing a day’s work as a volunteer, which included removing mud from affected areas. “But taking a bath here helps me recover from fatigue and feel I can keep going.”

Yoshitaka Yamada, 70, is staying at a shelter after his house was flooded.

“I can get rid of the fatigue from cleaning up my home,” Yamada said, looking relaxed after a bath. “I can’t sleep well in the shelter. If I couldn’t have taken a bath, I would have been in bad shape.”

Four other bathing facilities in the city also accept affected residents without fees. Among them is Iwai Onsen Yunoyado Sakura, a hot spring inn.

Its manager, Koichi Yoshimura, 37, said that opening the hot spring facility free of charge was “to help people who are having a difficult time.”

With affected local residents and workers engaged in restoration activities, there are more people in the facility than usual. It sometimes gets crowded, a situation that could increase the risk of infection with the coronavirus, but taking countermeasures other than disinfection is difficult, according to Yoshimura.

“Some people can’t bring their own face masks, but we have more important things to worry about than the coronavirus now,” he said.

Meanwhile, the 76-year-old representative of a different facility is cautious about making its bath available for free. “If there isn’t the coronavirus, it wouldn’t be any problem however many people come.”

There have been requests for the facility to open its bath for free. But the representative voiced concern that doing so would lead people other than regular visitors to come and make it crowded as a result, and said that “I want (authorities) to take measures, such as limiting the number of people each bathing facility accepts,” to prevent such facilities from getting too crowded.

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