You might not be looking to clean up in the Japanese bathhouse game yourself but what the revival of Tokyo’s ‘sento’ shows is that some old ideas are worth considering anew. This fresh generation of baths is proving relevant to a new audience of bathers seeking community spaces and a place to have clean thoughts.
Yoga classes and vinyl records aren’t typical features of the traditional Japanese sento (a public bathhouse) but these are challenging times for the bath business and Takuya Shimbo, owner of two such Tokyo venues, is doing everything he can to keep this beloved slice of Japanese culture afloat. Shimbo, 41, is the third-generation owner of Daikoku-yu, a 71-year-old bathhouse in northern Tokyo.
Three years ago, he and his wife Tomoko also took over Kogane-yu, an older bathhouse five minutes’ walk away. At one time there were thousands of sento in Tokyo. An essential feature of any neighbourhood, the sento provided communal bathing facilities when few people had baths of their own. Now that 95 per cent of people have bathrooms at home, the customer base is shrinking and, while some sento survive gloriously intact, many others have closed. Shimbo is determined that the sento won’t be scrubbed from Japanese life entirely – in fact, it could yet clean up.
Shimbo had already introduced innovations, such as merchandise and all-night opening, to Daikoku-yu and, before the pandemic, was pulling in 800 customers a day (he says the average for a sento is about 120). He then decided to give the Kogane-yu premises a radical makeover. Artist Hiroko Takahashi pulled the project together, working with architect Jo Nagasaka (and his studio Schemata Architects), who was tasked with bringing the 88-year-old bathhouse into the 21st century. When coronavirus hit, Shimbo launched a crowdfunding appeal to keep the plan on track. The response was overwhelming: 1,034 people chipped in to raise ¥6.58m (€53,000) – more than double the original target.
The transformation is striking but for all its raw concrete, blonde wood and fresh tiling, Kogane-yu retains the core elements of the classic sento: the changing rooms, the noren fabric curtains which divide each room, the rows of low showers and, of course, the large segregated baths. The traditional Tokyo sento is also likely to have a vibrant mural of Mount Fuji, and “Fuji-san” is here too, albeit in a different guise, as interpreted by young artist Yoriko Hoshi.
There are new additions too, including a cypress-wood sauna, a craft-beer bar and a schedule of events. The sento-going demographic is generally older but Kogane-yu is bringing in a fresher audience. “We play vinyl [in the background],” says Shimbo. “Analogue records are a great conversation starter between our young and older patrons. I really feel that the sento can play an important role in building communication between all of its customers. People in Tokyo and Japan love bath culture. Today more and more people from overseas are getting interested too. Business has been tough recently but this is a long-term project. We’re looking at the next generation, not next year.”
Regulars have always known that the sento is about more than bathing. It’s a place for the community; somewhere to linger and chat. And now a younger crowd is learning too. “Kogane-yu has been around for a long time,” says Shimbo. “And we want to keep it alive for a long time to come.”
Travel light: there are lockers in every sento but they tend to be on the small side. Also, tattoos are no-no in most Japanese gyms, pools and public baths. Check before visiting.
Take your shoes off at the entrance, put them in a cubby hole and head to the men’s or women’s side. A small rectangular towel is a standard piece of kit: rent or buy at the door.
Leave clothes, jewellery and everything else in a changing-room locker and enter the bathing area, closing the door after you. No clothes allowed – if you have a problem with nudity, you’re in the wrong place.
This part is crucial: before going near the bath, perch on one of the little stools and get to work on a seated top-to-toe scrub. Shampoo and soap are supplied but bring your own if you prefer something fancier. Rinse yourself and the towel thoroughly, run the shower over the stool and head to the bath.
The water is likely to be hotter than any bath you have comfortably sat in before. Lower in gently (perching is not acceptable). No leaping around, no splashing and absolutely no soap. Find your spot and stay there.
Once you start to go red in the face it’s probably time to get out. Get dressed and enjoy whatever facilities are on offer. Emerge into the cold air with a sense of wellbeing and a feeling of being heated from the inside.