Taking a Plunge
Dec. 3, 2015
Japan has public baths, called "sento", scattered everywhere, from small towns to the biggest cities. The sento are not just for bathing -- since ancient times local people have used them as places to gather and socialize.
But sento are in crisis. Bathhouse numbers across the country have dropped from a high of 20,000 to about 4,000. That's partly because most homes now have their own baths. Against this backdrop, one man in Kyoto is trying to keep his sento bubbling.
The sento operated by 25-year-old Yusuke Minato opened more than 80 years ago. He began renting and managing it in May this year.
His day on the job begins with heating the water. The sento uses firewood -- the traditional method. Wood is cheaper than oil or gas. Once the furnace is lit, it burns continuously for 12 hours, until the bathhouse closes.
Most sento are run by families, but Minato works alone. He can’t afford to hire anyone. Minato began going to sento when he was at a university in Kyoto. That's when he got hooked on the experience.
"Everyone says a sento is the best place to communicate with people," he says. "For me, visiting a bath was the best way to get to know a community."
Minato’s fascination grew. He visited over 600 sento in four years -- and learned they were rapidly disappearing. He searched for ways to save them. He quit his job at a clothing company -- and decided to try running one. He took over a sento that was about to go out of business.
"There was no one else to do it," he says. "I wonder why so many people say they like sento, but no one does anything to save them."
The sento opens at 3.30pm. The entrance fee is about 4 dollars for adults. There are separate baths for men and women. "I come about every other day," said one woman visitor. "It’s a waste to fill up my bath, since I live alone. And anyway the tub is small."
A man told us he comes every day. "The manager is a good guy," he said.
Minato leaves his post at the front when he heads to the furnace. He adds wood to the fire every 40 to 50 minutes. This way the water temperature will not drop. If Minato had a family, or employees, they could do this job.
It’s tough doing it all alone. And recently, business has been dwindling. Occasionally however, he gets a delightful surprise. Six months after he launched his business, a customer turned up ready to help. He was one of several customers who saw Minato working hard and decided to lend a hand. They now come to clean whenever they have time. On this day, three people are helping.
"My customers give me energy to work harder," says Minato.
Minato’s passion to preserve the sento has motivated those around him. He’s now managing with his customers’ help. But he also faces another serious problem -- the facility is run down.
The sento is old and needs extensive repairs. While cleaning out the chimney, Minato found it was peppered with rust holes. He managed to plug up them, one by one. But as he discovers more problems, the repair costs will stack up. This is one of the major causes of sento closures, and their dwindling numbers throughout Japan.
In order to raise funds, Minato designed an advertising pamphlet. One of this targets is foreign tourists. Including domestic visitors, some 55 million tourists come to Kyoto every year. Minato wrote out instructions on using sento, to make it easier for first timers to enjoy the experience.
"There are many hostels and inns near my sento," he says. "It seems likely that more will pop up. So I’ll probably be getting more first-time customers."
Minato took the flyers to a hostel in his neighborhood that is popular with foreign guests. Outside the bathhouse he encounters some tourists and invites them in.
His advertising efforts had some success. A week after he handed out the pamphlets, he said, "Of the 75 customers we had today, 28 were foreign. That’s a record."
Minato continues his search for ways to revitalize Japan's sento culture. "I want to share the know-how I learn with other sento, so they can use it, too," he says. "I hope they'll become profitable enough to stay in business."
In the studio, Sho Beppu and Aki Shibuya discuss the aspects of the sento situation.
Beppu: So the sento is catching on with foreign tourists.
Shibuya: Yes, and as you know, there is sento etiquette that foreigners may not be familiar with, like washing your body before you enter the water and not allowing soap to get inside the bath. Minato has prepared these instructions in both English and Chinese. You can see he's really trying.
Beppu: Is he doing anything to attract more local customers?
Shibuya: Well, he's starting to hold events at the sento. Can you imagine, a belly dance performance at a bath?! And he's offering flea markets and music concerts. So it seems he's not just working to preserve a local business. He's also bringing back the sento as a place for the community to gather.