Keeping bath culture hot
Jun. 6, 2017
Public baths are an iconic part of Japanese culture. Known as "sento," they have long been a place for the community to gather. But their numbers have been declining. 50 years ago, Japan had 18,000 public baths. Now there are only 2,600. But two young men have stepped up to the challenge of running a sento and they're getting some support from the local community.
Kiraku-yu is a bathhouse which opened soon after World War Two. A bath costs about four dollars. Some people come all the time, even though they have a bath at home.
The bathhouse serves as an informal gathering place for the community. Some customers even bring something to eat for the young sento managers.
Yusuke Nakahashi and Ken-yu Minato run the sento. They took over about a year ago.
There's a reason why they were adamant about running the bathhouse.
Nakahashi's father always took him to sentos as a child. He says it taught him the basics of building relationships.
"I met so many people in the bathhouse, including children and older people," he says.
"I found the space relaxing and the mixture of people was really comfortable for me. I really liked sentos. The location and timing here seemed perfect and I decided to give it a try."
Minato moved to Tokyo when he was 19. He had difficulty adapting to life there. He says sentos were places where he found peace and people with time to talk.
"I didn't have friends when I first moved to Tokyo," he says.
"When I went to the baths, the person working there would say hi or ask how I was. Even those few kind words made me feel more relaxed. I want to prove that we can be successful running a sento."
They are forging closer ties to the people in the community. Nakahashi remembers what it was like to be a child and wants to be kind to children.
In the year that they've been running the place, customers have gone up by 30 percent.
But, running a sento was much harder than they'd imagined.
Usually, sentos burn gas as a fuel, but to keep down costs, they use scrap wood from demolished houses or old furniture they get for free.
They burn about 400 kilograms a day and have to keep the water hot until closing time at 11 PM.
At times, they struggle with the business. They've had trouble finding sources of free wood.
"Without wood, nothing can start," says Minato. "It doesn't matter how clean we keep things, no hot water means no business."
Running short of wood, Minato goes to investigate a nearby apartment demolition he's heard about from a customer.
He struck it lucky and was able to negotiate a three-week supply of free wood.
"Our customers are so kind," says Minato. "They always let us know where we might be able to find some help. We're so grateful."
This spring, the pair organized a flea market to encourage more people to come.
It was a big day. People came who'd never been to the bathhouse.
The dream, shared by Minato and Nakahashi, of creating a place where the community could get to know each another was coming true.
"We're happy to see a whole range of generations from the young to the old coming here," says Minato." Sentos used to be like that. We hope they stay that way."
"We want people to enjoy themselves and have a chance to communicate," says Nakahashi. "Maybe we can even see the birth of a new culture."