Sagara Masayuki was just 21 when he pulled the plug on a career with a systems development firm and entered an industry that appeared to be heaving its last breath. Sagara had always loved public baths and hot springs, and would tour the country visiting them. He even took notes about the features he liked and the ones that he didn’t.
When he learned, in 2019, that the elderly owner of a bathhouse in Tokyo’s Nishi Koyama district was planning to shutter the place, he asked if he could take over. By the end of the year, he had.
“I never really told anyone, but I’d been thinking about owning a sento for a long time,” he says. “Every time I went to a bathhouse I spoke to customers and the owner. I noted how many customers were there and what kind of customers, how many shoe lockers they had. Basically a lot of numbers.”
Over the next seven months, with the help of his friends, Sagara put all his research to use. He gave the premises a much-needed face lift, installing a 7,000-book library in the lobby, as well as a refit under the floor. “I had to locate all the pipes myself. I was down there for about three weeks tracing them by hand. It was incredibly hard. I don't know anything about plumbing.”
His Tokyo Yokujo sento reopened in July 2020 and though the coronavirus pandemic was already gripping the capital, he says business has been strong. While other types of businesses have been forced to shut or curtail their hours, sento are categorized as essential public health facilities and allowed to stay open.
In fact, the coronavirus-related restrictions may have helped Sagara. Taki Tsukasa, a freelance writer and regular visitor to Tokyo Yokujo, says it’s one of the few places where she can still meet and talk to people.
Architect Imai Kentaro has been making that argument for decades. “Japanese people have had a deep connection with public baths throughout history,” he says. “There’s a record of sento in the Kamakura Period (1185–1333). But people nowadays find them hard to enter. Cafes and bookstores have glass fronts, but sento are places where people take their clothes off, so they’re closed buildings.”
Imai began renovating sento 20 years ago, revamping them for a contemporary audience. He employs natural materials to create spaces at once nostalgic and strikingly modern.
Imai believes bathhouses can be relevant to the modern customer if the designer takes into account the social, situational and individual factors of the location. He studies the area’s demographics, looks at the history, considers the competition, and tries to find an area’s “voice” before embarking on a refit.
Imai’s sento now furnish locations from the Tokyo suburbs to some of the city’s most fashionable areas, and he believes that if you get the design right, public bathhouses can attract a new audience and thrive in the modern era.
Tokyo Yokujo’s Sagara thinks so too: “I would like to continue to hold various events in the future, and if we succeed in our business model, I hope to spread it to public bathhouses all over the country.”