Community support prompts a rethink on bathhouse closure

The operator of a long-standing public bathhouse in rural Japan is looking to find someone to take over the business that his family has run for four generations.

Kuwazawa Hiroyuki, 53, and his 80-year-old mother Setsuyo have simply run out of steam keeping the labor-intensive facility open. But people in the neighborhood it serves are not ready to let it go.

The tall distinctive chimney of bathhouse Kuwanoyu has marked the skyline of Shiojiri, Nagano Prefecture, for almost a century. On a fine day, bright sunlight from its high ceiling floods the washstands and two large tubs, which accommodate up to 10 customers.

The bathhouse, or sento, is a Japanese tradition. It's a place not only to get clean, but also to interact with neighbors, relax and catch up on gossip.

The number of facilities is in rapid decline. Kuwanoyu is the only remaining sento in Shiojiri City, which has a population of 65,000. It welcomes up to 80 bathers each day.

Owner Hiroyuki heats the water the traditional way, using firewood. His customers say his baths are "soft," and that they warm the body gently.

While he does the physical work required to keep things running, his mother welcomes customers at the entrance.

Bathers at Kuwanoyu in Shiojiri City, Nagano Prefecture

Kuwanoyu was founded in 1929 by Hiroyuki's great-grandfather, who was in the lumber trade. It has been in the family ever since. Hiroyuki took over 5 years ago, after his father, the third-generation owner, died of illness.

Kuwazawa Hiroyuki and his mother Setsuyo run Kuwanoyu bathhouse.

A painful decision

Last summer, the mother and son made the difficult decision to close down. Hiroyuki says they have reached their physical limit.

Keeping up the tradition takes a toll. The firewood must be of a uniform size, so Hiroyuki cuts the logs individually with a chainsaw. In winter, the furnace consumes about 180 kilograms of fuel per day. In order to maintain the water temperature, Hiroyuki adds wood four or five times an hour, sometimes up to 10 times.

"I get out of breath just carrying the wood," he says. "It's hard work."

Hiroyuki puts wood in the stove to maintain the water temperature.

The sento is also time-consuming to run, despite only opening from 3 p.m. through 9:30 p.m. Hiroyuki starts work at 11 a.m., feeding wood into the stove. At the end of the evening, after he has cleaned the tubs, restocked drinks in the fridge and other chores, it's around 2 a.m.

"It was hard to close a business that has been passed down for four generations," Hiroyuki says. "But seeing my mother working so hard to keep it going, I thought we had reached the end."

Operating the sento takes a lot of work.

The aging building is another problem. Kuwanoyu was last rebuilt in 1951, and wear and tear is showing on the filtration system, water tank and plumbing. Hiroyuki says an upgrade would be expensive.

Sento disappear across Japan

Kuwanoyu's challenges are typical of many aging sento, whose number across Japan has been falling for the past 60 years. According to the National Federation of Public Bath Industry Trade Unions, there were 17,999 sento in the association in 1968. But by 2024, about 90 percent of them have closed, leaving only 1,653 still running.

The reasons include the widespread use of showers and baths inside people's homes, increasing fuel costs, and the shortage of successors to run a bathhouse.

Search for a successor

Since Hiroyuki announced the business was closing, a number of customers visited Kuwanoyu to take their final bath. Some asked if they can help somehow to keep the doors open.

Hiroyuki and Setsuyo also received calls from bathhouse operators outside the prefecture expressing an interest in taking it over.

The outpouring of support prompted Hiroyuki to rethink. He now wants to pass the baton to the next generation.

"I came to think that finding a successor is the last thing I can do for the community," says Hiroyuki, who is now actively searching for someone to take it on.

"My son and I cannot keep it going, but I would be happy if we could preserve it somehow," notes Setsuyo. "I would like to enjoy a bath here as a customer."

Kuwanoyu may close its doors for a while during the search for a successor. As part of the handover Hiroyuki plans to give away the building for free.

"I want to entrust our sento to someone who has the passion to preserve it for the community," he says.

Kuwanoyu will close its doors at the end of June...for a while.