Ron Lam

Japan-based writer and traveller, specialising in design, lifestyle and travel journalism. Ron previously served as an editor of MING Magazine, ELLE Decoration and CREAM.

Revolution of sento

06 2017 | Issue 21

I seldom use the bathtub at my home. Whenever I want to take a bath, I go to sento, or also known as communal bath house. Funaoka Onsen, located at Nishijin in Kyoto, is the bath house I often visit. Formerly an inn, it ceased the accommodation operation during the World War II, as it could not cater any dining services. Its large bath house has been preserved and operated independently since then. Given its stunning vintage decorations, Funaoka Onsen is widely acclaimed in Japan and overseas. However, almost all newly built homes in Japan have bathrooms, according to the owner of Funaoka, so most visitors to the bath house are now tourists instead of locals. 

The number of bath houses in Japan is suffering a steady decline year after year. In 2015, the Japanese government issued 26,221 licenses for running public bath houses, among which only 4,293, or 16.7%, were sento, while the remainder were bathrooms of gyms and swimming pools. Before the prevalence of bathrooms at homes in the 1970’s, sento accounted for 87% of the total bath houses in Japan. It is worrying that this traditional Japanese culture might disappear in the future amid such a drastic slump in the past few decades. Nonetheless, some young people have recently proposed novel ideas to breathe a new life into this traditional culture. 

Ume no Yu, situated in Kawaramachi-Gojo in Kyoto, is currently run by Sanjiro Minato, who took over the business in 2015 at the age of 25. As there was no bathroom in his dormitory, he had to pay his first visit to a communal bath house when he was a university student, and he was immediately captivated by this culture. He noticed strangers are able to talk frankly in their birthday suit in the large steamy bath house, realising bath houses are not merely venues for washing body but also where social gatherings take place. His enthusiasm for bath houses led him to establish an association of bath house lovers at his university. His obsession has not faded after graduation, as he took over Ume no Yu that faced closure at the time. 

The first step of conserving a place is to forge an emotional tie between the people and the place: people will only cherish it when they feel needing it. Under the helm of Sanjiro Minato, Ume no Yu has truly become a hot spot for social gatherings. Information about activities held in Kyoto and beyond is displayed in the lobby, while it also hosts flea markets and DJ music parties from time to time. This sento breaks the stereotypes usually associated with bath houses; they are not only where the elderly meet, or foreigners look for exotic experiences, but also where the new generation can be linked to. Kenyu Minato, brother of Sanjiro Minato, also took over a bath house, Kikarku Yu, in Kawaguchi in Saitama prefecture. He transformed the changing room of the 70-year-old bath house into a venue for the public to rent and host events, such as performances of rakugo (a type of Japanese verbal entertainment) and manzai (a traditional Japanese stand-up comedy). 

Most sento passively wait for the arrivals of customers, but the Minato brothers adopt an active approach to build ties with the community, namely setting up websites and social media platforms for promotion. Kenyu also gives out leaflets of Kikarku Yu at train stations, a promotional means that is commonplace for shops but not for sento. The bigger breakthrough of the operation of Kikarku Yu is the pop-up stores set up at its car park by various shops; for instance, it collaborated with a vintage clothing store in March and has worked with cafés in the past. The goal of the reform undertaken by the Minato brothers is to appeal to the new generation so that the bath houses could survive in long run. 

The management of bath houses has become more diversified in recent years. I Love Yu, a bath house in Naoshima, is the brainchild of artist Ohtake Shinro, who showcases the bizarre world in his mind through the façade, interior décor, bathtubs and wall paintings of the bath house. Located at Naoshima, which is internationally renowned as an “art island”, I Love Yu is an art project that transcends the daily aspects of bathing. The old generation, who are used to frequenting bath houses, will surely be amazed by it, too. 

Most bath houses are incorporated in ancient properties, but Hinode Yu is located within a new building in Taitō in Tokyo Metropolis. The bath house is located on the ground floor and first floor of the building, while the upper floor is a shared office space. Office tenants could relieve their fatigue, or simply chit-chat with their hard-working companions, at the bath house after a long day of work. Hinode Yu is where you will feel stressed out and relaxed at the same time. 

We’re living in an era of multi-tasking— many people have more than one job and feel difficult to be defined in one simple category, but they find satisfaction and freedom in this kind of life. It’s the same for running a place that you can’t be closed-minded and bound by existing rules. With multiple functions, there are always chances for desolate places like bath houses to become alive again.