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Tokyo bathhouse opens 'naked school' for lecture series

Kenta Igeta, left, teaches a class on the board game Go to an enthusiastic -- and naked -- group of students at the public bathhouse Hinodeyu, in Tokyo's Taito Ward, on May 27, 2017. (Mainichi)

The "Hinodeyu" public bathhouse in Tokyo's Taito Ward holds an unusual event once a month -- "Hadaka no Gakko (naked school)" -- which is gathering quite favorable reviews.

    For the event, the bathhouse invites its regulars and locals as lecturers to teach classes to visitors as they soak -- naked -- in the hot water of the pools. The idea for the event came from the fourth-generation owner of the bath Yuichi Tamura, 36, as an effort to preserve the culture of the public bathhouse, called "sento" in Japanese, for the next generation. He aims to make the event live up to its name and become a hot community program.

    On May 27, class began before opening hours just past noon at Hinodeyu, only a short distance from Inaricho Station on the Tokyo Metro Ginza Line. The theme for the lesson was the Japanese board game Go. The instructor is the president of IGO Holdings Corp. Kenta Igeta, whose company holds Go workshops and other activities to promote the game. In the men's bath, both Igeta and the guests are enthusiastic about the "naked" lecture. A 30-year-old American participant, Arnold Donald, commented with a laugh, "Because we're all naked, it was a really open and comfortable atmosphere."

    In the women's bath, the class on the basics of Go are taught by Igeta to clothed students enjoying the foot bath. The women commented that while the game is difficult, they are eager to learn more, and relaxed chatter filled the bath. "The classes have a nostalgic feeling to them," commented Mitsuko Tanaka, a 46-year-old certified care worker from Katsushika Ward. "When I was a child, adults in the bathhouse would scold me or teach me common sense. I think public bathhouses were originally that kind of educational space."

    However, Tokyo's public bathhouses are facing a difficult situation. Almost every private house has a bath, and both the sento facilities and the people who operate them are aging, resulting in a dwindling number of locations. According to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government's website, while there were 1,025 public baths at the end of 2005, there were only 602 sento facilities at the end of 2016.

    Tamura took over the family business as the head of Hinodeyu after graduating from university. He heard a wide variety of stories from customers while at the facility's reception desk, such as guests who used to fish on tuna boats or make tatami mats. "I thought that if we could share these interesting stories with other customers, the bathhouse would become even more enjoyable," Tamura explained. Thus, the "naked school" was born.

    "Being naked closes the distance between teacher and student and makes it easier to ask questions," Tamura said. He hopes that the school will become an impetus for people to think "let's go to the sento."

    The "school" opened in March of this year. The plan is to continue to have a teacher make the rounds teaching classes in the men's and women's baths once a month outside of Hinodeyu's normal hours of operation. In the case of the teacher being of the opposite sex, the teacher and participants will hold class clothed at the foot bath.

    So far, Hidenoyu has held lectures by the proprietor of a kitchen tool shop from the nearby Kappabashi wholesale district and by a performer of the traditional Japanese verbal comedy rakugo. Tuition for the classes is included in the price of using the bath -- only 460 yen, and class registration can be carried out on the school's Facebook page "Hadaka no Gakko" (in Japanese).

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