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Can't wash your back? Bathhouses reviving Edo period 'sansuke' to rinse it for you

Tomohiro Migita rinses the back of a customer at the bathing facility Yu no Izumi Sagami Health Center in Zama, Kanagawa Prefecture, on Jan. 24, 2018. (Mainichi)

In Edo period public bathhouses, workers called "sansuke" would wash customers' backs. In charge of tending the fire that warmed the bathwater and adjusting the temperature, the bath attendants kept things running smoothly behind the scenes. The back-washers have since disappeared, but recent years have seen a push to bring back the position.

    "Metal-roofed houses had started cropping up one by one, but the area was still like a burned field," recalls 83-year-old Yoshinobu Boyama of Tokyo's Setagaya Ward as he related what the capital had looked like when he first moved there from Ishikawa Prefecture. He began working at a "sento," or public bathhouse, in Ota Ward a few years after the end of World War II. At first, he searched construction sites for kindling for the fire to warm the bathwater. Under the tutelage of another attendant old enough to be his father, Boyama was soon put in charge of the fire. It was during that time that he experienced working as a back-washer at several baths.

    Customers wishing to have their back washed paid at the counter along with the entrance fee and received a wooden token that they would prop up beside their seat or set on the ledge above their spot in the washing area. Regular customers stuck wetted tags to the mirror. The attendant by the bathtub was alerted by a bell rung at the front desk. One ring meant a male customer while two meant a female one. A male attendant saw to the baths of both sexes. The sento workers learned to blend into the background, unnoticed by the bathers.

    Yoshinobu Boyama recalls his time working as a sansuke, in Tokyo's Setagaya Ward on Jan. 24, 2018. (Mainichi)

    After taking hot water from the bathtub in a bathing basin, the sansuke would wash the customer's back and arms with a loofa sponge. The attendants were careful to observe the customer's physical condition and to notice silent cues about the person's mood, finishing up by rinsing the customer's back with hot water from the bucket while being mindful of others nearby. Finally, the attendant would cover the customer's shoulders with a towel and give them a massage. Each session would take roughly 10 minutes.

    "It sounds simple, but in reality it isn't easy because it's an interaction between two people," says Boyama. Even after the back-washing had been completed, attendants would make sure to refill the customer's bucket with hot water, and adjust the amount of bathwater and the fire's intensity while seeing how many customers are there.

    At age 28, Boyama acquired a public bath in Meguro Ward -- a business he ran for some 40 years. "Sensitivity and alertness are important when it comes to running a public bath," emphasizes Boyama. "If you can't feel the overall operation on your skin, you won't make it."

    As the boiling and temperature adjustment of bathwater became automated, behind-the-scenes tasks at bathhouses dwindled and the attendants vanished. Sansuke disappeared as well. The last "sansuke" that served both the women's and men's bath is said to be 79-year-old Shusetsu Tachibana, who retired in 2013 from the back-washing work he had done for over half a century at "Saito-yu" in Tokyo's Arakawa Ward. Third-generation owner of the bathhouse Katsuteru Saito, 73, recalls, "At our peak, we handed out 40 to 50 tags per day." Tachibana had a loyal fan following, and Saito says calls still come in requesting the sansuke's services, which were offered for 400 yen and came with a wooden tag reading "rinse."

    Third-generation operator Katsuteru Saito holds a wooden token with the word "rinse" written on it at the Saito-yu public bathhouse in Tokyo's Arakawa Ward, on Jan. 16, 2018. (Mainichi)

    At the bathing facility Yu no Izumi Sagami Health Center in Zama, Kanagawa Prefecture, at the end of January, 51-year-old assistant manager Tomohiro Migita, a towel wrapped around his waist, rinses the back of a 74-year-old customer. He began offering the free service after being trained directly by Saito-yu's Tachibana.

    "I'm happy that I can have places I can't reach rinsed for me," the customer commented.

    However, not only attendants but bathhouses in general are gradually disappearing. According to the Japan Sento Association, bathhouse numbers reached a peak of some 18,000 nationally in 1968. By 2017, that had fallen to just around 2,500.

    Under these circumstances, there have also been other movements to pass sento culture and associated traditional trades onto the next generation. Near the bathhouse that Boyama once operated, at a sento called "Midori-yu," a project to revive the sansuke profession is underway. Operator Tomoko Shimizu moved from beauty salon-related work to running the bathhouse 10 years ago. In September 2017, when she told a local shiatsu practitioner about her idea, plans began to advance quickly. With Boyama's help, the male shiatsu specialist debuted as a modern-day "sansuke" in February. He plans to hold a back-washing event once a month for customers using the men's bath.

    "I would like to offer customers something combining a traditional trade and shiatsu knowledge," Shimizu says. There isn't a person who hasn't experienced built-up stress or aggravation. Precisely because baths -- and an open ear to listen to everyday problems -- can offer a reprieve when people are exhausted, Shimizu thought of reviving the sansuke profession at Midori-yu. "Being able to have someone comfortably rinse your back is an amazing thing," she says. "There are probably many people who have been rescued by sansuke."

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