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Yoroku: Struggling bathhouses hope to soak up public's support

Japanese people's love of a hot bath dates back deep in history. Records say medieval poet Fujiwara no Teika (1162-1241) visited Arima Onsen hot spring resort in Hyogo Prefecture, western Japan, to recover his health, while feudal warlord Takeda Shingen (1521-1573) did the same at Yumura Onsen hot spring in Yamanashi Prefecture, west of Tokyo. Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616), the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate that ruled Japan for 265 years, basked in the hot waters of Atami Onsen in Shizuoka Prefecture, central Japan. Warriors and poets alike favored soaking in a hot tub.

The custom of commoners going to public bathhouses became popular during the Edo period (1603-1868). Sharing a large bathtub with others enabled people to interact and build open relationships with locals and even strangers, on top of healing their bodies and souls. Public bathhouses have served as a forum for relaxation and communication for people in the community, and the number of such facilities, called "sento" in Japanese, reached a peak of roughly 18,000 across Japan in 1968.

Today, however, public bathhouses are struggling. Their number across the country dwindled to somewhere around 2,300 in 2018 after a year-by-year decrease. Reasons behind many public bathhouses going out of business include a decline in the number of customers, the aging of facility operators and a lack of successors, as well as the dilapidation of facilities and hefty renovation costs.

Alarmed by the critical situation, the public bath industry's trade unions nationwide have poured their efforts into remedying the status quo to save even a single public bathhouse from going under. The Tokyo Sento Association has solicited from the public what it calls "sento supporters," who will be tasked with sending out information about the charms of sento. A public bath in Kyoto, western Japan, offers "rakugo" comic storytelling shows in its changing rooms. Amid the unprecedented inbound tourism boom, foreign YouTubers have also been deployed to introduce online the traditional Japanese culture of public bathhouses.

To deal with the chronic shortage of successors, there are moves to call on sento-loving youngsters and companies to get involved in sento operations. Stylish bathhouses are also popping up thanks to subsidies for refurbishment provided by municipalities upon requests from local bathhouse trade unions.

Many public bathhouses are still in dire straits, but in Tokyo, the average number of customers per sento per day has been slightly on the rise. There are also reports of foreign customers jamming public bathhouses in Osaka Prefecture, western Japan, and in Sapporo, the capital of the northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido.

Why not visit public bathhouses in your hometown, with a map of local sento in your hands? The murals painted across the walls above the bathtubs -- often depicting Mount Fuji and other landscapes -- may offer you a break from your everyday life.

("Yoroku," a front-page column in the Mainichi Shimbun)

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