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Wheelchair user-friendly public bath owned by paralyzed man in west Japan proving popular

This photo shows Otsu-yu owner Motohiro Yonetani, right, and his wife and the facility's manager Chiyako at Otsu-yu in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture, on Feb. 22, 2021. The installation of handrails and other equipment has made it easier for people with disabilities to take a bath. (Mainichi/Yusuke Konishi)

OTSU, Shiga -- A public bath in this west Japan city whose owner is partially paralyzed has become popular among people with disabilities, including wheelchair users, since its reopening in November last year after renovations to become barrier-free.

    The Otsu-yu bathhouse in the city's Daimondori district is where people with disabilities can safely enjoy taking a dip. The facility was made progressively barrier-free by owner Motohiro Yonetani's wife and manager Chiyako, 47, after a stroke left her 44-year-old husband disabled. A slope has been installed at the entrance so that wheelchair users can easily enter and leave, and handrails are also attached to bathtubs. The renovated bathhouse has built up a good reputation and among its customers are those from the neighboring prefecture of Kyoto.

    Otsu-yu was opened in 1959 by Motohiro's parents, and it has been the family business since then. However, the situation changed in 2017 when Motohiro's mother, then the manager of the facility, passed away from pancreas cancer. Chiyako, who had been a corporate employee, left the company and became an attendant at the "bandai" reception of the bathing facility. Though she helped cleaning while caring for her father-in-law, Motohiro's burden increased.

    The couple would balance the daily income and spending and manage stock after closing the bath at midnight and go to bed as late as 6 a.m. They would wake up at noon to boil water and clean the bathtubs. As they had tasks such as buying goods even on closed days, they did not have time to rest.

    This continued for about two years before Motohiro toppled from a lobby chair in March 2019. Though his life was saved, the right side of his body became paralyzed, and it became difficult for him to speak. His disabilities were recognized as requiring "level 3" care in which a moderate level of assistance is required for everyday activities, such as standing, excretion and bathing. The couple were forced to suspend the business.

    Chiyako then decided on a barrier-free renovation "to create a bath house everyone can enjoy at ease." However, just as she made a request to an architect she knew and the construction began, her anxiety grew bigger, causing her left foot to become paralyzed, and she was hospitalized for 2 1/2 months. Despite her troubles, she proceeded with the renovation work while caring for her husband, and reopened Otsu-yu in November last year. Five newly hired staff members are dividing up tasks of cleaning the facility and maintaining the boilers.

    The Yonetanis have prepared two waterproof wheelchairs for guests to switch into at the entrance so they can enter the bathing area. Two shower booths, one in the men's bath and the other in the women's, have been designed so that hot water comes from above and the sides, and users can rinse their entire body just by pushing a button. A rectangular platform and handrails have also been installed so that customers can move the wheelchair beside the platform, slide their body onto it, and slowly go into the water while holding the handrail. Public baths where wheelchair users can go into the bathing area while sitting are apparently rare in Japan.

    It has been four months since reopening and the number of customers with physical disabilities has increased. When assisted, many apparently apologize.

    "Instead of saying 'sorry,' you can just say 'thanks,'" Chiyako said, with a kind smile. "Don't hesitate to come here again," she called out to customers.

    Otsu-yu is open between 3 p.m. and midnight, and is closed on Wednesdays. As part of coronavirus countermeasures, the number of customers is limited to 50 over three hours. Entrance fees are 450 yen (about $4) for an adult, 150 yen (about $1.40) for an elementary school child, and 100 yen (about 90 cents) for a preschooler. For more information, contact Otsu-yu by phone on 077-523-1158 (in Japanese).

    (Japanese original by Yusuke Konishi, Otsu Bureau)

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