Public Bathhouses: Take a Dip in Everyday Japan

Tanaka Mizuki: The Young Woman Keeping the Tradition of Bathhouse Paintings Alive


Many traditional neighborhood bathhouses are decorated with huge murals, often featuring Mount Fuji. Today, this tradition is kept alive by just three specialized artists. We spend the day with one of them, a young painter looking to carry the form into the future.

Tanaka Mizuki

Born in Osaka in 1983, grew up in Tokyo. Studied art history at Meiji Gakuin University. Started work as a bathhouse painter as an apprentice to master painter Nakajima Morio in 2004, while she was still a student. Started her own business with her husband in 2013 focusing on bathhouses and building renovation. Spreads the attractions of sentō culture through her blog and other activities.

Keeping a Japanese Tradition Alive

The mere mention of the word sentō (or neighborhood public bath) is enough to trigger nostalgia pangs in most Japanese people old enough to have memories of daily visits to the local bathhouse in their younger years. In recent decades, as bathing at home has become the norm, the number of public baths has declined steadily. According to a nationwide survey carried out in April 2016, sentō have gone from a peak of around 18,000 in 1968 to just 2,625 today. An essential part of the bathhouse experience for many people are the huge murals of Mount Fuji that fill the space above the baths. These paintings are the work of a small band of specialists. At one time dozens of artists around the country specialized in this work, but today only three remain. The oldest, Maruyama Kiyoto, is now 81. Another, Nakajima Morio, is 71, and was officially designated a Contemporary Master Craftsman by the government last year. The third is a little different: She is Tanaka Mizuki, a young woman in her thirties.

One day in January this year, Tanaka set up her ladders and scaffolding inside the Nakanoyu bathhouse in Kasai, located in Edogawa, Tokyo, and got to work on a new painting of Mount Fuji that straddles the women’s and men’s baths. As usual, Tanaka needed to work fast. The plan was to finish the sprawling mural on the one day a week the bathhouse is closed. The mural was to cover an area around six meters across and three meters high from the height of the tubs. Tanaka clambered onto a ladder and started from a patch of sky close to the ceiling.

Tanaka uses oil paints designed for use on outside walls. She blends the three primary colors of yellow, red, and blue into various combinations, adding white to adjust the shades.

Tanaka works with her husband and business partner. They start by scraping off the places where the old paint has started to peel, then painting work, begins on the sky. Tanaka’s husband, handyman Komamura Yoshikazu, is the one up the ladder in this picture.

Tanaka uses a roller to apply fresh paint over the old image.

She uses a paintbrush on detailed parts like leaves and bushes.

With every stroke of the brush, the pine trees come more vividly to life.

Once she’s finished work on the portion of the mural in the women’s bath, Tanaka moves over to the men’s side.

The work continues until around nine at night, with an hour’s break for lunch.

The previous painting decorating the walls of the Nakanoyu was a fresh and invigorating picture of Mount Fuji done by the late Hayakawa Toshimitsu. Because paint deteriorates over time, it is normal for the murals to be replaced every few years. And when repainting the pictures, an iron rule is to make the painting new by shifting the position of the various elements—they should differ when viewed from the women’s and men’s sections—and varying the coloring, even if the basic subject of the painting remains the same, which in the case of sentō is customarily Mount Fuji.

Tanaka’s work starts with the job of scraping away old paint that has started to peel. Then she starts to paint the sky, before adding clouds, foreground, background, and Fujisan, carefully maintaining a sense of balance in the picture all the time as her paintbrush constantly swishes back and forth. It is a job requiring attention to detail as well as vision, concentration, and physical strength. When one side is finished, she moves her gear and gets to work on the other half. By the time the picture is finally finished it is nearly nine o’clock at night. The bathhouse now sports a new, soothing image of Mount Fuji with a more gentle and relaxing color scheme than its predecessors.

The finished painting: a soothing image of Fujisan that helps bathers to relax.

Painting Skies

Tanaka studied art history at Meiji Gakuin University, but she is too young to have memories of visiting the local bathhouse as a child. This leads to the question of how she came to make a career out of painting bathhouse pictures.

Tanaka says she became interested in contemporary art as a student. Her favorite artists are Fukuda Miran, whose works boldly reinterpret historical pieces, and Tabaimo, who treats scenes from everyday life in daring new perspectives. Tanaka became fascinated by the two artists’ use of public baths as a motif, and this prompted her to visit a public bath for the first time as a university student. As she soaked in the hot water and looked at the paintings on the wall, she noticed how the murals helped to add depth to the space and seemed to lure visitors on a journey away from the everyday world. She says she was entranced by the strange attraction of the paintings.

Tanaka also accepts commissions for bathroom paintings in private homes. A few years ago she was approached by a British couple and traveled to London to complete an assignment. The painting depicted Enoshima, a local landmark in Fujisawa, Kanagawa Prefecture, where the couple lived during their time in Japan.

“Time seems to move at a different pace inside a sentō. A lot of the time the bathhouses are built to resemble Buddhist temples. As soon as you walk in you can sense you’ve entered a different space. I like soaking and gazing up at the painting of Mount Fuji. You seem to enter a kind of reverie. Old memories start to come floating back. Sometimes one of the regulars will strike up a conversation. You have these brief interesting experiences. And even though it’s only half an hour or so, I always feel like I’m on a trip to some faraway place.”

Tanaka’s exposure to sentō culture made her interested in finding out more about the painters, and she ended up writing her graduation thesis on the history of the bathhouse paintings. She realized that with many of the bathhouse buildings deteriorating from age and no one available to take over the business traditional sentō were closing one after another, with obvious consequences for the painters who made their living from the bathhouses. Tanaka knew that the few remaining painters were getting older and realized that unless the situation changed, in 100 years’ time this precious culture would be lost forever. “So I thought, if there are no young artists around who can paint these pictures, the quickest thing would be for me to learn to do it myself,” she says. She applied to be taken on as a trainee by Nakajima Morio, and began her apprenticeship in 2004.

The labor was demanding, but observing the master at work held a fascination of its own. “There was something therapeutic about watching these huge murals gradually take shape.” For several years after she started, Tanaka was allowed to paint only skies. Day after day, blue sky after blue sky. This experience made her realize that although masters like Nakajima made it look easy, painting evenly on a wall that often contained bumps and holes required considerable technique. First of all, she had to learn how to handle the paint.

Another early challenge was learning how to give a natural sense of movement to clouds and make them seem to drift naturally in the sky. At first she tended simply to apply big dollops of white paint to the wall in simple shapes. Nakajima was scornful of these early efforts. “That’s not a cloud,” he would say. By painting the subtle gradations and variations of color day after day, Tanaka steadily improved her skills.

From Fuji to Godzilla

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most difficult element was Mount Fuji itself. Tanaka had to pay particular attention to learn how to draw the undulating contours of the mountain. “Often, people depict Fuji as sharply rising, the way Hokusai did in his woodblock prints. But in fact, the slopes of the real mountain are not that steep. I like to paint pictures of Mount Fuji that have gentle curves. I like to think they will help people to relax.”

Tanaka draws on images of Fuji taken from picture postcards and travel agency brochures. She says she is always looking for a hint of how the mountain appears to ordinary people. “You could say that these images amount to a collective memory of Fuji.” Her aim is to paint an image of the mountain that will seem familiar enough to trigger a feeling of nostalgia in anyone who sees it. Sentō pictures cannot contain cherry blossoms, autumn foliage, or anything else that limits the image to a single season. The setting evening sun is also a no-no—the standard image is of the mountain against the backdrop of a bright, sunlit day.

Tanaka says it is mostly in the Kantō region around Tokyo and neighboring Kanagawa and Saitama Prefectures where pictures of Fujisan are the default choice for paintings in public baths. This tradition apparently dates from the Meiji era spanning the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when a huge lookout viewing tower shaped like Mount Fuji in Asakusa and a panorama picture of the mountain as seen from a train in Kanda-Nishiki-chō were popular tourist draws. The bathhouse paintings are probably a reminder of these earlier attractions. Outside Kantō, many bathhouses do not have paintings on their walls, and are often decorated with mosaics or simple white-painted wooden paneling.

Tanaka started her own business in 2013, but insists she has plenty of room for improvement as an artist. “Maybe because of my character I tend to over obsess about the details of my paintings. Experienced artists have a better sense of where they need to concentrate their energies. This allows them to finish a painting much more quickly, which is something I am working on.”

Recently, certain groups have turned to bathhouses for publicity purposes. Last year a hot springs facility in Tokyo, the Ōta Kuroyu Onsen Daini Hinodeyu in Nishi-Kamata, commissioned Tanaka to do a special painting featuring Godzilla. The picture, which was on display for a limited time, was inspired by the film Godzilla Resurgence, one of last year’s Japanese box office hits.

“Quite a few of the major scenes in the movie were filmed in Kamata, and someone from the municipal office got in touch to say they wanted to use this opportunity to promote the area,” Tanaka says. The picture she came up with combines Godzilla with local landmarks as well as many elements of the sentō tradition. On the left of her picture is the iconic façade of Kamata’s sunrise shopping arcade, Honmonji temple in nearby Ikegami, and on the right Haneda Airport and the Tamagawa River, with Mount Fuji towering above them. When the campaign was over, Tanaka painted a new Fujisan over the top of the Godzilla picture.

The “Godzilla Bath” painting at Hinodeyu in Nishi-Kamata. This mural by Tanaka adorned the walls of the bathhouse from July to early November 2016. (© Toho Co., Ltd.)

Passing on the Tradition

Although the battle for survival among sentō is likely to continue into the foreseeable future, Tanaka is adamant that “sentō will never disappear altogether.” Recently, business people and cultural figures with a fondness for Japan’s traditional bathhouses have organized events to make more people aware of their appeal. Tanaka herself has lent a hand in these activities, taking part in children’s painting workshops and live painting events.

And recently sentō seem to be undergoing a resurgence of popularity among people in their twenties. Their fuddy-duddy images are beginning to change, and many young people now regard them as atmospheric places redolent with retro-chic and a desirable old-timey authenticity. Social media sites and dedicated web pages have succeeded in drumming up interest among sentō fans, and in one instance it saved a bathhouse that had been in operation since the 1950s from closing.

Despite these new undertakings, Tanaka says more could be done to promote sentō and dreams of introducing more foreign visitors to the attractions of the traditional neighborhood bathhouse. In recent years, posters and manuals have been produced to introduce foreign visitors to the baths and associated etiquette, and online video guides are now available in several languages. Tanaka says she would like to see more publicity on multi-language websites and wants to have public bathhouses included on city tours: “I’d like it if one day a visit to a neighborhood sentō is seen as a standard part of any tourist’s trip to Japan.”

(Originally written in Japanese by Itakura Kimie of and published on February 24, 2017. All photos by Ōkubo Keizō except where otherwise noted.)

art Mount Fuji bathhouse