Public Bathhouses: Take a Dip in Everyday Japan

Old-School and New-Wave: Two Tokyo Bathhouses


Our look at two bathhouses in northern Tokyo: Takarayu preserves a classic atmosphere from when it was founded 90 years ago, while Taiheiyu was a pioneer in a new wave of modern sentō.

Old-Style Bathing

Bathhouse lovers in Tokyo should head for the northern municipality of Adachi, where there are more than 30 sentō in operation. In this area, long home to many traditional bathhouses, many locals still enjoy going out to use them, even now that almost all homes have their own bathrooms. Adachi has also boosted their popularity by being first among central Tokyo’s 23 municipalities to introduce such innovations as student discounts.

The venerable Takarayu, built in 1927, is a particular recommendation. It provides a quintessential old-style sentō experience, and some fans come a long way to visit. It has the distinctive curves that carpenters of the era applied to bathhouses, making them look like shrines or temples. On the roof, there is a chimney used to let out the smoke from burning firewood to heat the water.

The distinctive curved gables of bathhouses in the Tokyo area.

Bathhouse chimneys were traditionally required by regulation to be 75 shaku, or 23 meters, high; many still are to this day.

“When my grandfather first dug a well and got our bathhouse going, the area was just fields,” says owner Matsumoto Kōichi. Many sentō were destroyed by air raids, but Takarayu was fortunate enough to survive. “Each time an air raid began, they turned out the electric lights, and customers bathed by candlelight.” This is how much a part of everyday life the bathhouse was.

Matsumoto says he found his hanten coat with the bathhouse’s name (タカラ湯) in an old tea chest.

Photographs of the bathhouse in 1938.

Today’s customers are mainly older locals, who prefer the bathhouse to bathing at home. “When someone elderly lives alone, it is more cost-effective to visit the sentō, when you consider the cost of the water, gas, and cleaning,” says Matsumoto. Communal bathing is also safer, as there are other people to prevent accidents like drowning or quickly call an ambulance if someone has heart problems. Foreign tourists staying at a nearby guesthouse drop in to the bathhouse as well.

A spacious, high-ceilinged changing room. The women’s room includes a baby bed.

The large garden is a place to appreciate Japanese aesthetics. It was constructed by Matsumoto’s grandfather, who had a grounding in gardening, and is still maintained. “Older bathhouses had gardens, but many of them have become converted into coin-operated laundries,” Matsumoto explains. Another common feature of past sentō was the bandai platform, from which attendants could observe both the male and female bathing areas. This meant they could watch over customers’ items and prevent any rule-breaking. Recently, however, many customers feel uncomfortable with attendants seeing them naked, so bandai platforms are becoming rarer. Takarayu converted its platform to a modern reception desk during refurbishment in 1988.

The veranda beside the men’s changing room.

The bathhouse garden (left) offers a perfect place to relax. At the entrance, men enter through the left noren curtain and women through the right.

The paintings in the bathroom were created in a collaboration between painter Maruyama Kiyoto and top sentō researcher Machida Shinobu. They are two-sided and can be turned over to show pictures by Nakajima Morio.

High windows let out steam.

Yellow basins marked ケロリン (Kerorin), advertising a brand of aspirin, are commonly associated with bathhouses. At right, sentō mascot Bobby the cat takes a nap.

Behind the Scenes at the Bathhouse

A day at the sentō begins and ends with cleaning. Staff clean up for two to three hours each morning from nine. Then they add firewood to the stove and heat the water for around an hour and a half. The bathhouse opens at three in the afternoon and closes at half past eleven at night. After that, three to four staff members scrub up again. High-up windows used to release steam can be opened from the outside and are left open through the summer months.

Keeping the baths spick-and-span.

Outside the steam windows.

Takarayu’s water is mainly heated with firewood. In the old days, the wood was transported by raft from lumberyards along the nearby Sumida River. More recently, it comes by truck in the form of shavings, chips, and bark from Adachi’s many carpentry shops and pencil and plywood makers.

However, these businesses are not so common today as they once were, and the bathhouse often sources its wood in the form of pillars and lumber from demolition firms. Sometimes, however, wood is not available, so the Takarayu stove can also be powered by gas. This is much more expensive though, which is a real worry for Matsumoto.

Gas power can be used instead of firewood.

It’s a lot harder than one might imagine to run a bathhouse. So long as he can meet the needs of regulars and sentō fans, however, Matsumoto wants to keep Takarayu going.

Making New Waves in the Bathing Industry

Contrasting with the old-time charm of traditional bathhouses, sleek modern establishments are making waves in the sentō world. Our next stop, also in Adachi, is the groundbreaking designer bathhouse Taiheiyu. It was the first project of Imai Kentarō, an architect who specializes in bathhouse renovation.

The Taiheiyu noren curtain with the kanji 夢 (yume; dream).

Store your shoes in the getabako lockers at the entrance.

Originally built in 1965, the building underwent initial refurbishment in 1985 to strengthen it with steel frames and add a modern spacious lobby. Then in 2000, Imai was tapped to design the interior, and it became the Taiheiyu of today.

Skillful use of lighting on the walls creates a fairyland atmosphere, which is particularly romantic at night. Taiheiyu pioneered such features as having the baths overflow for five minutes every hour to keep the water fresh and providing customers with free shampoo, conditioner, and bodywash. It formerly used electricity drawn during lower-price nighttime hours to heat the water, but recently switched to gas.

Light contributes to a feeling of open space.

Owner Yoshida Kensuke said he made three requests of Imai. The first was to have bathers enter the water by stepping downwards, like at an onsen, rather than lifting their feet over the edge of the tub. The second was to have a water-filled exercise walkway in the women’s bath. This was a suggestion from his wife, who had undergone hip rehabilitation. The third was to construct a counter in the lobby where people could eat. Other than that, Imai made all the decisions, proceeding through trial and error to his final design. Upon completion it drew high praise, inspiring many more designer bathhouses.

The women’s water-filled walkway at night. The men’s side has an outdoor bath.

It’s an easy step down into the water; outside the bathing area, the counter provides a spot to get a bite to eat or a drink.

At Taiheiyu now, there is free karaoke every Thursday evening, and the bath is well known as a local place to relax. Its extensive parking facilities also mean that many visitors come from farther afield. Many customers prefer going to a relatively nearby bathhouse rather than a distant hot spring resort, a trend Yoshida hopes to see continue. Sentō that offer modern, high-quality facilities are helping to keep the industry healthy and relevant to the modern age.

Yoshida in the Taiheiyu bathroom.

(Originally published in Japanese on October 23, 2017. Reporting and text by Waga Naofumi of Plant Q. Photographs by Katō Kumazō. With thanks for the cooperation of Furo Wakuzō and Adachi Sentō Bunka Fukyūkai.)

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