Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Public Baths in Japan Meld New Jacuzzi Jets with Old Tradition to Woo Back Customers, Many `Sento' Owners Go Modern

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Public Baths in Japan Meld New Jacuzzi Jets with Old Tradition to Woo Back Customers, Many `Sento' Owners Go Modern

Article excerpt

LATE last month, Hiroshi Kobayashi reopened the public bath he runs in Tokyo's Meguro ward after yet another renovation. He had been upgrading, revamping, and modernizing his family-owned bathhouse for the past four years, ever since he looked into the future and saw his business going down the drain.

Japan's public-bath industry has been in hot water for a long time. In 1964, there were about 23,000 public baths, or sento. At the end of last year, there were 10,388.

The decline is partly a reflection of prosperity. Over the past three decades, the number of Japanese without a bath at home has plummeted like a drop of water at Niagara. The other reason is that many younger Japanese aren't as excited as their elders about going to the local sento and hanging around in a really warm pool with other people.

So, in the late 1980s, with his customers dwindling and his books in the red, Mr. Kobayashi decided he had to do something. He invited a representative of a firm that specializes in sento renovation to visit his bathhouse, where Tokyoites have been washing and bathing since 1921. Traditional way to get clean

The entrances to public baths are traditionally marked by demure curtains bearing the character yu, which means bath. Kobayashi's place has a rainbow-colored electric sign that touts the dozen or so types of bath available. The price of admission is $3.50.

Inside, there are two changing rooms (men and women bathe separately), each opening into a washing area. This is a tiled room with about two dozen wash stations: a low faucet and waist-high shower head. The bather picks up a basin and stool and sits down to scrub and clean, a necessary prelude to communal immersion.

So far, all of this is just like a traditional sento. In old-line establishments, one washes and then slides into a large pool or tub filled with hot water. A pastoral mural, usually of Mt. Fuji, graces the scene.

In Kobayashi's place, however, the bather has several options: a sauna (which costs an extra $7), a small tub of cool water (nice after the sauna), or an "outdoor" bath, meaning that it is open to the sky and decorated in a rustic motif featuring flagstones and plastic bamboo-style siding. …

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