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Culture : Japanese Public Baths May Soon Be Washed Up : The home tub has put a big dent in one of the country's most enduring institutions.

August 21, 1990|SAM JAMESON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TOKYO — The old temple-shaped building with its sweeping tile roof is gone from the capital's Shirogane district now, torn down and replaced by a Western-style, multi-story structure that also houses apartments, a coffee shop and a convenience store.

The Horaiyu public bathhouse is still there--it's just a little tougher to spot now that it's limited to the subbasement, beneath the coffee shop.

Things have changed inside the bathhouse, or "sento," too. (The word, literally, means "cash for hot water.")

There's no more free soap, for example. A customer has to bring his own, or buy it from one of the vending machines that also dispense towels, razors and underwear. Instead of the old plastic baskets, there are now rows of lockers for storing clothes. And a bather can now wash his laundry in one of the coin-operated machines that are provided while he is washing himself in the tiled bathing area.

There are only enough water spigots for 26 bathers at a time now--less than half what the spacious old bathhouse offered. But there is a separate waiting room complete with television. And in another concession to modernity, the cashier now sits in the waiting room also, instead of in the more traditional perch atop a dais, with a view of both the men's and women's sections of the baths.

"The cashier used to be a special characteristic of a sento," said Shigeki Fujita, adviser to the Tokyo Public Bathing Environment Sanitary Enterprise Union, a guild of bathhouse owners. "He or she would greet the customers and exchange a few pleasantries. It created an atmosphere of warmth and friendliness. But young people don't like to be looked at (naked)."

As Fujita's comments and the scene at the Horaiyu suggests, times are changing for one of Japan's more enduring institutions.

Not so long ago more than half the people who live in Tokyo patronized its public bathhouses, which first sprang up in the 16th Century. A traditional Japanese love of bathing and a penchant for cleanliness helped business. Bathing remains a favorite national pastime, particularly at the more than 1,000 "onsen" (hot springs) resorts where aficionados indulge themselves two and three times a day.

Nevertheless, business is now on a steady decline, with many owners struggling to stay afloat despite government subsidies.

There is more competition from "coin shower" shops offering a three-minute dousing for 100 yen (67 cents) compared with the standard 310 yen ($2.06) adult price for a visit to a bathhouse. The shower shops also offer private booths and are open 24 hours a day compared with the eight-hours-a-day sento.

Most devastating, however, has been something much more basic: the spread of the home bathtub.

When the number of bathhouses in Tokyo peaked at 2,687 in December, 1968, about half of the living units in Tokyo had no bathtub. Now, 83% of the capital's housing is equipped with baths.

Only 452,000 of the city's 11.9 million residents now use the public baths on an average day compared with nearly 1.1 million who used them daily as recently as 1975.

By the end of last year, the number of sento in the capital had dwindled to 1,978. Sixty-five more have disappeared just since the beginning of this year, Fujita said, and he predicted that the number will continue to dwindle down to about 1,500.

There remain public bathhouses in even some of Tokyo's wealthiest sections. Chiyoda Ward, where most major banks are located, is home to seven sento, for example. And Minato Ward, a high-rent district favored by the foreign business community, hosts 18.

But Fujita said that even to retain 1,500 bathhouses in the capital will require operators to start providing new "value-added" services to attract more customers who have baths at home. At present, such customers account for about one-fourth of the people who use bathhouses, but they come only once a week, according to Fujita.

Labor costs long ago wiped out such bathhouse luxuries as "sansuke"--men who would wash men's or women's backs as well as women's hair. At Horaiyu, gone also are the women attendants who used to roam around the men's dressing room putting things in order--much to the embarrassment of first-time visitors.

Neither was the old tradition that bathhouses serve as social centers for conversation evident at Horaiyu during a recent visit. No one spoke a word. Most of the customers were in their 20s.

Bathers sat on tiny, 5-inch-tall stools, soaping themselves in front of individual mirrors and sets of hot and cold water spigots. Each had a plastic bucket available for rinsing. Small drainage canals in the floor carry away suds and water.

The custom is to wash first, then relax in one of two tiled pools of hot water (a minimum of 108 degrees Fahrenheit by government regulation)--although many bathers seem to do it the other way around.

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