It is certainly not news that the number of "sento" (public baths) in Japan have been on the decline for quite some time. For instance, according to an association of Tokyo, the number of public bath houses fell from 1,273 as of December 2000 to 801 in 2012. And by all indications, Japan's low birth rate points to a gloomy future.
If there's one possible bright spot on the horizon, reports J-cast News (Nov 30), it would be the interest in bathing being shown by foreign tourists. When one survey asked foreign visitors what they would like to try on their next visit to Japan, the most popular response, with 45.6%, was "the onsen experience." The high interest in bathing was also reflected in responses to the question "What aspects of Japan exceeded your expectations?" After the top response of "visits to natural and scenic locations" with 62.3%, the second-place response was "bathing at onsen" with 57%.
While sento operators certainly cannot ignore the potential for more business, not all is rosy. Problems have arisen due, among other reasons, to differences in national habits and customs. An extreme case appeared to have occurred in Iga City, Mie Prefecture on Nov 22, when a 34-year-old Chinese man entered the bath without first rinsing off (a practice referred to as "kake-yu"), which brought down a broadside of objections from others in the bath. The Chinese gent physically lashed out at his critics, landing blows that reportedly caused injury. He was arrested on suspicion of assault.
The strange thing about the above case was that the suspect was not a tourist; he had apparently been living in Japan for over 10 years and was reasonably fluent in the language. His apparent failure to have absorbed such basic sento etiquette after over a decade in the country appears somewhat incomprehensible.
Japanese nonetheless concede that their bathing habits do require knowledge of certain protocols, and they are getting better at disseminating them to non-natives, including short-term visitors.
In this regard, the tourist association in Tokyo's Ota Ward has distributed an instruction manual for foreign bathers, which spells out various differences between Japanese and foreign bathing habits.
For example, the manual, printed in three languages (English, Chinese and Korean), includes such advisories as "Excuse me, but please remove your undergarments before entering the tub" and "Please don't get in the tub until you've thoroughly rinsed off the soap suds."
The manual is accompanied by multilingual wall posters featuring illustrations. And last July, Ota Ward also produced a "Sento manners for foreigners" video available in five versions, including Japanese, English, Chinese (written in both mainland and Taiwan characters) and Korean. The 3-minute, 44-second video includes such instructions as not carrying one's towel into the bath water.
The English version of Ota Ward video may be viewed below.
In the video, Ota's "tourism ambassador," Indian national Salma Deep Prasad (phonetic), instructs new arrival "Boris" into the delights of a soak at a sento. At the end, the smiling Salma proclaims to his audience, "I invite all of you watching this to come up and try the public bathhouse when you come to Japan too. It's a lot of fun and it feels great!"
The Japan Tourism Agency has designated the Kamata district in Ota Ward as a "strategic point" for setting up an environment conducive to the entry of foreign travelers, with the aim of attracting users of Haneda airport to nearby shopping streets and other businesses.
Nevertheless judging from the fact that the most popular Ota video on YouTube (the one in English), has yet to receive 2,000 views over the past six months, J-Cast News quips that those wishing to educate foreign visitors into the delights of a hot soak at a sento have their work cut out for them.© Japan Today