Takuya Shimbo, the third-generation owner of public bathhouse Daikoku-yu in Tokyo, talks to a customer. Photo: REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon
national

Coronavirus dampens Japanese man's plan to save bathhouse culture

23 Comments
By Elaine Lies

Craft beer, live music and lodging featured in renovation plans that Takuya Shimbo had for an aging Tokyo bathhouse, hoping to rescue a fading industry from extinction by reinventing the concept of communal bathing.

Then the coronavirus struck.

The government deemed Japan's few remaining bathhouses as critical for public hygiene so it requested they stay open, while at the same time encouraging people to stay at home during a state of emergency to prevent the spread of COVID-19 which has killed around 1,000 Japanese.

"The costs, like staff and heating, don't change, but we had far fewer customers," said Shimbo, the 41-year-old third-generation owner of Daikoku-yu in northeastern Tokyo.

The 60% plunge in customers, along with expenses for gutting and renovating another decrepit bathhouse in the neighborhood, put him in precarious shape.

"We were operating in the red," he added.

Bathing in naturally heated hot springs is a popular leisure activity in Japan. Public baths - or sento - on the other hand traditionally served people who did not have a bath at home. Divided into separate men's and women's sections, bathers scrub down before soaking together in hot tubs.

They have also been places to socialize and promote community ties - and still are, though bathers are currently discouraged from talking to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

"The best part of bathhouse culture is that status doesn't matter; whether you're a child or an adult doesn't matter. Everybody goes in naked," Shimbo said. "But we have to change to survive."

The number of baths throughout Japan peaked at 18,000 in 1968 but now stands at 2,000, hit by social changes including more baths at home. Even the addition of saunas, jacuzzis and outdoor baths with landscaping has not been enough to compete with places like health spas.

"Baths are good for communication, you can become friendly with anyone," said Kiyoshi Hiraoka, 83, who bicycles 15 minutes to patronize Shimbo's Daikoku-yu and kept coming faithfully even during the state of emergency.

Shimbo is among a new generation of owners trying to keep the tradition alive with modern attractions such as in-bath film screenings and lobbies equipped with co-working spaces and beer taps. His efforts include comedy shows, live music, yoga classes, and - for one day - converting the bathhouse into a haunted house with roaming ghosts and corpses in the baths.

Elsewhere in Tokyo, second-generation owner Hisao Iwasaki attributes the longevity of his bathhouse partly to a lobby featuring a model railway and a dozen cats.

"If you don't have something special, customers won't come," he said. Even so, his wife Eiko said customers fell by half during the state of emergency.

Shimbo fears fewer than half of his area's 18 bathhouses will still be open in five years' time and hopes that by renovating a different bathhouse in his neighbourhood he can help point bathhouse owners in a new direction for survival.

"A bathhouse that also has a place to stay, a place to eat, a beer tap - if we make this a successful business model, others may do it, keeping bathhouses going," he said.

With building plans postponed by the coronavirus, and customers down yet costs unchanged, Shimbo took to crowdfunding to keep his plans afloat and raised 7 million yen - more than twice his goal.

"I'm not sure we'll be able to make up everything through this," Shimbo said.

But he said many contributors told him to keep on fighting.

"The support really gave me courage... It showed me people want this sento culture to go on.

© Thomson Reuters 2020.

©2020 GPlusMedia Inc.

23 Comments
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My decrepit apartment in Kyoto when I first came to Japan lacked a bathroom, so I cycled to the sento every day with my newly made friends. Now I have a house and bathe alone - it's much more utilitarian, in and out as quickly as possible. I miss the old days.

9 ( +9 / -0 )

I’m out in an onsen or sento every week.

This sento might be having a rough time but the Japanese are still going out to them!

7 ( +7 / -0 )

There was a lady sitting in the middle watching everyone the whole time.

theyre normally old grandmas, they're certaining not there to gawk or be gawked at

5 ( +6 / -1 )

Sento culture is a national treasure. I'm sure it will survive in one form or another.

4 ( +6 / -2 )

Preserve the culture of bathing with a bunch of naked men. Won’t be signing the petition thanks

4 ( +11 / -7 )

theyre normally old grandmas, they're certaining not there to gawk or be gawked at

Not true. She licked her lips every time our eyes met.

3 ( +5 / -2 )

@Reckless

I hope you sorted her out?

3 ( +3 / -0 )

I would like to know if the environment of a bathhouse slows, speeds or has no effect on the spread of Covid 19. We have heard of Covid 19 clusters coming from various places but bathhouses?

2 ( +2 / -0 )

There is a similar movement in the States to preserve the beloved outhouses.

I used a sento in Hiroshima once. There was a lady sitting in the middle watching everyone the whole time.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

What is there to even chat about during such a time?

The same thing there is to chat about at any time in a public setting - the weather, sports, current events, politics, etc.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

There is something about me, being a heterosexual male, bathing with men around me or staring at me, that I just find quite upsetting. I wonder what it could be?

I wonder as well. I'm a heterosexual man, and I have no problem with public bathing with other men. Why do you have this hangup? It must be something psychological, after all, why would it be a problem is someone sees parts of your skin, when they can already see other parts of your skin from day to day?

2 ( +4 / -2 )

Sme will learn alas crowfinding is not profitable with bankruptcies as I don't see recovery before long.

I wish him success in his project.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

you know im not a stranger to men showering together since Ive done that many times during my football years, but the thought of sweating men using the same hot tub, no thanks, prefer to have one by myself at home far more relaxing. Having a well Ive got all the free water Ill ever need

1 ( +2 / -1 )

With the addition of shared work spaces, a place to eat (usually called a café), a place to drink (bar), and a place to sleep (hotel), I wouldn't be surprised if the actual place to bathe (bath) disappears if the other features prove to be more profitable. I suppose next would be a place to play (bowling alley?).

0 ( +1 / -1 )

"Coronavirus dampens Japanese man's plan to save bathhouse culture."

I certainly hope he is not washed up!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Nevermind the basic cleanliness, theres STDs and other communicables, its just gross to wash ur butt in the same tub as 50 other guys.

Nobody should be washing their butt in the ofuro.

0 ( +4 / -4 )

I love  sentos they are great especially in the winter, I met many interesting people and made many friends over the years, Hate to see them close . it's part of what japan is for me.

0 ( +3 / -3 )

There is something about me, being a heterosexual male, bathing with men around me or staring at me, that I just find quite upsetting. I wonder what it could be?

0 ( +2 / -2 )

@Vince Black, your comments always make me chuckle. I agree, what a weird part of Japanese culture. I couldn't think of anything worse than sharing a bath with fellow ojisan.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I use the Sento near my place after quitting the gym for one reason, the two Saunas!

But agree with other posters, sitting in tubs with other people, or wherr many strangers have been...

Nevermind the basic cleanliness, theres STDs and other communicables, its just gross to wash ur butt in the same tub as 50 other guys.

-1 ( +3 / -4 )

I never understood the idea of paying to bathe with other men. Why would anyone do that? What does one get out of that?

I used to stay in several capsule hotels through my travels. And at times had to take a bath in a room full of men. It did nothing for me. I just went in, cleaned up and got out as soon as possible.

What is there to even chat about during such a time?

-2 ( +3 / -5 )

Mocheake

There is something about me, being a heterosexual male, bathing with men around me or staring at me, that I just find quite upsetting. I wonder what it could be?

Feelings of inadequacy? Paranoia? Fear of awakening suppressed feelings?

The list of possibilities is almost endless. A mental health professional would be better able to address your query.

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

Preserve the culture of bathing with a bunch of naked men. Won’t be signing the petition thanks

There are naked women there too.

I never understood the idea of paying to bathe with other men. Why would anyone do that? What does one get out of that?

It's a chance to relax in a big tub of hot water for way less than staying in even a cheap hotel with a tiny bath tub.

What is there to even chat about during such a time?

Almost anything. Best to stay away from sex and religion though.

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

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