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Fri, Jun 25, 2004 - Page 12 News List

Bathhouses head toward extinction

A GOOD SOAK The `sento' -- which provided not just a place to get clean but also a chance to know one's neighbors -- seems to be on its last legs, thanks to tubs

REUTERS , TOKYO

Yuzo Naganuma, 27, an owner of a `sento,' or traditional public bathhouse speaks during an interview in Tokyo on June 4. He says the bathhouses -- once both a basic necessity and a place to forge community bonds -- have to modernize to survive.

PHOTO: REUTERS

Ask Takashi Maehama why business is slow and he'll give you a simple answer: bathtubs.

Nearly everyone in Japan has one, he says.

Like many owners of a sento, or traditional public bathhouse, Maehama, 70, is watching his once-thriving business wane.

Once both a basic necessity and a place to forge community bonds, the neighborhood sento is now regarded by many as a leftover from the country's poorer past.

"I used to have four or five employees when I was younger. But then customers gradually stopped coming," said Maehama, who runs his bathhouse with his wife and a lone part-time worker.

Many Japanese these days prefer to indulge their passion for communal bathing at hot spring resorts or the new "super bath" complexes springing up around the country that offer food, massages and even karaoke in addition to a soak.

"It's sad," said Shinobu Machida, a sento expert and leading author on popular culture.

"Sentos were not just for washing away dirt, but for building communication in a community," he said.

An evening bath with neighbors was a way to strengthen bonds in a culture that prizes group harmony, said Kenzo Murakami, director of the Japan Sento Trade Association. Years ago, complete strangers would even wash each other's backs, he said.

Younger Japanese, though, are put off by the notion of sudsing up next to their neighbors at a sento.

"My image of sentos is that there is mold in the corners and dirt from people's bodies still on the floor," said 27-year-old Yoko Chikazawa, who works in the import-export business.

Although she visits hot spring resorts, Chikazawa said she would never stop by a sento.

While some bathhouses may be a little timeworn, the strict bathing etiquette hasn't changed. Patrons, who pay about ?400 (US$3.63) a visit in Tokyo and less elsewhere, avail themselves of single-sex bathing areas with rows of showers or taps and at least one deep tub of steaming water.

Bathers scrub and shower completely, washing all dirt and soap from their bodies before entering the tub. There they can soak away their aches in neck-deep water while gazing at the expansive mural -- usually of Japan's beloved Mount Fuji -- that almost always adorns the back wall.

Many younger Japanese, however, brought up in homes with bathtubs, have never even visited a sento, said Machida.

As recently as the late 1960s, more than one-third of all residences lacked baths. But by 1998, the year of the most recent census data, only 3 percent of homes lacked a bath.

Sentos hit their peak in 1968, when they numbered about 22,000 nationwide, with nearly 2,700 in Tokyo alone. Only about one-third of those are left nationally, with a little more than 1,000 remaining in the capital. The decline works out to one sento closing down somewhere in Japan every day, Machida figures.

"Traditions like the wall paintings will disappear," he said.

Where once there were scores of painters who specialized in sento murals, today there are only five left in Japan, he said.

The poor business climate has also been tough on those who manage to keep their sentos open.

As business declines, many owners can't afford to fix up their bathhouses. Shabby facilities then deter customers.

Maehama last renovated his bathhouse almost 20 years ago and says he can't afford other improvements because banks won't lend money to sento owners.

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