Pandemic dampens one man's plan to save Japanese bathhouse culture

Mr Takuya Shimbo, the third-generation owner of Tokyo bathhouse Daikoku-yu, cleaning the floor before the bathhouse opens for the day.
Mr Takuya Shimbo, the third-generation owner of Tokyo bathhouse Daikoku-yu, cleaning the floor before the bathhouse opens for the day.PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO • Craft beer, live music and lodging featured in renovation plans that Mr Takuya Shimbo had for an ageing Tokyo bathhouse, as he hoped to rescue a fading industry from extinction by reinventing the concept of communal bathing.

Then the coronavirus struck.

The Japanese government deemed the country's few remaining bathhouses to be critical for public hygiene, so it requested they stay open. At the same time, it encouraged people to stay home during a state of emergency to prevent the spread of Covid-19, which has killed around 1,000 Japanese people.

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

The 60 per cent plunge in customers, along with expenses for gutting and renovating another decrepit bathhouse in the neighbourhood, 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. On the other hand, public baths - or sento - 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 socialise 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," Mr 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 such as 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 Mr Kiyoshi Hiraoka, 83, who cycles 15 minutes to patronise Mr Shimbo's Daikoku-yu and kept coming faithfully even during the state of emergency.

 
 
 

Mr 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.

Mr 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 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 pandemic, and the number of customers down while costs remain unchanged, Mr Shimbo took to crowdfunding to keep his plans afloat and raised seven million yen (S$91,720) - more than twice his goal.

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

But he added that many contributors had told him to keep on fighting. "The support really gave me courage... It showed me people want this sento culture to go on," he said.

REUTERS

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 31, 2020, with the headline 'Pandemic dampens one man's plan to save Japanese bathhouse culture'. Print Edition | Subscribe