Bathing is an essential daily ritual in Japan, where the simple act of soaking in a tub of hot water has spawned an entire industry around the communal bath — whether it’s in the form of onsen hot springs, or the neighborhood public bathhouse, known as sento.
There are hot springs all over Japan, which epitomize recreational Japanese-style bathing and are popular among tourists and locals alike.
But sento, which used to be an intrinsic part of Japanese culture, have struggled to survive in modern times, as people increasingly prefer bathing in the privacy of their own homes.
Now, however, a new breed of what you could call “retro sentos” is spreading in Tokyo and elsewhere, and broadening the appeal of an ancient tradition.
One Japanese architect, Kentaro Imai, has been refurbishing some hidden bathhouse gems in Tokyo to create a more contemporary and appealing environment. By doing so, he has succeeded in attracting a younger generation and fueling a new wave of interest in the “retro sento.”
In many respects, Imai represents a new and exciting bridge between ancient traditions and modern sensibilities. His re-interpretation of the traditional sento pays attention to all elements of the experience – from the visual to the actual design of the bath and water systems.
Other designers and artists have also revitalized the traditional bathhouse, including prominent contemporary artist, Shinro Ohtake, who created the “I Love Yu” bathhouse on the “art island” of Naoshima in the Japan Sea.
One of Imai’s signature bathhouse designs, the Togoshi Ginza Onsen bathing house in central Tokyo, has been given a warm terracotta look over its concrete finish. The entrance maintains elements of traditional design, featuring a reception area with table and seating, and a massage chair. The walls have large posters by well-known illustrator Tadanori Yokoo and the overall look is both chic and functional.
On the second floor the two separate changing rooms are designed to represent morning sunrise and evening sunset rather than just the usual male and female changing areas. Each aspect has been carefully considered, not least because the rooms are switched every 24 hours to give male and female bathers a chance to experience both sides.
The sunset bathing area has a grey finish and features a mural of Mt Fuji by artist Morio Nakajima, while the wood-panelled upper room has a contemporary feel with its curved finish and simple, minimal design.
The sunrise area is in much lighter tones and incorporates a wooden sauna room. On the upper floor the large bath is circular and filled with water enhanced with the addition of minerals. The mural of Mt Fuji on this side is a modern take on the traditional Shichifukujin (the Seven Lucky Gods of Japan), created by graffiti artist Gravity Free.
The whole experience is both relaxing and intriguing, right down to the range of bathers one encounters, depending on the day, from curious tourists to elderly locals. It’s definitely a reinvention of the regular, old sento. The attention to detail and color schemes here really do, as the owner puts it, “open up” or “calm down” the spirit.
In addition to the regular sento, it’s possible to visit a growing range of multi-faceted bathhouses, colloquially dubbed “supersento,” such as Spa Laqua in the district of Kasuga in Tokyo’s Bunkyo ward.This complex features a number of facilities including for dining, massage and of course, bathing. In such upmarket – even chic – bathhouses, interior design is an important element, often incorporating natural materials such as stone and wood as key elements in addition to Japanese plants and bamboo. Some put an emphasis on glitz and glamor, others on elegance. Overall, they tend to be far more luxurious than ordinary sento, and for bathers looking for a more “special” experience – or even novelty — are well worth a visit. For both local Japanese people and visitors, going to either a hot spring or bath can be a rewarding experience, where modern Japan with all its history and reverence for nature is balanced with something to delight the eye and clean the body.
Address : 2-1-6 Togoshi,
Tel : 03-3782-7400
Access: 3 min. walk from Togoshi Station on the Toei Asakusa Line
Open: 3:00 pm – 1:30 am (morning bath available 8:00 am
-12:00 pm on Sunday)
Closed : Fridays
Fee: Y460 for adults~Y80 for pre-school children
Address: 1 Chome-1-1 Kasuga,
Tel : 03-3817-4173
Website : http://www.laqua.jp/pages/en/index.html
Hours: 11AM-9AM the next morning (open 22 hours)
Open year-round except for certain days for inspection and maintenance
Fee: Y2,634 (for those 18 and older)
Y1,836 (for those under 18)
Y324 extra on Sat, Sun, National Holidays and
other special days
THE ART OF BATHING, JAPANESE STYLE:
Essentially the Japanese way of bathing involves cleaning your body first, sitting on a small stool while soaping up and showering, before relaxing into steaming hot water.
Outdoor baths, generally seen in onsen areas, are called rotenburo, while the indoor ones are generally just known as ofuro, or baths.
In a society where hierarchy prevails, a flexible communal environment for relaxation was related to the idea of “skinship,” which equates physical proximity with emotional intimacy.
Bathing at an onsen or sento is not just merely a way to clean the body. But here, in the quiet of a shared space, people can spend time with friends and family, reconnecting with self and others.
Although in earlier times, mixed-sex communal bathing, or konyoku, was the norm, modern sento nearly always keep male and female bathing areas strictly separate.
Baths are usually inside but more contemporary sento can feature external baths similar to those of onsen. Some sento actually contain water that can be high in minerals sodium chloride, iron, radion or radical carbon with varying degrees of PhD.
While sento are usually not naturally heated some are and you can tell from the kanji characters on the bathhouse sign.
When entering a sento the usual layout of the 1960s remains standard with a reception area including a reception desk, shoe lockers, massage chairs and a drinking/sitting area.
Most sentos artificially heat their water. Interestingly pre-war Japanese traditional houses did not have attached bathrooms and in the 1960s, the local sento was the place to hang out as well as to go for a wash.