Japan’s dying sento are becoming cool again
Written by tokyoclub on July 2, 2021
Visitors leave their clothes and their worries at the wooden entrance to Inari-yu, a sento, or public bathhouse, in northern Tokyo.
Inside they join the parade of bathers ambling beneath a mural of a snow-capped Mount Fuji. While perched on small stools, they scrub themselves with soap and rinse off with water poured from cypress-wood buckets. Then they soak together in hot pools, and the strict hierarchies and stiff formalities of Japanese life melt away. To cool down, they sip jars of chilled milk by the koi pond in the sento’s courtyard.
Such scenes, once ubiquitous in Japanese neighbourhoods, have become rarer in recent decades. In the 1960s there were more than 2,500 sento in Tokyo alone. Just over 500 remain. But a new generation of sento-philes is working to keep the baths full for the 21st century. Younger sento-owners hope to revive the bathhouses by adding bars, music and event spaces. Sento have started to acquire a retro cachet among a younger crowd. In 2019 the number of sento-goers in Tokyo grew (albeit marginally) for the first time in more than a decade.