Cleanse your body and soul in a public bath. It’s the spirit of Japan.
- By tomiyama update
Sentō (Public bathhouse) are a symbol of the historic districts of Japan. It’s said that public bathhouses began when Buddhist temples, beginning in the Asuka era, would open up their baths to the sick and the poor.
According to Shinobu Machida, the leading expert in public bathhouse research, the public baths that we are familiar with were popular throughout the Edo era, which means that the trend has continued for over 400 years. This is proof that Japanese people love to take baths.
As of April 2015, there were 650 public bathhouses in Tokyo, thirty of which are in Arakawa ward. This time, we would like to introduce one of those Arawaka bathhouses, “Nippori Saitō Yu”, a public bathhouse three minutes’ walk from JR Nippori station
Saitō Yu, established in 1934, finished renovations in April of last year. It has persisted for over eighty years and three generations with the patronage of both aficionados and casual customers alike. It is also famous for having employed the last professional “Sansuke”.
The word Sansuke is written in Japanese with characters meaning “three attendants”, referring to the tasks of stoking the boiler, monitoring the temperature of the bath water, and cleaning the bathhouse. Customers could also hire a Sansuke to help with washing off (“Nagashi”), including massages and scrubbing the back. Only the most senior bath attendant was allowed to take on the responsibility of performing Nagashi. Unfortunately, Hideyuki Tachibana, the last professional Sansuke and an employee of Saito Yu, retired in 2013.
The renovated Saitō Yu has many kinds of modern bath. The soda water bath expands the capillary vessels and enhances blood circulation and metabolism, the electric bath massages your body with a light electrical current, the silky bath has fine bubbles to massage you, and the beauty bath is a soft water bath to make the skin smooth and beautiful after.
On average, Saitō Yu serves 300 people a day, but more than 400 on busy weekends. In order to please its customers, it opens at 2pm, which is a little earlier than other public bathhouses. They say, “Freshen up early and end the day healthy.” Some go out for a drink after refreshing their body and soul. Others go to one of the many entertainments offered by Saitō Yu to its customers, such as listening to the Rakugo storyteller it hosts every weekend, who mostly tells stories centered on public bathhouses.
When asked about his public bathhouse, the owner of Saitō Yu said, “Public bathhouses used to be part of the community. We created a public bathhouse for the sake of bringing together the community as a family, ages one to one hundred, meeting the needs of every generation so that none are turned away. We wish many people to come to our bathhouse, whether they don’t have a bath at home or want to take a big bath.”
The owner of Saitō Yu is looking forward to the Olympics in 2020, when more visitors from outside Japan will have a chance to come to a public bathhouse.
At its peak in 1968, Tokyo had 2,687 public bathhouses. As of April 2015, there are 650. The number of public bathhouses decreases every year, but bathhouses like Saitō Yu continue to grow by using new techniques to meet the needs of their customers while keeping the traditional way. Let’s not root out our good old culture, the public bathhouse.
“Find new wisdom in old things” – Getting in a public bathhouse to relax instead of looking at a PC monitor may give you new ideas. How about a refreshing visit to a public bathhouse this weekend?
Nippori Saitō Yu
6-59-2 Higashi Nippori, Arakawa-ku
116-0014, Tokyo Japan
Opening hours: 14:00-23:00 (closed on Friday)
Reference: TOKYO SENTO