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Nov 01 2008

Tokyo public bath houses in the early 90s

Written by Nippon Sekai   
Saturday, 01 November 2008

Here is a look back at the sentō (銭湯) in Tokyo during the early 90s.

First, some background information. A sentō is a Japanese communal bath house where customers pay to bathe. Traditionally, they were utilitarian, with one large room separating the sexes by a tall barrier. On each side, there were usually faucets lined up either against a wall or on several low standing partitions, and a single large bath that was shared by the already washed bathers to soak in.

Most baths have wooden or plastic chairs but some places don't so bathers use the wash tub instead like the following.

The following is the sento display from the Edo Architectural Museum which shows the freestanding low style faucet section.

Most current day sento have these higher partitions with mirrors and shower heads.

Since the second half of the 20th century, public bath houses have been decreasing in numbers in major cities as more Japanese residences now have baths. Additionally, attitudes amongst the younger generation has changed where they think bath houses are outdated, old-fashioned, or dirty. The fact is that many bath houses modernized to be more competitive in order to attract business.

Still, many Japanese find social importance in going to public baths, out of the theory that this physical proximity brings emotional intimacy. The Japanese have a saying for this -- hadaka no tsukiai (裸の付き合い) which translates to naked communion or skinship.

The sentō still has its place today because there are still many that live in small housing facilities without a private bath. Many also enjoy bathing in a spacious area and relaxing in saunas or jacuzzis that are common in new or renovated sentōs.

Another type of Japanese public bath is the onsen, which uses hot water from a natural hot spring. They are not mutually exclusive: A sentō can be called an onsen if it derives its bath water from naturally heated hot springs.

This Japanese site maintains a list of sento in Tokyo.

The following video (42 minute runtime) is circa 1993 when many public baths were already closing down due to lack of customers. It covers that particular topic but also looks at a bath house which modernized. My favorite part is the bald headed oyaji who goes off to Roppongi discos to dance and party with the young people (that is Kichigai Japan material there but I made this a regular article). There is also a short segment of renowned bath house painter Morio Nakajima doing one of his infamous Mt. Fuji scenes. Nakajima was recently featured this summer by Fuji TV teaching a female apprentice who wants to keep the tradition of bath house painting alive.

Note: the video does have brief nudity (mostly bareassed oyaji).

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