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Health-Conscious Bathers Flock to "Super Sento"

July 26, 1999

The arrival of Japan's hot, muggy rainy season in mid-June is known as a time for taking baths, as people head for the tub to soak away the blahs brought on by the dreary weather. Homes and apartments in Japan are generally equipped with bathtubs nowadays. Increasing numbers of bathers however, are heading for public baths, which are working hard to update their images even as they appeal to customers' sense of nostalgia.

Declining Business, but Bright Spots Too
Before tubs became widespread in homes throughout Japan, taking a bath meant heading down the street, soap dish, shampoo, and towel in hand, to a local public bath. These baths have functioned for centuries as an urban equivalent of the natural hot springs that the Japanese have always enjoyed in more rural settings. But over the past three decades, Japan's city bathhouses, or sento (literally meaning "coin bath"), have declined rapidly. From 2,687 bathhouses that operated in Tokyo in 1968, the current number has fallen by roughly half, to 1,349.

The principal cause of this decline is acknowledged to be the near universal installation of bathing facilities in homes. But sento have not completely died out, and some are doing better business than ever. The success of these bathhouses is driven not so much by customers' desire for an old-time bathing experience as by a modern business spirit that appeals to people's interest in new types of urban spas.

Not Just Clean, but Cheap
These "new-age baths" are enjoying remarkable popularity. A shining example of this trend is Gokuraku-yu (bath of paradise), opened in July 1998 by a subsidiary of the East Japan Railway company. Located in Omiya City north of Tokyo, the new business welcomed over half a million customers in its first 10 months of operation. And the facility's delighted management reports that its revenues to date, some 450 million yen (3.75 million dollars at 120 yen to the dollar), are 35 percent ahead of initial projections--making it a bright spot in today's sluggish Japanese economic environment.

In fact, it may be the country's depressed economy that is contributing to the success of Gokuraku-yu and other public baths like it. For the bargain price of just 500 yen (4.17 dollars), customers gain access to facilities that rival or surpass those offered by health and fitness centers: more than 10 varieties of baths, including outdoor tubs, Jacuzzi baths, and different types of saunas. And becoming a member lowers that price by 10 percent. A spacious lounge area with tatami straw mat flooring is provided, allowing patrons to relax over a frosty mug of beer or even a light meal. Many of Gokuraku-yu's customers see the bathhouse as an economical way to relax and refresh themselves. More customers around the country may soon do the same, as companies are moving to construct similar "super sento" in cities throughout Japan.

Playing Up the Health Angle
People's ongoing interest in health is another factor in the sento boom. Medical evidence has been found that backs up the long-held view of bathing as a path to health as well as cleanliness. Some doctors theorize that the negatively charged ions present in the water and steam of a bathhouse have psychological benefits, imparting a feeling of security and sense of refreshment while they soothe the body. Such ions tend to be generated by waterfalls, fountains, and other sources of agitated water.

The health benefits of Japanese baths are being stressed by a Tokyo association of public bathhouses, which is distributing posters promoting the facilities as places where customers can improve their well-being as well as their hygiene. These promotional efforts seem to be paying off, as more people come to see a trip to the sento as an inexpensive and healthy way to spend their time. While industry watchers were once worried about the future of the public bath, most are now confident this venerable institution will survive well into the coming century.

Trends in JapanEdited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.