Japanese bath houses find new ways to stay afloat
Just before it opens each afternoon, elderly residents gather outside one of Tokyo's last remaining old-style bath houses carrying flannels, soap and shampoo for their regular soak.
With its communal naked tubs, bright mural of Mount Fuji and sliding wooden entrance under a pointed roof, Inariyu is a classic example of a Japanese public bath, or sento.
Once ubiquitous in crowded urban areas, sentos are now closing quickly as more people take baths at home and owners struggle with faltering machinery, high gas prices and a lack of successors, tempting them to sell their valuable land.
Nationwide, the number of bath houses has plunged to around 1,800 from a peak of nearly 18,000 in the late 1960s. But some such as Inariyu have been given a new lease on life through renovations, while others are reinventing themselves as trendy hangouts or using data analysis to boost business.
One person pushing to save neighborhood baths is Yasuko Okuno, who discovered them as a way to unwind after working late.
"Day after day, my mind was tired. Even when I went home, I couldn't forget about work," said the 36-year-old writer for the Tokyo Sento Association.
"Then I went to a sento for the first time in a while, and it felt like a weight had lifted. There was a large bath, and the regulars greeted me kindly," she told AFP.
Over time, "it began to feel like a home from home."
Japan has never imposed a strict Covid-19 lockdown, and places such as gyms and sentos remained open even when many offices switched to home working and restaurants shortened opening hours.
Masks are commonly worn on trains and in other public places, but there is no requirement to wear them in sentos, although social distancing and quiet bathing are encouraged....