Public Baths in Japan Meld New Jacuzzi Jets With Old Tradition

To woo back customers, many `sento' owners go modern

LATE last month, Hiroshi Kobayashi reopened the public bath he runs in Tokyo's Meguro ward after yet another renovation. He had been upgrading, revamping, and modernizing his family-owned bathhouse for the past four years, ever since he looked into the future and saw his business going down the drain.

Japan's public-bath industry has been in hot water for a long time. In 1964, there were about 23,000 public baths, or sento. At the end of last year, there were 10,388.

The decline is partly a reflection of prosperity. Over the past three decades, the number of Japanese without a bath at home has plummeted like a drop of water at Niagara. The other reason is that many younger Japanese aren't as excited as their elders about going to the local sento and hanging around in a really warm pool with other people.

So, in the late 1980s, with his customers dwindling and his books in the red, Mr. Kobayashi decided he had to do something. He invited a representative of a firm that specializes in sento renovation to visit his bathhouse, where Tokyoites have been washing and bathing since 1921.

Traditional way to get clean

The entrances to public baths are traditionally marked by demure curtains bearing the character yu, which means bath. Kobayashi's place has a rainbow-colored electric sign that touts the dozen or so types of bath available. The price of admission is $3.50.

Inside, there are two changing rooms (men and women bathe separately), each opening into a washing area. This is a tiled room with about two dozen wash stations: a low faucet and waist-high shower head. The bather picks up a basin and stool and sits down to scrub and clean, a necessary prelude to communal immersion.

So far, all of this is just like a traditional sento. In old-line establishments, one washes and then slides into a large pool or tub filled with hot water. A pastoral mural, usually of Mt. Fuji, graces the scene.

In Kobayashi's place, however, the bather has several options: a sauna (which costs an extra $7), a small tub of cool water (nice after the sauna), or an ``outdoor'' bath, meaning that it is open to the sky and decorated in a rustic motif featuring flagstones and plastic bamboo-style siding.

The high-tech piece de resistance is a large, heated pool with areas that offer several refinements on the Jacuzzi. In one part of the pool, you can subject your shoulders to pounding Jacuzzi jets; in another, your thighs get the treatment; and in a third, you can lie down on eight surging spouts. This last feature, called ``rolling bath,'' is Kobayashi's latest addition. The jets go off sequentially, causing the bather to undulate amid the bubbly tumult. The water is less than a foot deep, but a first-timer has to be careful he doesn't fall asleep.

Hot-water playland

``It's no longer a place to wash yourself,'' says Kobayashi, ``it's a place for refreshment and pleasure.'' That's putting it mildly. It's more like a hot-water playland or tiled salon for people who can appreciate the rhyme in ``low boil.''

Most important for Kobayashi, all the Jacuzzi jets pay off. In the late 1980s, about 200 customers a day dropped in for a scrub and a dip. Now more than 500 people a day come by, 700 on Sundays and holidays. Kobayashi says his annual revenues range between $700,000 and $1 million a year, allowing him to break even. But he is still paying off the $5 million in bank debt that financed the various phases of the renovation.

The idea of countering the decline of an institution based on need with one that caters to consumerist pleasure-seeking wasn't Kobayashi's. ``Bathhouse play culture'' is a concept developed by Osaka-based Dai Ichi Co., says Masakazu Murakami, who heads the company's Tokyo office. Dai Ichi is Kobayashi's contractor.

Mr. Murakami estimates that 15 or 16 Tokyo sento owners are pursuing similar strategies. The trend is much more popular in Osaka, Japan's second-largest city, where more than 150 bathhouses have gone the hot-water-playland route, he adds.

Dai Ichi says business is good. The company's sento renovation work generates revenues of $70 million to $80 million a year, which accounts for 60 percent of total sales, Murakami says. He adds that four or five Tokyo contractors and about 10 Osaka companies also help sento owners add giddy fun to the appeal of the Japanese bath.

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