Bathhouse Blues

A July 16 story in the Daily Yomiuri headlined “Condo supply in Tokyo up for 1st time in 6 years” ends with this enlightening analysis:  “The [Real Estate Economic] institute traced the rebound in the condo market partly to a reaction to a plunge in the corresponding period a year earlier that stemmed from the global recession.”  Oh, so that recession is over now, is it?

If you turn a blind eye to the growing numbers of blue plastic tents gathering in public parks and along riverbanks, or the permanently shuttered small businesses hidden in the shadows of skyscrapers and overhead highways, Tokyo does appear to be as  prosperous and glittery as ever.  Everywhere you go, something new and big is under construction.  Or else, in preparation for the new and big, something old and no longer profitable is under destruction.

To make way for the new, something old must be removed first.  In the case of the condos, the old thing, as the Tree has previously reported, is often a single-family home with garden attached, or a small shop, run by a family, specializing in one commodity, like hand-made picture frames.  In the case of at least one of the new condo buildings, recently opened for occupancy on a back street of Nishiogikubo, the old thing was a much-loved public bathhouse, Tama-no-yu.

BEFORE

According to the Tokyo Sento [public bath] Association, the number of bathhouses in Tokyo has fallen from 2,687 in 1968 to just over 1,000 in 2006.  [A recent story in the Asahi Shimbun (Wed., Oct. 13, ’10) sets the current number at 813.]  The bathhouses of Suginami Ward, where the Tree office is located, made up 120 of that 1968 figure, and fell to 40 by 2006.  I now count 30 on the map at the Suginami public bath website [http://sentou.jp/].

What makes bathhouses so vulnerable to encroaching developers?  The main reason is probably that they are no longer an absolute necessity.  You can still find older apartments around without a bathtub, but these are now few and far between.  Most housing units in Tokyo are fully equipped with their own private bathing facilities.  People go to the public bath to relax or to catch up on neighborhood gossip, not because they have no other choice.  This means, of course, that fewer people use bathhouses now than they did in 1968, and consequently all bathhouses struggle to stay alive.  I do not know the specific trigger behind the decision to close the Tama-no-yu, but given the general economic circumstances for all bathhouses, any one thing could have occurred to push the family that owned and operated it over the edge financially.  It might, for instance, have been a death in the family which left the heirs with huge inheritance taxes to pay and only one way to pay them:  take down the bathhouse and put up a lucrative condo building in its place.

So take it down they did.  I had been planning to make a visual record of its destruction, but as soon as the bulldozers and excavators arrived and started pulling the building apart, the property was covered with plastic sheeting so no one could see what was going on.  A sign said the sheeting was to keep the noise level down.

DURING (1)

DURING (2)

Passing by the site one day, after the destruction had been completed and construction of the new had begun, I found a sign advertising the new condos, and informing us of the new building’s name:  GAGA.

No Comment

So, okay, I know what you all must be thinking now:  What was so great about the old bathhouse that you are lamenting its replacement by a shiny new “city mansion” with the glorious name of GAGA?  Oh, I don’t know.  Allow me to indulge in a little reminiscing for a moment….

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

I park my bicycle out front, grab my carry-all full of towel, shampoo, razor, soap, bottled water and comb, and duck under the noren that both indicates the bathhouse is open for business and marks a point of separation between the outer world of rushing Tokyo and this inner world where movement stops and you have nowhere else to go but into the hot tub, and nothing else to do but soak, for the next hour or so of your life.  Removing my shoes, I step up onto the wooden floor to my right, the one on the left being where the men go.  Here is a bank of old wooden shoe lockers.  I deposit my shoes in one of them and lock it by removing the small rectangle of wood that keeps it unlocked when inserted in a slide in the door.  I put this “key” in a pocket of my carry-all and step behind a screen.  Here is an opaque glass door leading to the women’s bath.

 

I slide it open and inhale the peculiar damp odor of the bathhouse.  Sounds echo from the bathrooms on both sides of a dividing wall that does not quite reach up to the ceiling, which is several stories high:  Voices calling out greetings, water splashing as it pours over a body, the clatter of plastic seats and basins against the tiled floor.

 

Immediately inside the door is the bandai, translated by our office dictionary as “the elevated seat between the women’s and men’s baths at a public bathhouse.”  A young man with wet hair and a red face is usually sitting here facing the door, behind a little counter where I place the ¥450 [about $5.50] fee.  He calls out “Welcome!” when you come in, and “Thank you!” when you leave.  On the other side of his seat he can see and talk to the men who are entering the other side of the bathhouse.  But the rest of us can’t see those men and those men can’t see us, which is a good thing, because I am now in the changing room, and all the women in here are stark naked.  I suppose if he really wanted to, the young man sitting with his back to the room could lean around and take a gander at the naked flesh, but I’ve never seen him do that.

 

There’s a glass case here by the door full of bathing needs like soap and towels in case you forgot yours, and another one full of cold drinks for sale.  You pay for all those things, too, at the bandai.  The changing room is spacious and airy and full of activity.  A TV is broadcasting the news from a corner near the door to the baths, and under that is a weighing machine.  In the middle of the room are two raised tatami platforms where you can sit and chat or put on your socks.  Against the further wall to the right are the lockers for keeping your clothes in while you bathe.

 

I grab a big wicker basket from the pile by the glass case and head for the nearest free locker.  I take off my coat and fold it up and place it in the basket.  Everything else, including everything I’m wearing, goes into the locker.  I put my towel on top of my coat and carry the basket along with my smaller plastic carrier full of bath items to the door to the baths.  I leave the basket near this door, slide it open and step into the bathroom.  It’s much noisier in here, much warmer and steamier.

 

I help myself to a plastic seat and basin from a stack by the door and look around for a free spot at the washing trough.  There are four rows of these:  One against each wall and two facing each other in a row down the middle of the room.  Each spot has a round mirror and a shower head and faucets delivering hot or cold water.  I place my seat in front of one of these spots and start my ablutions by pouring hot water all over myself with the basin.  I wash lightly with soap and water, pouring out the dirty water into a gutter at my feet that carries it away down a drain somewhere.  I thoroughly rinse all traces of soap away and then head for the bath tub.

 

There are three to choose from.  One has hotter water than the others, and water jets for both back and feet.  The one in the middle is larger and has slightly less hot water and water jets for the back.  The third one, full of white water, is a “milky bath,” billed as something that restores your youthful skin.  This is the most popular bath, but I prefer the ones with the water jets, which give a good massage to the aching muscles in my shoulders and lower back.  I stretch out full length and let the jets do their thing.  A woman says “excuse me,” and climbs into the tub next to me.

 

Behind us on the wall is half of a huge mural of Mt. Fuji, the other half being in the men’s bath.  Above us is the very high ceiling, painted powder blue as if to indicate heaven.  I stare at the windows way up at the top of the bathhouse and wonder how they open and close them.

 

No one stays in for long.  You get too hot if you do.  The trick is to take several short soaks in the bath, rather than one long one.  I usually take two or three.  In between the soaks, I scrub at the washing trough, each time getting a little bit cleaner.

 

After 40 minutes or so, I’m done.  I rinse off my stool and basin, returning them to the stack by the door.  I slide open the door and feel the cooler air all over my heated body.  I retrieve my towel from the basket and pat down by the bathroom door before padding over to my locker to dry off more thoroughly and get dressed.  Then I go over to the massage machine area, where other women are sitting under hair dryers or leaning back with eyes closed into coin-operated chairs that undulate all over your back.  I prefer the leg and foot massager.  I sit down on one of the tatami platforms and deposit ¥100 into the machine.  For ten minutes my legs and feet are pummeled and squeezed and kneaded by this mechanical device.  I drink lots of water, and then it is time to go home.

 

Wet-haired and red-faced, I put the basket back by the door and say “thank you” to the person sitting in the bandai, now a young woman, who thanks me in turn for coming.  I slide open the door and go out into the cool night air.  I unlock the shoe locker, remove my shoes and put them on in the entranceway before ducking under the noren and re-entering the rushing current that is life in Tokyo.

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That’s how it was, and how it is no more.  Instead of that we now have this:

AFTER

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