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Wednesday, 14th May 2014
In General Japan News,

Sento bathhouses under threat

In Tokyo, one of the few places tourists can escape the urban sprawl and get a look at a more traditional side of Japan is within the sento bathhouses that can be found throughout various wards. But the numbers of these establishments are declining rapidly, with a recent survey revealing many are considering switching off their taps.

Sento was initially popular due to the rarity of private bathing facilities in many Japanese households in certain areas of the capital, although the shared concept throughout the country that communal bathing creates intimacy and develops relationships also had an impact.

However, the uptick in the number of flats and houses with bathrooms included has had a detrimental effect on the amount of sento bathers.

According to research carried out by the Tokyo metropolitan government, there were fewer than 700 bathhouses left at the end of March - down from 2,687 at the height of their popularity in 1968.

Indeed, it may be possible that many tourists coming to Tokyo for the 2020 Olympics will find it difficult to experience sento, as 90 establishments confirmed they would consider closing within five years.

Even more worryingly, 45 per cent of Tokyo sento houses said they have plans to shut down or change businesses, but have no timescale for doing so.

Sento bathhouses are popular with foreign tourists for a number of reasons. Quite apart from the fact that they allow people to experience what Japan was like when it was less Westernised, the buildings themselves often bear architectural resemblance to castles, temples and shrines with many grand features.

These communal bathhouses differ from the popular onsen establishments as an onsen is traditionally filled with water pumped up from hot springs, as opposed to being artificially heated.