【Papersky Archives】

Sento / Tokyo Bathing

The steam billows up in transparent waves and through the haze you can see naked bodies washing under shower heads or soaking in scalding hot baths. This is a sento, a public hot bath, one of Japan’s true cultural relics and a portal to a recent past when communal bathing was a daily ritual.

07/19/2020

Story 01 | The Last Sansuke

With wrinkled and nimble hands Shusetsu Tachibana washes the back of 77 year old Sugiwara-san, the oldest customer at Saito-yu.  Like the customers, this washing ritual is very old and well known; Tachibana’s hands move quickly between multiple points on the back, arms and head. He pushes, pulls and pinches with closed eyes; somnolently drunk in his focus. This “seventy-something” year old is the last of his kind, a washer and masseuse for the Sento known as a ‘Sansuke’. Once he retires, a whole profession will also retire.

In every other Japanese Sento his job has already been replaced by robots – sad looking massage chairs. Today things are much quieter than they were in Showa 28 (1953). In those days the Sento’s were chaotically crowded but now the baths are only patronized by the elderly, lending the Sento an air of deep nostalgia while aging it in ways the dated baths and lockers never could.

Tachibana is the fourth son from a farming family in Himi, Toyama Prefecture. Traditionally only the first son works the farm, so Tachibana left for Tokyo at 15 to look for work on his own. Demand was high back then and he easily found work in a Sento as a Banto-san, which involved general cleaning and burning old furniture to keep the boiler at the right temperature. Asking him details about that era drew long pauses, “I forget a lot of the past, but when I begin washing it starts to come back to me”.

So we pay our 400yen, put our clothes into a locker and enter the baths naked, with only a wooden token reading “togashi” (back rub). In older times he would have been called up for togashi with a bell; one ring for a man, two for a woman. The wash begins with a vigorous back scrub via a coarse cloth which provokes the soap to lather up thickly. This is followed by a long togashi.  As it finishes Tachibana awakens from the ritual, he nods quietly, collects our wooden tokens and wanders back to the boiler in the same way he has done for over fifty years.

< From Papersky no.31(2010) >

text & photography | Cameron Allan McKean Coordination | Lucas B.B.