Innovative "new sento" public bathhouses are attracting attention with such elements as totally new designs and young managers.
Tennen Onsen Hisamatsu-yu in Nerima Ward, Tokyo, is popular for its "projection mapping," which projects computer graphics onto a wall for visitors to enjoy as they soak in the bath. Four types of geometric images can be projected, including one that shows water drops transforming into diamond shapes.
"I wanted to interest young people who don't normally visit sento by creating an atmosphere that doesn't look like a conventional sento," said owner Yukio Kazama, 58.
The sento's patrons used to be mainly older people, but high school students started to use Kazama's bathhouse after its renovation in 2014. The facility sees about 300 customers on weekdays, and about 600 to 700 on weekends, which are triple the numbers seen in the past.
A 16-year-old male high school student who visited the bathhouse for the first time on his way home from school was delighted, saying: "With the stylish, mature atmosphere, it doesn't look like a sento. I want to come here again." The entrance fee is ¥460 (S$5.60).
Fukuno-yu in Bunkyo Ward, Tokyo, was renovated in 2011. Washing stalls, which normally face the walls in a line, are set up in the centre of the bath area.
The seven gods of good fortune are depicted on a wall in a contemporary art style, creating an atmosphere of mystery. Owner Akira Muranishi, 65, said, "I wanted to create a stylish design that hasn't existed at sento before."
According to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, there were 8,790 sento nationwide in fiscal 1998, but their number decreased almost by half to 4,293 in fiscal 2014. The main causes are the aging of owners as well as a declining number of visitors.
But some young people are feeling a new attraction to sento. Ume-yu in Kyoto closed in March 2015, then reopened in May in the year. Owner Yusuke Minato, 25, frequented the sento when he was a university student and eventually helped with cleaning it.
When he learned the sento would close due to a decline in customers, Minato decided to take over its ownership in the hope of preserving a place where various people gather.
Bouquets made by a flower shop nearby, vegetables, old books and original towels with Ume-yu's name on them are displayed in the lobby set up in the bathhouse. "Young people and foreign tourists started to come to our bathhouse because we put information on the Internet," Minato said. The entrance fee is ¥430.
Shinobu Machida, an executive board member of the Japan sento culture association based in Tokyo, set up by sento lovers, calls these new bathhouses "new sento."
"These bathhouses operated with a new feel have great individuality. Young people also feel comfortable going in, which is broadening the base for fans of sento."