TOKYO - Almost half the sento bathhouses in Tokyo that responded to a metropolitan government survey said they were considering shutting off their taps, and one in every three of those intended to close within five years.
Although the number of sento bathers has been declining every year, the baths are popular among foreign tourists.
Since public baths are one way to show the world the "good old days of Japan" during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, the metropolitan government and an industry group are expanding public relations campaigns aimed at foreigners.
The guidebook effect
There always seems to be at least one foreigner soaking in the natural hot spring water at Jakotsuyu, a bathhouse in the heart of the Asakusa tourist district.
Murray Jacobs, a 70-year-old tourist from New Zealand, said there were hot springs in New Zealand but the sento atmosphere was something special. Relaxing in the tub, he said he was getting to like Japan.
Jakotsuyu has long been popular with foreigners, but it now sees almost 40 per day thanks to its listing in a well-known foreign tourist guide released after Tokyo won its Olympic bid last September.
In addition to Japanese, the bathhouse's ticket vending machine presents options in English, Chinese and Korean.
"I'd like foreigners to experience how great Japan's hot springs are," said manager Marumi Murozuka.
Customers down to 1/4
However, the reality for most public baths is much harsher. According to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, there were 15,696 public baths nationwide in 1980, but only 4,804 as of the end of March last year.
Tokyo sento have not been spared. After peaking in 1968 at 2,687 baths, there were only 699 at the end of March, down to about a quarter of their maximum number, according to the metropolitan government.
The average number of bathers per day has also declined, from 530 in 1968 to 119 last year, also about one-fourth of the peak figure. Last autumn, the metropolitan government surveyed 647 public baths in Tokyo, with 291, or 45 per cent, responding they had plans to change businesses or shut down, or would do so in time.
Of these, 90 bathhouses said they were considering closing within five years, before the Tokyo Olympics are held.
Each bathhouse spends an average of about ¥21.37 million on fuel and other expenses each year, about ¥680,000 more than they earn annually. More than 60 per cent of the respondents said there was no one to carry on the business or that a successor had not been decided.
"The number [of sento] could drop to half the current number by the Tokyo Olympics," said a metropolitan official in charge of the matter.
The bathhouse industry has high hopes for foreign tourists.
The Tokyo Sento Association created posters in English, Chinese and Korean last fiscal year that give bathing instructions, such as "Remove all your clothes," and pointers on manners, and distributed them to public baths in Tokyo.
The association is also considering a public relations campaign for this fiscal year, including putting posts in English, Chinese and other languages on its website.
"We need to think hard about how to successfully attract foreign tourists," said Norihide Watanabe, secretary general of the association.