Japan's bathhouses lose chimneys in fuel switch

The familiar sight of smoke rising from the chimneys of sento public bathhouses is disappearing in Tokyo. Sento have switched their fuel from heavy oil, which is growing increasingly expensive, to city gas, which has a relatively stable price but produces no smoke.

Yahata Yokujo, a sento in Ota Ward, Tokyo, changed its fuel for boiling water from heavy oil to city gas in June.

"After changing fuel to city gas, the fuel costs dropped by 20 to 30 per cent compared to the time when we used heavy oil," said Toshiyuki Moriguchi, 58, manager of the sento. "Our work load has also become lighter."

In addition to heavy oil, Moriguchi used to use scrap wood from demolished houses to save on fuel costs, but it took time and labour to cut the wood into small pieces. Although his chimney has become useless now, Moriguchi intends to keep it for a while. According to the Tokyo Sento Association, however, many bathhouses have knocked down their chimneys due to safety concerns.

The average price of fuel oil used at sento was ¥98.3 per liter in July, according to the Oil Information Center at the Institute of Energy Economics. The price went up by as much as 60 per cent from that of five years ago. Meanwhile, the sales price of city gas in Tokyo increased about 30 per cent over the past five years and remains stable at that level.

A sento association survey showed that 8.4 per cent of all sento in Tokyo used city gas as fuel in 1998. The ratio increased to 27.1 per cent in 2008 and to 44.7 per cent in 2011. At present, a majority of sento are believed to be using city gas.

According to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, there were 15,696 sento nationwide in 1980, but only 4,804, or about one-third, as of the end of March last year.

Major reasons for the decline include the aging of operators and a lack of successors. One major problem all sento face is understanding how to increase operational efficiency enough to survive.

The Tokyo metropolitan government has provided subsidies to sento that change their fuel to city gas because doing so reduces carbon dioxide emissions.

Tatsu no Yu, a sento in Nerima Ward, Tokyo, still uses a 20-meter-tall chimney built when the sento opened in 1965. Masaki Motohashi, 36, the third-generation operator of the sento, said waste material is mainly used as fuel.

"We have customers who come here because they saw the chimney and knew we were here," he said. "The chimney is popular among customers because it adds nostalgic charm to sento, so I would like to continue using it as long as possible."Speech