Communal bathing in a public bath or hot spring has been a feature of Japanese daily life for several centuries, and an evening visit to a neighborhood bathhouse, or sentō, remains a habit for many urban dwellers. The typical facility used to be housed in a two-story wooden structure, containing a space for undressing and a washing area, to wash the body and soak in hot water. But while the number of bathhouses in Tokyo peaked at more than 2,500 after the middle of the twentieth century, today only about one-fifth survive—an attrition rate of almost one per week. The decline of bathhouses has taken place naturally, as the complement to changing lifestyles and preferences, including the convenience of bathing in private at one’s own home. Members of younger generations are especially likely to find the habit unfamiliar. And demand for construction sites throughout Tokyo exerts additional pressure on the family owners of these facilities to give them up for new development.
Inari-yu bathhouse, in Tokyo’s Kita ward is both a typical example of a surviving neighborhood bathhouse, as well as an exceptional landmark. Built in 1930, in a style and using techniques borrowed from Japanese temple architecture, the building narrowly escaped destruction in the 1945 air bombing of Tokyo by the United States. In 2019, Inari-yu was listed as a Registered Tangible Cultural Property by Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs, the second bathhouse in Tokyo to receive this designation, and one of only a handful nationwide.
To many in Japan, the declining popularity of bathhouses like Inari-yu symbolizes the passing of a distinctly Japanese way of life. But a concern for their future represents much more than nostalgia for a bygone lifestyle. The institution of the bathhouse has always functioned to promote social interaction, combating loneliness and isolation for those who need it, especially elderly residents. Bathhouses brought people from different walks of life in frequent contact with each other, a function that—ironically—is enhanced now that each bathhouse has to draw its clientele from a wider swath of the city.
And yet it is possible that the bathhouse can be updated for the twenty-first century while staying true to its core function. At Inari-yu, the transformation of a secondary structure into an informal gathering space, similar to the kaku-uchi that can be found in Japanese liquor stores, has the potential to strengthen the social function of the bathhouse and attract new customers, including foreign visitors to Japan. Inclusion of Inari-yu Bathhouse on the 2020 World Monuments Watch supports local solutions that could provide a model for the remaining hundreds of bathhouses in Japan.