Site History and Significance
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 was traditionally housed in a high-ceilinged wooden structure, and contained a space for undressing and a washing area.
There were more than 2,500 bathhouses in Tokyo in the middle of the twentieth century, but today only about one-fifth of these survive. Bathhouses have gradually declined as a result of changing lifestyles and preferences, including the convenience of being able to bathe in private at one’s home. Today, younger generations are especially likely to find them unfamiliar, and constitute only a small percentage of daily visitors. In addition, the high value of land in Tokyo exerts additional pressure on the family owners of these facilities to give them up for new development.
An Exceptional Landmark
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 borrowed from Japanese temple architecture and using traditional techniques, the building narrowly escaped destruction in the U.S. air raids against Tokyo in 1945. 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 concern for their future represents much more than nostalgia for a bygone lifestyle. The institution of the bathhouse promotes social interaction and combats loneliness and isolation for those who use them, especially elderly residents. Bathhouses bring together people from different walks of life, even more so today when they must draw their clientele from a wider swath of the city.
2020 World Monuments Watch
At Inari-yu, the transformation of a secondary structure into an informal community gathering space home to a variety of uses has the potential to restore the social function once played by bathhouses as nodes of local networks, as well as attract new customers, including foreign visitors to Japan.
Inari-yu Bathhouse was included on the 2020 World Monuments Watch to support local solutions that could provide a model for the hundreds of remaining bathhouses in Japan.
Restoration and Transformation
In January 2021, WMF launched a project in partnership with S&N (Sento and Neighborhood) to oversee the restoration of Inari-yu, support its transformation into a functional community gathering space, and document its history and cultural role.
World Monuments Fund safeguards cultural heritage around the globe, ensuring our treasured places are preserved for present and future generations.
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World Monuments Fund’s project at Inari-yu Bathhouse has been made possible, in part, by support from American Express.