The public space and history hidden in Tokyo’s bathhouses
Sento provide a window into aspects of the city that can be easily overlooked
Recently, my Sento & Neighborhood colleagues and I were invited to contribute to the architectural magazine Kenchiku Journal for its November edition on public baths. Four of us wrote columns, and I also took part in a group interview. My column was intended to offer an outsider’s perspective on the value of bathhouse culture for a Japanese audience, but I think it may also provide a fuller picture to those who liked my first post about sento, so I’ve translated it into English below. More posts coming soon—I’m heading to Onomichi again this weekend.
Since coming to Tokyo eight years ago, I’ve visited well over 100 public baths across the city and the country. Such a resume likely earns me the distinction of being a “sento-phile,” but my interest in sento does not stem simply from the experience of baths alone. When friends from overseas used to visit Tokyo before the pandemic, I often made a point of taking them to a sento—not only to share with them the beautiful architecture and the distinctive Japanese culture of public bathing, but because visiting a sento is among the most effective ways to understand Tokyo’s initially inscrutable public space and history.
One of my favorite places to take people is Atami-yu, in the central neighborhood of Kagurazaka. The tour begins as we emerge from the subterranean labyrinth of Iidabashi Station and the traffic of Sotobori Boulevard recedes while we walk up a slope bustling with pedestrians. Midway up the hill, we duck into an alleyway no more than a meter wide to discover a quiet web of cobblestone lanes lined by restaurants. After a drink of sake at a standing bar and a visit to Akagi Shine, we wander through winding streets, our attention passing from one single-counter bistro or small house to the next. Another turn down a hidden cobblestone stairway, and the sento appears, surrounded by buildings in every direction and silently emitting a glow into the darkness. A small produce shop sits across from its entrance, and a local resident waits for her clothes to dry in the laundromat next door. Inside, a few regulars leisurely disrobe in the changing room, which was once said to bustle with geisha who came for the first bath of the afternoon before putting on their makeup and heading out to nearby appointments. Of all the urban spaces in Tokyo, this is one of my favorite.
Having followed along this far, my foreign visitor usually nods with satisfaction at having gotten a sense of how daily life unfolds in Tokyo’s neighborhoods that would elude someone simply exploring the main sights listed in a guidebook. In Western cities, public places such as parks, plazas, or churches are often found in prominent, central locations, but a newcomer to Tokyo who seeks out public space on the megacity’s surface is likely to find mostly the mechanical flow of masses of people, or throngs caught up in a frenzy of consumption. It was once I began visiting bathhouses that I realized that many of Tokyo’s true public spaces are hidden deeper in the urban fabric.
Gradually, my eye for the city became drawn towards its deeper realms. Sento are often nestled in back alleyways away from activity centers, and off the main streets or shopping arcades. Rokuryu Kosen, a sento that stood in a narrow side street behind Ueno Zoo until it was demolished in September, was emblematic of this typical form. But these oases often surprise me in unexpected places, too. Sakae-yu, south of Shibuya Station, sits next to an overpass across the Yamanote Line, a glowing sign indicating its entrance hidden at the back of a semi-underground parking space. Ginza’s Konparu-yu, which has been in operation since the Edo Period, miraculously preserves a piece of ordinary life just one street behind the glittering department stores and boutiques along Chuo-dori.
Having discovered Tokyo’s depth, I also came to understand how the public space of sento extends into the surrounding neighborhoods. Daily cycles nourish a neighborhood ecosystem of informal kakuuchi bars at liquor shops, local diners, mom-and-pop shops and quiet shrines—places where people gather and interact in essentially humanizing ways. These neighborhood public spaces emerge from human relationships that cannot be reduced to market transactions alone—here is Tokyo’s true urban commons, one that is constantly being reproduced through the ordinary activities of residents.
I also visit sento because these spaces give me a bodily connection to the history that still courses through the city. Since the foundation of Edo more than 400 years ago, megacity life has been sustained through reliance on communal bathing. After the twin disasters of earthquake and war in the 20th century, sento organically reemerged in every corner of the city, helping the metropolis absorb the massive influx of rural migrants. For example, Inari-yu in Kita Ward, where my organization Sento & Neighborhood is engaged in a restoration and revitalization project, was founded in the early 20th century and reconstructed in 1930, just as the surrounding area of Takinogawa was being rapidly urbanized. Architect Naohiko Hino has described the emergence of this neighborhood:
The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 destroyed the urban core and sparked Tokyo’s rapid suburbanization, but Takinogawa was already experiencing exceptional population growth even before the earthquake, as fields were converted in a patchwork fashion into residential land. The area was originally a village along the Nakasendo Highway that was known for producing vegetable seeds and seedlings, sustaining a cycle of rural farmers who carried their produce to market in Tokyo before purchasing seeds for their next crop on their way out of town. This system of farming functioned due to its location along an artery on the outskirts of the city, but as the city itself expanded, the village was soon swallowed up. Tracing the process of urbanization through old maps reveals how housing gradually encroached on the fields along the edges of the highway.
When I let myself get lost amid the narrow, random alleyways of Takinogawa, I feel a closeness to the historical processes that made Tokyo what it is today. Another favorite sento called Chiyo-no-yu, located in the middle of the Sangen-jaya “Triangle” of tiny pubs that began as a postwar black market, still preserves some of the atmosphere of that time in its rusting metal fence and barrack-like entryway. I am especially fond of Teikoku-yu in Mikawashima and the liquor shop across the street, which barely escaped the flames of the American bombing. The unkempt liquor shop, where regulars sit atop stacks of cardboard boxes and chat while they sip on cans of beer, is still run by an old man who was born there before the war. He recalls how for many years as the city rebuilt after the defeat, the second floor of the shop was used to shelter the homeless and the bathhouse was always full. The fifth-generation woman who runs the sento always tells me to fill a bottle with fresh water from the well in the courtyard, and one New Years, she gave me a branch of holly from a centenarian tree in the garden of the women’s bath.
Even in neighborhoods where few old buildings remain, I find that entering a bathhouse and engaging in the same bodily rhythms as generations past provides me a connection to the distinctive history of Tokyo, a city whose surface has become monotonously modern.
Already, one-third of sento that remained in Tokyo when I arrived in 2014 have disappeared, and there are fewer than 500 left in the city today. In just the past few years, sento I once frequented such as Jakotsu-yu in Asakusa, Rokuryu Kosen in Ikenohata, Fujimi-yu in Kasuga, and Daikoku-yu in Kita Senju, as well as many others, have closed forever.
Amid the constant renewal of the landscape, I have an acute sense of how it is becoming more difficult year by year to trace the thread of Tokyo’s history or find what remains of the urban commons hidden in its deeper folds that gives life here its texture. If sento disappear from the urban landscape, we will not simply have lost precious architectural heritage and social infrastructure whose recreation would be prohibitively expensive. It would mean that we have forgotten the historical continuity that extends back through the twin disasters of the 20th century to the city’s roots in Edo, and lost a shared sense of living together and being agents in the creation of our own city.
Recently, the surface of Tokyo has become studded by more Western-style public spaces that have been designed by enterprising local governments or the developers remaking the city. These public spaces tailored to the consumer trends of the day can be replicated with ease, but the public space rooted in the city’s baths and extending into the surrounding neighborhoods can not be easily regained once it is gone.
My organization Sento & Neighborhood’s restoration project at Inari-yu has received support from World Monuments Fund, which cited the essential function of bathhouses within the broader city when it recognized sento as endangered cultural heritage. Those of us living in Tokyo should have a similar sense of urgency in order to find ways to pass down the public space and history that lives on in sento to the next generation.