TOKYO -- Old bathhouses in Tokyo remodeled with stylish modern designs are attracting young customers unfamiliar with the tradition of attending public baths.
Operators of the businesses have been closing shop in their droves. According to the Japan National Sento Association, the number of public bathhouses was 2,801 in 2014, down roughly 60% from 2000.
Some believe bathhouses still have much to offer. Osamu Oba, a professor at Kyoto Prefectural University, says bathhouses are an extraordinary place for younger generations and that stylish interiors can become talking points and also help attract patrons. Kentaro Imai Architectural Office says that it is necessary for such businesses to have a modern sense if they wish to lure younger customers while holding onto longtime customers.
Hisamatsuyu bathhouse in Tokyo's Nerima Ward originally opened in 1956, but reopened in May 2014 after being refurbished. Surrounded by trees, the white-walled building could be mistaken for a museum. When the decrepit wooden facility was demolished, owner Yukio Kazama thought he did not want to be bound to the traditional image of the Japanese bathhouse.
Although the facility's customers were mostly elderly, the new building attracts both young and old. The bathhouse is currently visited by more than 300 customers daily during the week and 600-700 on weekends, over three times more than before.
On the evening of a weekday in early August, a 31-year-old man visited Hisamatsuyu with his 3-year-old son. He said he comes to the bathhouse two or three times a month.
They were watching a mapping projection on the wall of the men's section, a feature replacing the usual painting of Mount Fuji. The light show is displayed on a white wall about 4 meters high and 10 meters wide, stretching from the men's section to the women's.
The projected show lasts about 20 minutes, showing three patterns. The man says he never tires of watching the display.
Akane Shiozaki, 30, an office worker, visiting the bathhouse for the first time, said, "[The bathhouse] allows me to come alone without hesitation. It is fancy and doesn't look like a traditional public bath."
Different designs create a variety of moods. Bunka Yokusen, in Meguro Ward, has been in business since 1928 and looks like a hidden Japanese restaurant. The bathhouse's Asian-style lobby is meant to encourage customers to spend more time there. The brown-tiled bathroom has a painting of Mount Fuji in a round frame.
After its 2011 refurbishment, the public bath has been visited by a group of men and women in their 20s and 30s every Wednesday evening. They are members of a group that runs together after work before bathing at the establishment.
One member of the group, Shunsuke Seto, 31, said, "Talking with friends while savoring the unusual is really fun."
Minami Aoyama Shimizuyu, in Minato Ward, is located on a street lined with fashionable boutiques, cafes, sundries stores and beauty shops. The bathhouse, which resembles a hair salon, has Italian and Spanish tiles in its bathroom and plays jazz music. Visitors can also enjoy Belgian beer after bathing. The business says more than half of its customers are teenagers and people in their 20s and 30s.
Fukunoyu in Bunkyo Ward, which looks like a log cabin cafe, was revamped in 2011. In its bathroom, the drawing of a modern interpretation of Shichifukujin (seven gods of good fortune) stands out in atmospheric lighting.
Togoshiginza Onsen in Shinagawa Ward is also decorated with the traditional depiction of Mount Fuji and has a modern version of Shichifukujin on the walls of its bathroom.