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article imageNew Type Of Public Bathhouse Takes Off In Recession-Hit Japan

By Coco Kubota     Aug 17, 2001 in Lifestyle
TOKYO (dpa) - For centuries, hot baths have been used by the Japanese to help them relax amid the pressures of everyday life.
Now, with many Japanese facing the possibility of unemployment and declining incomes, what can they do to reduce the tensions of modern living?
They can go to a super sento, a new type of public bathhouse which provides a variety of baths and relaxation choices, including foot and body massage.
The word "sento" means public bathhouse in Japanese. The first sento was established in Tokyo in 1591. It became central to life and society at the time because many Japanese did not have private baths, according to the Tokyo Public Bathhouse Association.
But Japanese lifestyles changed drastically during the nation's economic miracle that followed World War II and business at the traditional sentos has been in steady decline since then.
The traditional sento has big bathtubs, one for men and the other for women. After paying an entrance fee, customers must wash themselves with soap and water before they can go into the hot waters of the bathtubs.
They are also not allowed to use their own towels in order to avoid spreading infections. In order to enjoy - or even endure - the high temperatures of the baths the customers must relax their muscles and tendons.
Many traditional Japanese bathhouses have become old and less popular because of their image as places for poor people who have neither bathtubs nor showers of their own. This has forced many sentos to close.
According to the Japan Public Bathhouse Association, there were 6,325 sentos in Japan this year, compared with 13,782 in 1965.
The super sentos are like little spa resorts that offer a number of bathing choices, including outdoor baths and indoor jet baths, as well as massages and restaurants. Their entrance fees are about the same as traditional sentos - about 400 or 500 yen (between 3.20 and 4 dollars).
Business at super sentos is growing rapidly, as Japanese try to find inexpensive entertainment.
Masaaki Kitao, chief executive officer of Jinendo Co., which operates Gokurakuyu, Japan's largest super sento chain, told that business has been growing rapidly thanks to the health and relaxation boom in Japan amid its economic recession.
Kitao opened the first super sento in 1996 in Japan's northeastern Miyagi prefecture and since then he has opened 19 super sentos. Each of his Gokurakuyu, which means "paradise bath", has about 14 kinds of baths, including outdoor baths and indoor jet baths.
An average 1,500 people visit each of Kitao's Gokurakuyu super sentos every day, far more than an average 500 visitors a day at regular sento. The entry fee at Gokurakuru bathhouses is 500 yen.
"I love going to Gokurakuyu because they have many kinds of baths and are cheap," said Makio Terakado, a 49-year-old Japanese employee.
Terakado said super sento bathouses accomodates the needs of Japanese today. They are more sophisticated than regular sentos and also cheaper than "Health Land" leisure centres which feature many kinds of baths but also offer games, karaoke singing and restaurants. The Health Land leisure centres charge about four times as much as super sentos.
"I usually go to the super sento after work. It is the perfect place for me to relax after more than eight hours of stressful work at the office," Terakado said.
Unlike many Westerners who prefer taking showers rather than baths, most Japanese take a bath every day. According to the latest survey conducted by Tokyo Gus, only 10.7 per cent of Americans take a bath every day, while 91.3 per cent of Japanese bathe every day.
"Japanese love taking baths. I thought many people would look for a place where they could socialize and relax at an affordable price," said Gokurakuyu's Kitao.
He said the company's main clientele are Japan's baby boomers who are now in their early 50s. They constitute the largest population bracket in Japan and have been hit hard by the recession.
Terakado said he used to go to the Izakaya (a Japanese-style bar) after work but now he goes to the super sento with his colleagues because he feels great afterwards and it's also cheaper than going to a pub.
"I usually spend only about 2,000 yen (16 dollars) at the super sento, including 500 yen for taking a bath... It is cheaper than going to the Izakaya bar, where I usually spend more than 3,500 yen," he said.
Gokurakuyu's Kitao said he believes the market for super sentos has a bright future as Japan's population ages and its older people continue to prefer going to such bathhouses.
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