The 6am early morning bathhouse
On the old illustrations of Edo, daimyo (1) mansions are clustered to the south of Shinobazu pond (2) while to the east the main Tokyo house of the Satake clan is visible; between are closely-packed houses for junior samurai warriors. The name Okachigumi appears on the map. The Okachi were a group of bodyguards to generals, and the area known as Okachimachi was named after them.
The first generation owner who was from Noto (3) took over Tsubameyu in Okachimachi in Showa 29 (1954).There are more than a few bathhouse proprietors from Sanjo and Tsubame in Niigata prefecture. “Tsubameyu was named after my hometown, Tsubame,” said Masae Hashizume the proprietor and the grandchild of the first owner. Tsubameyu, nestling between the neighbouring buildings, was constructed in Showa 25 (1950) and was registered as a tangible national cultural property in Heisei 20 (2008), as a wooden bathhouse of the middle Showa period. The atmosphere of the Showa period still lingers in the hipped roofs, coffered ceilings in the dressing rooms and the bathtub stoppers placed high up the sides of the baths. In the entranceway the traditional Edo era sign that the bathhouse is open for business, a plank carved with the character “wa”, from the verb “waku” meaning to boil water, is still used. At closing time this is replaced by one featuring the character “nu”, from the verb “nuku” meaning to unplug, a traditional Japanese pun.
The current painting in the bathroom is the Tateyama mountain range (4). As for Mount Fuji, there is a painting in the dressing room of the mountain and a dragon called Suijin, the god of water. Between the bath and the wall stones are piled up and resemble the Shinto shrine Fujizuka. It is said the stones are actual volcanic rocks from Mt. Fuji. The water temperature at 6am is 48 degrees for the regular customers; there is no need to worry though as it has cooled by the evening to a temperature suitable for anyone.
From the Edo to Meiji periods the early morning customers were those who needed to wash away the fragrances of their nocturnal amusements before returning home. Following the Second World War the bathhouse was frequented by workers from the nearby fruit and vegetable market Yachaba, in Akihabara. The current customers are a variety of people: regulars who enjoy an early bath, people on their way to work or just finishing a nightshift, job hunting students or sightseers using night buses. Some young people were even able to secure a part-time job following a naked meeting with locals in the bathhouse.
Shin, the son of the proprietor, begins preparing the hot water at 3am, while his mother works in the attendant’s booth until 8pm. Shin’s younger brother Takahiro and another assistant also help to keep Tsubameyu running. Today too, young people refreshed in mind and body, following an early morning soak, rush out of the bathhouse to immerse themselves in the city of Tokyo.
Address: 3-14-5, Ueno, Taito-ku,Tokyo
Access: 4 minutes walk from Okachimachi station
Text and photographs: Akira Fuse,
Translation: Ai Mitobe, Language Volunteer Co-talk (LVC)
(1) Daimyo – a Japanese feudal lord
(2) Shinobazu pond – a pond located in Ueno Park
(3) Noto – the northern part of Ishikawa prefecture
(4) Tateyama mountain range – a mountain range located between Toyama and Gifu prefectures