Long-established Sento from the Meiji era along with Bentensama(1)
Before the Second World War, there were more than 170,000 retail stores relative to the population of 6 million in Tokyo: one store for every 35 people. Assuming the average number of persons per family was five that is one store per seven households! If the number of unauthorized stores had also been taken into account, the ratio of stores to population would have been higher. At that time, many wholesalers who dealt in soaps, cosmetics, and haberdasheries were concentrated in the Nihonbashi and Asakusabashi areas. Asakusabashi was once well-known for doll shops. Whilst the number of these has decreased, shops specializing in fancy goods and accessories are now crowded with customers.
The first owner of Bentenyu was Tsunejiro Kitajima, who was born in Toyama prefecture. The exact time of its establishment is not clear, however, further research has revealed that a spa is shown located on the same site in a map dated 1877 (Meiji 9). The present owner of Bentenyu is Koichi Kitajima (born in 1958), the fourth generation owner and great-grandson of Tsunejiro. He decided to leave the company where he had worked for seven years to get married, and joined the family sento business, with his wife, Chieko. His 25-year-old son, Kentaro, the fifth generation member, is working now as an apprentice.
Though the sento which was restored after the war was renovated in 1958, in 1974 it moved into the ground floor of a new residential building due to redevelopment of the area. When walking towards the back from the entrance of the building, you’ll find the genkan(2). Inside the genkan, the front desk staff wait to greet you. The ceiling of the bathroom is as high as a two-storey house and this gives you a sense of space as in a traditional sento. Two bathtubs are located on each side of the partition wall between the men’s and women’s areas. A feature of Bentenyu is that it uses natural hot water. The groundwater is pumped up from the clear water layer of earth, though the surrounding layers contain relatively much iron. Bentenyu is among only 2 or 3 sento in Tokyo using electricity for fuel in response to the demands of environmental measures by the government.
Formerly, most customers of Bentenyu were itamae(3) and nakai(4) working at ryoutei(5) in Yanagibashi hanamachi(6), and also employees working in the wholesaler street in Asakusabashi. Yanagibashi is not as bustling with visitors as it once used be, but now backpackers from overseas staying in hostels often come over to Bentenyu. This sento is ideally located for walking around the Ueno or Asakusa areas and has also become the base for the start and finish of walking courses. Furthermore, you can enjoy jogging along the Sumida River.
Before the Second World War, Bentensama had been located besides Ofudosama in the neighborhood. As community events and festivals began to fade out, Bentensama had nowhere to go. Bentenyu took this Bentensama into its sento, as it is the goddess of water. Most customers coming into this sento bow warmly to Bentensama before entering.
Address: 1-33-6 Asakusabashi, Taito-ku, Tokyo
Open: 15:30 – 23:30
Closed: second and fourth Monday
Access: 2 minutes walk from Asakusabashi Station
Text and photographs: Akira Fuse
Translation: Mayuki Otogawa, Language Volunteer Co-talk (LVC)
(1) Bentensama – a statue of Venus or the “Goddess of Good Fortune”
(2) Genkan – entrance area.
(3) Itamae – a person who cooks meals at a Japanese restaurant or ryoutei
(4) Nakai – a serving lady or waitress at a Japanese restaurant
(5) Ryoutei – a high class Japanese-style restaurant
(6) Hanamachi – a geisha area