Starting a sento in the middle of a rice field. Which comes first the residential area or the sento?
After the Second World War, Tokyo’s population increased, and around 1955 large-scale housing developments were built one after another in the rural areas located in the suburbs. In those days people did not have bathrooms in their houses and a sento would be built nestled among the houses to meet the demand. On the other hand, a sento would be built first in the middle of a farming area and then housing or small-scale apartment houses for laborers built around it. In the farming area located on the north side of Koiwa Station 27 sento were built during this golden age.
Yoshinoyu was built in the middle of rice fields in 1952. The owner of Koiwayu, another sento, who was from the former Nishikambara-gun, Niigata prefecture, set up his second oldest son in Yoshinoyu. The present owner, Yoko Onozuka, is from the village next to that of the owner of Koiwayu, and married the second eldest son when she was 20 years old. Since then, she has run Yoshinoyu for the past 53 years.
Let’s take a look at the whole building from the opposite side of the road. On top of the roof of the entrance hall and the roof of the irimoya (1) are chidorihafu (2), and at the back a kirizuma yane (3) stretches out. This is a prime example of a Tokyo sento, with its great shrine or temple style architecture. On the tsumakabe (4) of the hafu (5) above the entrance hall is a clay figure of a dragon, which is said to be the water god who protects the water source. Maybe because of this, even now the groundwater is used for the sento’s hot water.
When you enter the changing room your eyes are caught by the dark brown dignified oriagegou tenjo (6). A huge mosaic tile picture on the rear wall comes into view through a large glass door. In the picture some yachts with billowing sails are gliding across a summer ocean. This image continues onto the actual surface of the bath tub. In the women’s bathroom the image of the Niagara Falls looks as though it is splashing into the bath tub. The bath tubs comprise of a medicated bath of Hojuyu and an L-shaped bath with seating and a jet current, and an electric bath; the latter two both containing sayu (7). 20 years ago during renovation, the Bandai (8) was replaced by a front counter; however, no new equipment was added in the bathrooms and the resulting large space was left as it was. This is because the owner wanted to keep the atmosphere simple and clean. Whilst you gaze at the high ceiling and the huge tiled pictures, you appreciate the precious relaxation time in our present busy lives.
Unfortunately, there are now only four sento left on the north side of Koiwa Station. Nevertheless, although Yoko lost her husband five years ago, she still manages the running of the sento with the help of her son and daughter-in-law. She is a hard worker by nature and wants to continue working while she is healthy enough, and each day she satisfies the expectations of her customers who eagerly await the opening of the sento.
Address: 3-36-20 Nishikoiwa, Edogawa-ku, Tokyo
Open: 15:00 – 23:30
Access: 7 minutes walk from JR Koiwa Station
Text and photographs: Akira Fuse
Translation: Yoshie Hutchinson, Language Volunteer Co-talk (LVC)
(1) Irimoya – Japanese style architecture with a hip roof
(2) Chidorihafu – a small triangular-shaped roof, which is itself attached to the inclining roof.
(3) Kirizumayane – a type of gabled roof
(4) Tsumakabe – the end wall under a gable (hafu)
(5) Hafu – a gable
(6) Oriagegou tenjo – a coved lattice-ceiling
(7) Sayu – hot water with nothing added
(8) Bandai – fee collector’s elevated seat at a public bath house.