Looking for Sento – Special Edition (2014.11.28) The history of the Bath ②

Bathhouse System Established in Edo the year after Ieyasu entered Edo Castle



Bathing, which had begun as seyoku (1) in temples, became a fee-paying activity in the Osaka area at the end of the Heian period and the beginning of the Kamakura period (around the end of the 12th century). In Edo (modern Tokyo), it is recorded that the year after Tokugawa Ieyasu (2) entered Edo Castle (1591) a bathhouse was constructed in Nihonbashi, in the centre of the city. The bathhouse was apparently requested by the vast numbers of artisans who flocked to the capital to work on the building of the castle and tradespeople employed in business in the city. The baths changed with the times, from the original steam baths to shallow hip baths and then to the deep baths in use now. To prevent the steam leaking from the narrow bathrooms, a small aperture known as a zakuro-guchi (3) was installed around 90cm from the floor. In the Kanto area (East Japan centred on Tokyo) these apertures were in the shape of a Shinto shrine arch or torii (4), while in Kansai (West Japan around Osaka) they were gable-shaped hafu (5).



Bathhouses known as Yuna(6)-buro, which provided prostitution services after washing, began to appear, and their second-floor tatami-mat rooms became popular as places of prostitution for samurai. They were prohibited for immorality and the rooms became meeting places for local people to eat, drink and fraternize. Such scenes are featured in the novel Ukiyoburo (Bathhouse of the Floating World) by Edo period comic author Shikitei Sanba (7). Men were the only customers at first but as the number of women customers increased, women-only bathhouses were added, then later, bathhouses with mixed bathing, known as Irekomiyu, were added to the men’s and women’s bathhouses. The mixed bathing areas were prohibited many times yet persisted until the beginning of the Meiji period (1868).



The main customers in those days were playboys on their way home after a night of carousing in the pleasure quarters, service workers or women and children in the daytime and men finishing work in the evening. The attendant’s stand in the entranceway has been quite high since those days, apparently to allow a view of the changing rooms and guard against sneak thieves who stole bathers’ clothes or personal items. The Edo period gave birth to a variety of herbal baths, with some including sweet flag leaves, peaches and the citrus fruit yuzu.

In the Meiji-mura open air museum in Aichi prefecture there is an Edo-style   public bathhouse built during the Meiji period. Known as Handa-azumayu, the building resembles a typical tradesman’s house of the time, with a Japanese-style lounge on the second floor. One large bath is separated into men’s and women’s baths by wainscot paneling. In the Edo Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum we can see the bathhouse Kodakarayu, built in the 4th year of the Showa period (1929). It is said that this is the model for the bathhouse Aburaya, from the Ghibli movie Spirited Away. The facade is built in the Miya-zukuri style, resembling a Buddhist temple or Shinto shrine, and the bathhouse features advertising posters and tiled paintings that recall the Showa Period for nostalgic senior visitors.

●The Osaka Museum of Housing and Living
Address: Tenjinbashi, Kita-ku,Osaka
Telephone: 06-6242-1170
Address: Inuyama City, Aichi Prefecture
Telephone: 0568-67-0314
●Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum
Address: Koganei City, Tokyo
Telephone: 042-388-3300

Text and photographs: Akira Fuse
Translation: Sayaka Hirano, Language Volunteer Co-Talk (LVC)

1) Seyoku – the priests allowed the poor, the sick and prisoners to use the bathhouses in their temples as a kind of charity.
2) Tokugawa Ieyasu – one of the most famous warlords in Japan, he established the Edo Shogunate in the 17th century.
3) Zakuro-guchi – people entered the bathroom by stooping through the narrow aperture.
4) Torii – an archway to a Shinto shrine
5) Hafu – one of the typical styles for roofs of temples and old houses in Japan. The roof is mountain-shaped and their gables are often decorated.
6) Yuna – the women who gave men washing services called “Nagashi”, rubbing off the dirt and combing their clients’ hair. They also offered prostitution services.
7) Shikitei Sanba (1776-1822) – an Ukiyo-e picture artist and author of the later Edo period.