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Japanese bathing culture is being washed away

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• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

On a chilly winter night, the bodies sliding in and out of the steaming water reflect the varied character of the neighborhood served by the local public bathhouse, or sento: skinny students whose apartments don’t have bathrooms, a plump old man seeking some company, manual laborers washing away the day’s grime and aches.

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“The most important thing in a Japanese bath is forgetting all your troubles and clearing your mind, more than just washing,” says Yasuo Amaike, owner of the Yoshi-no-yu bathhouse.

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Although bathing in Japan has always been about more than simply getting clean, sento did serve this very practical purpose in the postwar era when housing had been devastated. Now, with almost every dwelling equipped with a bath, and spa-type super-sento gaining in popularity, old-style ones are closing at a rate of one a week in nearby Tokyo alone. Study groups and campaigns to preserve and promote these focal points of neighborhood communication are popping up. Nevertheless, Mr. Amaike says the number of customers at his bath is only 10 percent of what it was when he opened in the 1960s. His children have no interest in taking over the failing business.