Shusetsu Tachibana: The Last Sansuke

, 2009/12/07

With wrinkled and nimble hands Shusetsu Tachibana washes the back of 77 year old Sugiwara-san. As the oldest customer at Saito-yu, Sugiwara-san is only a few years younger than the baths themselves. This washing ritual is very old and well known; Tachibana-san has done it tens of thousands of times. His hands move quickly between multiple points on the back, arms and head. Simultaneously pushing, pulling, pinching. He sways and jerks, moving his body repetitively as he massages. His eyes are closed; he looks somnolently drunk in his focus. This “seventy-something” year old, is the last of his kind, a Sanske – washer and masseuse for the Sento. Once he retires, a whole profession will also retire. In a city of cathartic change, like Tokyo, it is incredible that someone like Tachibana-san exists, a living relic from an pre-modern age. In every other Japanese Sento his job has been replaced by robots – sad looking massage chairs.

Today he will spend his day in almost the same way as when he began the job at 15. Although things are much quieter now then they were in Showa 28 (1953). In those days the Sento’s were chaotic and crowded, filled with “more cute girls”. Today the Sento is filled almost exclusively with the elderly who lend the Sento an air of nostalgia, aging it in ways the dated baths and lockers never could.

Tachibana-san is the fourth son in a farming family from Hima in Toyama Prefecture. It is traditional that only the first son will work on the farm, so like his other sibling’s he had to find work on his own. After finishing middle school at 15 he came to Tokyo with a firm goal – to work in a bathhouse. At that time demand was high and he took on work at many Sento, rotating between them working as a Banto-san, which involved a variety of chores including general cleaning, and keeping the boiler at the right temperature. Trying to ask him more details about that era drew long pauses, “I forget a lot of the past, but when i begin washing it starts to come back to me”. So, we pay our ¥400, put everything we own into a locker and enter the baths naked, with only a wooden token reading ‘togashi’ (back rub). After sitting down on a plastic stool, and washing ourselves, Tachibana-san appears in his uniform – a white singlet and black shorts – and begins to work on our backs. In older times he would have been called up with a bell, one ring for a man, two for a woman. In those times he might have been tending to the boiler when the call came, burning old furniture to keep the baths at a perfect temperature. Today our wash begins with a vigorous back scrub with a coarse cloth where the soap lathers up in little mountains. This is followed by a long togashi. As it finishes you feel transported to an unfamiliar and relaxing place; Tachibana-san awakens from the ritual, nods quietly, collects your wooden tokens and wanders back to the boiler in the same way he has for over fifty years.

Original Text and Photography in Paper Sky No. 31 (Denmark, 2009)



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