Shinobu Machida: The Myojin Sento

, 2010/02/15

The final of our three-part series on The Japanese Sento (Parts 1 & 2)

Tokyo has cleverly disguised it’s Sento as lavish temples and the only evidence of their true identity, and the naked bathing inside, comes from the steam rising above the tiled rooftops and the chrome smokestack. However, careful eyes can pick them out by the “hafu,” a curved wooden shape hanging over the entrance. “It symbolizes an entrance to paradise,” says Sento writer Shinobu Machida. There are only three other places where you can see such a shape: at the entrance to a temple, on a funeral car and outside a soapland (brothel).”

Machida began investigating Sento when he couldn’t explain to a foreign friend why Tokyo’s Sento looked like temples. His interest grew when he began visiting and photographing Sento all over Japan; often unexpectedly running into police, who were suspicious that he was a developer looking to snatch up cheap land – the fate of many old Sento. A number of books later, and Machida is now an authority on Sento. Today he has brought us to what he considers to be the finest example of Tokyo Sento architecture- the 53 year-old Meijin-yu, located in Southwest Tokyo.

Form and function jostle for primacy in the design of Meijin-yu. The O-tera (temple) style facade seems to be merely for decoration, but it actually served an important function in revitalizing Sento culture following the great earthquake in the 12th year of the Taishou Period (1923). Before the earthquake, the architecture and interior design of Tokyo’s Sento was much simpler, more like the style currently seen in Osaka or Kyoto. With the hope of attracting more customers Sento’s began rebuilding themselves after the earthquake, mimicking the look of Shinto and Buddhist shrines. The plan worked and by about 1968 the number of Sento peaked at 2500; today there are fewer than 850. Inside the Tsuiba-jo (dressing rooms) Buddhist temple architecture is further replicated with high ceilings and a unique ‘s’ shaped structure at the juncture between the roof and wall. Careful design is intrinsic to all areas of Sento but seen most functionally in the baths themselves. The jet streams of water bubbling out from some baths are not electronically pressurized, but involve a complex geometric miracle of piping to enable the water to flow on a specific angle and create the right amount pressure. The shower area itself must also be slanted on the correct angle to ensure that no water pools which leads to mold. Old Sento can last a long time without repairs, resilient against the constant humidity and steam.

Although Tokyo’s Sento are beautiful, Machida prefers the unadorned, minimalist baths of Osaka and Kyoto. He did not see much spiritual significance in the Tokyo style aside from a brazen attempt at attracting more customers. But as he begins to talk about the history of Sento, the spiritual dimension is hard to ignore and makes you wonder about their inherent sacredness. The first public baths in Japan were actually holy baths used for the priests which Kõmyõ Kõgõ, in an act of altruism, allowed the poor to use in the time before the Kamakura period (1185 – 1333).

Reaching further back, the very idea of bathing in the Sento style came from India, and its long tradition of body cleansing with Japan’s first baths used as an extension of the temple, reserved only for the priests, to literally and symbolically purify themselves. Today, the cycle from sacred to commonplace has almost come full circle, as Sento’s increasingly become patronized by those seeking something more than just a physical cleansing: a respite from the city, a return to a more familiar age, a space for warding off loneliness.



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Shinobu Machida
The Myojin Sento
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