Sento, or large public bathhouse, is a good old tradition in Osaka. There are still many public bathhouses left in Osaka, but in this installment, we will introduce the sento in the region where you can feel all nostalgic.
Gengahashi Onsen is a public bathhouse located in Ikuno-ku in the southeast section of the city of Osaka. Built around 1937, this bathhouse still has a shadow of the old culture that was a cross between foreign and Japanese style called "Showa Modern," which was the mainstream in Japan at the time. It is registered as a nationally designated tangible cultural property that "contributes to the historical landscape of the country." The exterior of the building is characterized by shachihoko (this ornament seen atop castles is a charm of an imaginary animal that is said to save the building from fire). On the roof of the entrance is a pair of replicas of New York's Statue of Liberty sandwiching the Western-style windows (the reason seems to be a play on words on New York (pronounced "nyuyoku") and entering a bath ("nyuyoku"). The high ceiling of the dressing room inside the building is decorated with a Western flair, but the courtyard in front of the dressing room features a small Japanese-style garden called "senzai." This is indeed a treasure of a building where you can feel the culture during the early stages of the Showa period, when Japanese and foreign elements were mixed. But contrary to its retro building ambiance, the bath here is fully equipped with modern features. The stone bath is an air bubble bath, while the stone bath with opal gems is a medicinal bath. Aside from these, you can also enjoy soaking in an electric bath, steam sauna and cold bath. So, how about soaking leisurely in a vast bathtub while thinking of Japan 80 years ago? Please note though that while the name of this bathhouse bears the term "onsen," it is not a natural hot spring.
©THE ASSOCIATION OF OSAKA SENTO
©THE ASSOCIATION OF OSAKA SENTO
Senzai (courtyard) as seen from the dressing room
1. Gengahashi Onsen
On the north side of Nishinari-ku, where the flavors of working class Osaka still linger, you will find the Tsurumihashi Shotengai shopping arcade that stretches for about 1km to the east and west. Restaurants and private/family-type stores line this retro arcade. Sennari Onsen is a sento that is located near the center of this shopping area. It is hidden by the arcade, so you can only see its front gate from the shopping district. But if you come close, you will see that this sento is a medium-sized building. It is a traditional sento where you can see the senzai from the dressing room. Posters of performances/plays at the neighboring theater of Taishu Engeki (theater for the masses) are plastered on the walls of the dressing room, where the washing machines and dryers are also located. The feel of downtown Osaka hangs in the air at the dressing room, but the atmosphere is completely different when you get inside the bath as it becomes quite a classy space. The floor is made of stone pavement and the massive stone bath is positioned at the center (the bath is usually at the back in bathhouses nationwide, but in Osaka, the sento generally has the bath at the center). The walls are colorful, too. The divider that separates the men and women is made of stained glass with a design of fairytale angels, while the wall on the other side is decorated with a huge mosaic made of tiles. The baths here are also up to date with the times, as this sento also offers mist sauna, electric bath, medicinal bath, cold bath and waterfall bath. You have to come here and get a taste of working class area in the dressing room and luxury in the bath.
2. Sennari Onsen
There are still many sento from long ago that remain in Edogawa-ku. Daini Suehiro-yu is one sento that boasts of a 90-year history since it was opened. The building is designed in the traditional Osaka style wherein there is a senzai on both sides of the protruding entrance hall. The name "Yu-Hirosue" is written in mosaic on top of the entrance hall, and its being written in the old-fashioned right-to-left method adds another layer to its retro vibe. You will find many other retro fixtures inside this building. On the ceiling in the dressing room is a big dual-blade propeller fan, the lockers in the women's bath are made of aged wood, and a bubble-making machine born in the 1960s still runs in the middle of the stone bath in the bathhouse. There are also classical tile designs on the wall of the bath. Daini Suehiro-yu still lives on even after 90 years simply because it is loved as a "local salon". The wooden benches in the dressing room are where the regular customers discuss the world. And the keeper of the sento who watches over the establishment from a stand (traditional front desk of a sento) is a veteran wife who has been doing that job for 60 years. During those times when not many houses had baths, the keeper even looked after the babies of mothers who just wanted to take a leisurely bath. This is a sento with a history of bringing people closer. Don't you want to experience that history for yourself and write one page in your new history?
3. Daini Suehiro-yu
Mandai-yu is a sento that is located in Sumiyoshi-ku at the southern tip of Osaka City. The name "Mandai-yu" written in gold letters on the signage on the salmon pink roof of the entrance hall and the board saying "Radon Hot Springs" are the landmarks to this sento. If you pass through the noren (sign curtain hung at shop entrance), you will see a propeller-type fan whirring. This bathhouse has a stone pavement on the floor and the bath is also made of stone. It is common for sento in Osaka to have steps around the bath. You sit on these steps, fill your basin with hot water from the bath and then wash your body. When you are in a sento in Tokyo, it is customary to wash your body with the hot water from a faucet in the wash area before you enter the bath, but in Osaka, the custom is called "kakeyu," wherein you get hot water from the bathtub with your basin and pour that hot water on yourself before you enter the bath. After you soak in the bath, you then do "agariyu," where you cleanse your body by showering with hot water that is different from the hot water in the bath. In the old times when there was no shower, people would rinse with the hot water that has been put in a small "yubachi" for the exclusive use of people coming out of the bath. While yubachi has virtually disappeared nowadays, it is still actively used at Mandai-yu. Mix the hot water you drew from the yubachi with the cold water from the nearby "suibachi" and shower in your desired temperature. Meanwhile, the "radon hot springs" written on the board refers to low-concentration radon bath wherein "radon gas," a radioactive gas, is fed into the bath. It was used mainly in the 1970s. At Mandai-yu, the stone baths built at the back of the bathhouse are electric baths and radon baths.
*Photo is for illustration purposes.
Put your shoes in the shoe locker at the entrance hall and your clothes into the lockers in the dressing room, lock your lockers, wear the key on your wrist and then head to the bath.
Taisho-ku, which is located in the southwest area of Osaka, is known to be home to many people from Okinawa and its shopping district is packed with stores selling Okinawa goods, so it is called "Little Okinawa." Manzai Yu in this area may look like the traditional Osaka-style sento when it comes to the structure of the building, but it is very rich in Okinawan atmosphere with its roof tiles and the use of colors on the exterior, with every floor a different color - blue, pink, and white. In the dressing room on top of the retro grilled ceiling, you will see a shiisa (Okinawan lion statue that is used as a talisman to ward off evil), while the bottom tiles on the wall of the bath are so colorful that they will remind you of Okinawa. But the most interesting feature of Manzai Yu is the number of tile drawings on the top portion of the wall in the bath. The divider on the right side of the men's bath is a four-piece drawing of a Japanese fairytale. Landscape tile art is on the wall in front. Meanwhile, on the left wall, there are tiles of an undersea view and Mount Fuji. In the women's bath, the dividing wall on the left is a four-piece animal drawing, and in front are scenic views of a lake and mountain. A drawing of Mount Fuji is painted on the tiles on the left wall. Further, the wall in the cold bath shows a picture of a waterfall. This Manzai Yu that is filled with tile drawings is also called by sento fans in Osaka as a "tile art museum." Men and women do not get to exchange bathing areas here, unfortunately, so you will see the drawings in just one bathing area. The art in this sento is something you want to appreciate fully without getting dizzy from the hot water in the bath. This facility is also equipped with a bubble bath, electric bath, sauna and a cold bath.
©THE ASSOCIATION OF OSAKA SENTO
©THE ASSOCIATION OF OSAKA SENTO
5. Manzai Yu
Sento in Osaka all charge the same rate - 440 JPY for adults (middle school age and older), 150 JPY for elementary school children and 60 JPY for children (babies to kindergarteners). While people generally bring their own soap and towel, you can come empty-handed because you can either buy or rent at the sento. Go, drop by these places, stretch your legs in their vast baths, and indulge in that pleasant warm feeling.
*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.