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Interview with a Sento Expert: Masami Usagawa

By day, Masami Usagawa is a Korean-Japanese translator and interpreter living in Fukuoka. She also has a fascinating second life: one in which she has visited over one thousand sento (public baths) in Japan! So, when we decided to publish a guide to sento in Fukuoka, she was the obvious go-to expert.

Masami, right, with Fumiko Yamatsu, the owner of Azumayu

Masami first fell in love with sento at university, before becoming involved in sento unions in both Tokyo and Fukuoka. In her travels across Japan she has collected a cohort of like-minded sento lovers, and has recently helped with the redecoration of three sento in Fukuoka. Read on to find out more about Masami and her squeaky clean pastime, or if you want to familiarise yourself with sento first, read our guide to sento in Fukuoka here.

OK, tell us honestly, how many sento have you been to?
Over one thousand.

More than one thousand sento?
Yes, more than one thousand. When I was at university, we used our summer vacations to visit as many sento as we could.

Everywhere. From Hokkaido to Okinawa. When I was younger, I bought the seishun 18 kippu (train ticket) and I went to Osaka, Kyoto, and as many places as possible.

Did you take notes, memos, photos of each place?
At that time there was no internet but I have memos at home and maybe some photos stored in my old Mixi account.

Tell me about your favorite sento.
It’s called Tsubame-yu, in Tokyo, close to Ueno. The sento is open from six in the morning until eight at night. It’s a very traditional sento and the owner is very strict as far as etiquette is concerned.

The baths at Tsubame-yu in Tokyo

Tell me about another favorite.
Ichino-yu in Iga Ueno, Mie Prefecture. It’s like being on the set of a Ninja movie. It’s very beautiful and has glorious tiling.

And one final place.
In Fukuoka Prefecture, I love Daruma-yu in Iizuka. I like it because they have a small bath in the center and there’s a spotlight on it like a stage. I feel Japanese beauty in it. And the owner is so calm, gentle and beautiful.

What is the significance of communal bathing?
The beauty and personality of a human appears more when they are naked, and the layers of their lives are stripped away. Sento help with health in general, relaxing mind and body. Good health leads to good cheer and to better communication with people, regardless of age, nationality, job or wealth. Sento are as important to Japanese culture as a museum full of exhibits, or listening to music. I love drinking matcha in a tearoom on tatami, and sento is like a matcha ceremony for me. I imagine the people of generations past in the same sento and it reminds me of the history of each place and of the community. Sento culture is a way of life.

What is the future of sento in Fukuoka?
There are only 13 sento in Fukuoka and we need to think about them in terms of the next generation, because sento have an important meaning to Fukuoka. Fukuoka has only a few places where the poor and the rich can experience and learn things in the same arena. Right now there are only 13 sento, and we should preserve them as well as try to build new ones in Fukuoka city. It’s important to strengthen the potential and ability of the current sento, with support from government, NPOs and the public.

Sento unions are fighting to keep sento culture alive and well in Fukuoka

What about the younger generations? Are efforts being made to involve them?
Sento unions in the past didn’t have relationships with other sento unions. With SNS, unions have linked up to create prefecture and countrywide events. Last year, we made an event where you could share the bath with banpeiyu – a large citrus fruit. I started to promote the event on Facebook and some of the sento from Tokyo and Mie Prefecture contacted me and asked to host similar events. So i made a group on Facebook and we made a poster and agreed to hold the event on same day in each city. By sharing ideas, we can generate a lot of excitement between sento owners and come up with new events and promotions together and can involve young people. It’s very encouraging to see the work of other sento owners who are in similar positions as each other.

Is there any difference between sento in Fukuoka and elsewhere in Japan?
I’m so proud of the Fukuoka sento union because they organise events every month, for example events where the water is scented with fruits: lemons, roses and yuzu. They only use natural fruit, no chemicals. The sento union also hosted events following the Kumamoto earthquake and worked with farmers from the region. I’m very proud of the Fukuoka union for doing things like that.

Do you recommend non-Japanese visit a sento? And if so, why?
Yes, I definitely recommend non-Japanese visit a sento, because it is a unique and fun Japanese cultural experience, and one they can easily get involved in. It’s not just like visiting a shrine or a temple where you just see it, with sento you can actually get involved and come away feeling deeply relaxed. These are the main points that attracted me to sento: you clean your body and your mind and it’s a very important experience. After sento I always feel my body has been cleaned and there’s new space in my mind. In Japanese, I call it Yoyu. We are all very busy in our daily lives but we need space in our minds for other things: for nature, for beauty. Bathing creates that space.

Want to visit a sento? Read our full guide online here. Or learn more about the history of sento in Fukuoka and Japan with this excellent report by Aonghas Crowe.

Art & Culture
Fukuoka City
Published: Feb 13, 2017 / Last Updated: Feb 13, 2017

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