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Toshihiro Yashiro travels the country capturing precious images of the fast-disappearing world of the sento (public bath houses). His “Sento Series,” photographs composed of men’s and women’s baths joined together in symmetrical mirror images, is an artistic work that draws attention to the mysterious beauty of sento. We spoke to him about the attraction of sento and the kinds of warmth he finds there.
Noticing the Appeal of Sento
“Before moving to Tokyo I used to take baths at home, so I knew nothing of sento,” Yashiro told us.
Now, however, he travels the country taking pictures of them. Typical of his work on this theme is the Sento Series, in which he joins pictures of men’s and women’s baths together symmetrically. At first glance there is something unfathomable and perplexing about them, yet these beautiful photographs convey a palpable sense of yesteryear even if they are devoid of organic life in the subject.
Working on his graduation piece at art university gave Yashiro the opportunity to take up sento as an artistic theme.
“After I went to university and started living on my own, I got into a daily routine of going to the sento and soaking in the bath while I thought about a theme for my graduation work.
One day I went and found it was the regular closing day, so I had to go to a different sento. That sento turned out to be completely different from the one I usually went to. I had a strange sense of feeling out of place, mingled with the novelty. ”
In every facility he visits he encounters a different scene, even though it is in essence the same kind of space—a huge bathtub. That was something which greatly fascinated him.
“I took a fresh look at the details; things like the lines of evenly spaced taps, the tiles and wall painting above the bath, and the high ceiling that connects the separate men’s and women’s baths. That was when I realized what a truly mysterious space it was.”
Having discovered this appeal, Yashiro changed the theme of his graduation work to sento. He began traveling around the Kanto area, taking photographs of them.
At every sento he always observes minutely areas such as the entrance, the changing room, and the attendant's desk. Then he takes a bath to confirm for himself the feel of the place. He only photographs those sento in which he is able to relax in the tub and feel comfortable in. At some point he started using a large camera and taking pictures of the entire bathroom.This led to the creation of his “Sento Series.”
The large camera was heavy and took up a lot of space. Hence he started using a car to get around, which naturally led him to start traveling to sento all around the country.
“There were lots of things I noticed only after I'd visited sento all over the country. For example, the showy décor that is the common stereotype for sento—wall paintings, tiles and so on —you only see that in Tokyo, and in other places the decor is actually very plain. Sento paintings were originally a form of advertising revenue, so it was essential for Tokyo sento to have something showy that stood out because customers were more numerous.”
The style of sento also differs by area. “In cold regions such as Hokkaido, the bathtub is comparatively deep. The depth prevents the water cooling so you can have a good hot soak in the tub.
Conversely, in warmer regions such as Kyushu the bathtub is on the shallower side. This is apparently because in hot places most customers don’t go to the sento to warm up so much as to work out the sweat. ”
Apart from the photography, Yashiro says that part of the fascination of sento is being able to get a glimpse of the local people's lives. It is not simply a place to wash the body.
Sento are an important part of the daily living space, and a hub of social interaction. Catching even fragments of conversation can tell you about life in a particular town.
Yashiro tries to convey his desire to preserve images of the sento with his camera as he politely asks for permission to photograph. However, he is often rebuffed.
“I started taking pictures of sento in 1993. The “Sento Series” came out in 1996, but the previous year there’d been events that stayed in people’s memories, like the Kobe earthquake and the sarin subway incident. Maybe having those events in the background had something to do with it, but from around that time on'doing shoots became much more difficult. ”
Photography shoots always depend on behavior at that time in that place. There’s no way for each party to know the other’s real motives. It's probably natural for sento owners to be suspicious. Even so, there are some owners who willingly accept my request to take pictures.
“While it’s become rarer, I have had social interaction with people. When traveling around the country I mostly sleep in the car, but sometimes I have been allowed to sleep in the changing room of a sento I photographed. I visited one sento that was to be Treasured Encounters closed a week later, so during that time I had meals with the owner, took baths with him, and helped give the sento its last rites.”
Nowadays the number of sento artists in the entire country can be counted on one hand, and most of the tiles in those unique hues and tones are not manufactured anymore. While the aging sento buildings may seem quaint, the damage to them is serious.
Like Yashiro, we too would like to keep beautiful images of sento in our memories forever.
Studied screen and theatre at Tama Art University, where he drew attention for the Sento series he produced as his graduation work. In 2000 he was an artist-in-residence both in Japan and abroad, and produced his Kaitenkai series. In 2002 he was Guest Artist at the Academy of Media Arts Cologne in Germany. He has also had work exhibited in the Yokohama Triennial 2005 and Sculpture Week 2006 (Omi International Arts Center, New York), amongst others.
Interview / JQR Editorial Staff