Yoyasuyu – The True Kumamoto Sento Experience
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One of the most essential parts of Japanese culture is bathing. The Japanese people adore and value the precious time they spend soaked in a hot steaming bathtub. For most Japanese people, bathing is a daily activity that often involves the entire family as they take turns and share the same bathwater before going to bed each night. Bathing has been an intricate part of Japanese culture for more than 1000 years but its current form started to take shape during the Edo period (1603 – 1868). The defining factor that changed it all was the introduction of public bathhouses, known as sento, which allowed the ordinary Japanese person the luxury of soaking in hot water.
The sento acted as the primary bathing spot for most Japanese people until the mid 20th century when more and more buildings with internal baths were built. But for the Japanese people bathing isn’t only about washing away accumulated dirt and fatigue after a long day, it is also a social experience where you can strike up a conversation with a total stranger while wearing nothing but your birthday suit. That is one reason that the sento still lives on in Japanese society and today we will take a closer look at one of the best there is. Namely, Yoyasuyu in Kumamoto city.
Yoyasuyu is located slightly less than 15 minutes away from Kumamoto station on foot. This small sento located in the midst of Kumamoto is loaded with both flavor and love and shouldn’t be missed by anyone. Yoyasuyu was established in 1930 and the current owner Sakazaki Yuuji represents the third generation who watches over and ensures that the people of Kumamoto can enjoy top quality baths. Yuuji runs Yoyasuyu together with his wife Yumi and to be honest, in addition to the splendid bath experience, their flawless but yet casual hospitality is one of the reasons that people come back for more.
So, let’s jump in and have a look!
Once you step inside you are greeted by a calm and clean atmosphere. Mostly you are welcomed by Yuuji or Yumi awaiting you with a bright smile in the reception. Yoyasuyu is famous for its retro feeling and how it encapsulates the sense of the early-mid 20th century when Yoyasuyu first was established. Let’s keep going deeper and see what other retro treasures we can find.
Welcome to the dressing room. Even here lingers a calm air that pulls you back to past times. Nostalgic sights as this old-fashioned hair-drier make you feel like you’re in an old American movie. It is almost as if nothing has changed or been switched, only carefully preserved since Yoyasuyu opened almost 90 years ago. A peculiar fact about this dressing room is that the clothing shelf separating the ladies and gentlemen section of the sento can be removed to enable a large open space for events and such. Not sure what kind of event that could be but use your imagination!
Before we head to the main event, the baths, I have one surprise for you that makes Yoyasuyu truly unique.
Many people define the difference between sento and onsen (hot spring) as to whether the water is heated through gas/electricity or naturally. This makes sense since most modern sento use gas/electricity to heat their bathtubs. But originally when sento as a concept first was established the water was heated by burning firewood. Yoyasuyu is one of the few sento in the country that still preserves this tradition which makes a bath at Yoyasuyu not only a pleasant experience but also a rare one. Yuuji and Yumi actually venture by themselves into the mountain to gather wood that they chop and use to heat the baths. But burning wood isn’t only a tradition, in addition to producing a soft soothing heat, it is also carbon neutral which in short means that it doesn’t put a strain on the environment and increase global warming.
Sorry, one last thing we should go over before we head into the baths is Japanese bathing manners. I can’t stress enough how important this is. The sento (and onsen) are public places and it’s very important to respect that this is a common space that we enjoy together. So, let’s repeat the basics. 1. Wash your body before you enter the bath, this might be the single most important rule! 2. Long hair? Tie it up with a rubber band. 3. Keep your towel out of the bath water. 4. Overall, keep it clean around you and make sure you return things you have used to its right place. 5. Make sure to wipe yourself fairly dry before exiting into the dressing room. 6. This one might be obvious but don’t wash your clothes in the bathtub. 7. This is not a rule but a good thing to remember is that most Sento doesn’t provide shampoo, body soap and such so it might be a good idea to bring your own. At Yoyasuyu though, they lend you what you need if you ask in the reception!
Okay, you have waited long enough, let’s take a look at the bread and butter of Yoyasuyu, the bathing area!
(Men’s side ↑) (Women’s side ↓)
The first thing you might notice is the trademark of Yoyasuyu, the backdrop painting of Mt. Fuji! Many associate the sento with these wall-paintings of Mt. Fuji but the subject can differ depending on where in Japan you are and some sento don’t have any paintings at all. This one though is painted by Nakajima Morio, a famous artist who specializes in sento paintings and is one of two remaining masters of this style of painting in Japan. Even though Yoyasuyu suffered substantial damage during the 2016 earthquake in Kumamoto, miraculously the two paintings were more or less unharmed. A small scratch is visible near the bottom right corner of the painting on the women’s side. Mr. Nakajima actually visited from Tokyo and offered to repaint the scratch but the regular customers of Yoyasuyu requested that it was left untouched as proof of the paintings miraculous survival which both encourages them and inspires hope.
Yoyasuyu is also famous for, and proud of, its cleanliness! To say that this place is sparkling clean would be an understatement. The entire bathing area is so fresh and clean that I wouldn’t mind eating straight from the floor. If you have visited a few sento in your days than you will be surprised. The cleanliness gives a very elegant and refined feeling that brings the degree of relaxation to a whole new level.
About the different baths. Yoyasuyu offers four different styles of bathtubs that enables you to customize the experience to your own liking. Let’s have a look at our contenders!
Nano bath (Nanoburo): The nanoburo contains a constant stream of nanosized bubbles that make it look like there is a mist in the water. This is said to have healing effects by reducing pain, improving your figure and cleansing your mind and body, all while also giving you a nice massage. In short terms, a miracle bath!
Ultrasonic bubble bath (Cho-onpa jettoburo): This is close to what you would imagine when you think of a jacuzzi. A hot bath with large whirlpool bubbles that have a massaging effect on your body.
Cold bath (Mizuburo): The mizuburo is standard at many sento. Often the pool is between 16 and 24 degrees which can be compared to the hot tubs that often vary from around 38 to 44 degrees. So why should you use the mizuburo? It’s said to have positive effects on allergies, hormone balance as well as giving you a nice youthful skin. Oh, and the feeling afterward as you let your cold body sink back into one of the hot tubs is truly ecstatic. But be careful, you should enter the mizuburo slowly starting from your feet to avoid the stress on your heart that sudden changes in temperature can cause.
Electric bath (Denkiburo): Last but definitely not least, the electric bath! You might read this and think “WHAT!?”. The combination of electricity and water is known to many as certain death so it wouldn’t be a strange reaction. But Japan likes to live on the wild side so here it is, a bathtub with low levels of electric currents surging between two plates at each side of the tub. When you sit down in the bath the electric currents will pass through your body which is said to be relaxing and give relief for muscle pain, nerve pain, stiff shoulders and more. But please be careful! If you have a pacemaker, a weak heart or if you’re pregnant you shouldn’t use the electric bath. If you do decide to gather up the courage and take a dip, get in slowly and let your body get used to the sensation. And don’t stay in for more than a few minutes!
There you have it, a quick walkthrough of some sento basics and a look into the splendid Yoyasuyu. Bathing is truly at the heart of Japanese culture and there are few places that provide such a complete bath-experience as Yoyasuyu. Everything wrapped in a fantastic retro package that fits perfectly in the Kumamoto atmosphere. And to top it all off Mr. and Mrs. Sakazaki greets you with true Japanese heartfelt hospitality that will make you want to come back over and over again. Kumamoto is known to many as the country of fire. But it is also the country of water. Mt. Aso provides water for all of Kumamoto and the process from when the rain hits the ground until it emerges again takes roughly 20 years. So, a bath in Kumamoto is both an opportunity to remember the past as well as reflect on the future. Yoyasuyu is a bastion of hope in modern day Japan where the sento business gets less and less lucrative. But it is not an easy path. After the earthquake in 2016, many recommended Mr. and Mrs. Sakazaki to close their business rather than spending lots of money on renovation. But they decided to believe in the power of the sento and do what it takes to protect the legacy of Yoyasuyu. Even so, they are still fighting an uphill battle as they struggle each day to increase customers. It is my sincerest hope that this article might inspire someone to visit Yoyasuyu because it is definitely one of the best sento that Japan has to offer!