銭湯が消える日

When a bathhouse vanishes


数日前の夕方のことだ。暑い部屋でパソコンの作業をいったん切り上げ、汗を流しに銭湯に行ってこようと、自転車に乗って本郷通りから菊坂を下りて行った。600メートルぐらい入ったところにあるのは、僕の最寄りの銭湯、菊水湯。狭い路地の角に佇み、裏に煙突が高くそびえている。昔この界隈に住んでいた樋口一葉も通っていたという。

破風作りの玄関で二人のおばあちゃんたちが小さい声で立ち話をしている。口調からすると何か慌てているようだ。ふと、傘入れに貼ってあった告知を見た。

閉店のお知らせ。長い間みなさまには大変お世話になりましたが、建物・設備機械の老朽化と経費高騰・お客様の減少に伴い、店主の疲労のため、九月三十日をもちまして閉店することになりました」

菊水湯

ついに来たか・・・湯船に浸かりながら、剥け始めている富士山のペンキ絵を眺め、「私も9月いっぱいで日本を離れようかな」とまで考えを巡らせた。国から離れなくても、別の地域に住まいを探すかもしれない。銭湯のない街が面白くないのだから。

菊水湯に初めて行ったのは、本郷のシェアハウスに入って2ヶ月後のことだった。ルームメートに誘われ、4人でタオルを首に巻いて、夜の菊坂を歩いて行った。それまで本郷の「表」しか知らなかった僕は、長屋の間を抜けていく狭い階段、どこからともなく耳に入ってくる暗渠の音、小さくて古い木造古民家が並ぶ暗い路地、まるで時間が止まったような雰囲気に惹かれた。この「表層」と「深層」の差が、東京の一番の魅力だと思う。

高校時代に新潟に留学した時から日本の風呂文化に慣れ、温泉は大好きだったけれど、実はあまり銭湯に行ったことがなかった。アメリカで育ったせいか、たいていシャワーで済まし、日常生活にわざわざお風呂を取り入れる必要がないと思っていたのだ。

銭湯に通い始めたのは、今年の1月からだ。年明けに文京区内の銭湯の保存・活性化に向けた活動を進めている文京建築会ユースという団体の代表に会うご縁があった。建築家の集まりで、文京区内にある隠れた地域資源を発掘する半分遊びの活動の一環でたまたまたどり着いた銭湯。次々と廃業する銭湯は地域社会に欠かせない貴重な存在だと危機感を覚え、銭湯の価値の発信を通じて、その存在を未来につなげようとしていた。その日、ユースが作った綺麗な銭湯の冊子と招待券をもらった。

早速同じ日の夜に、招待券を使って、勧められた目白台の「月の湯」に行ってみた。寒い小雨の夜で、脱衣場のベランダの窓が曇り、おじいさんが一人ベンチに座り、番台の女将さんとしゃべりながらゆっくりと服を着なおしていた。なんという落ち着いた暖かい空間。ここにはロッカーがなく、昔ながらのカゴに服を入れた。湯気で霞んでいるこじんまりとした風呂場に入ったら、亡くなられた早川利光さんの美しいペンキ絵に迎えられ、感動した。

目白台の月の湯

その銭湯との出会いから、週に3~4回お風呂に通う生活を始めた。10日連続で毎日違うお風呂屋さんを回ることもあった。ユースの銭湯活動にも関わり始め、森鴎外記念館での展示の設営や、銭湯の記録の活動などに参加した。彼らが銭湯の活動を始めてから、文京区内ではすでに「おとめ湯」と「鶴の湯」という2軒の素晴らしい銭湯が廃業してしまった。そしてユースが存続の可能性を一生懸命探ったものの、日本全国で最も美しい銭湯の一つだと言われていたその「月の湯」も5月末で閉店し、取り壊された。外国人向けのゲストハウスを含める複合施設、大学の寮との連携など、様々なアイディアを検討したが、手遅れだった。

通い出したら、銭湯が生活の大切な一部になった。なぜだろう。いつも電車や街やお店で大勢の人間に囲まれて生活する東京では、実際にほとんど他人とコミュニケーションを取らないし、その人たちの人間性さえほとんど見られない。外国人として疎外感を覚える時もある。この町の緊張感と孤独感に疲れた時、銭湯で他人とのほどよい距離感、時々自然と生まれる会話、ぼんやりして牛乳を一杯楽しめるゆとりのある時間と空間に癒されるようになった。

菊水湯が閉店すればこの2年あまりで、まるで煙突から吹かれていく煙のように、文京区から4軒の宮造りの銭湯が消滅し、歴史ある建物だけでなく、現代の生活の基盤が目の前でまたたく間に消えていくことになる。跡地に4階建てのマンションが建設されるようだ。

銭湯の店主がやめる理由は様々だが、社会にとっての価値を(まだ考えられていない潜在的な用途も含めて)考えると、一部でも存続させる新たな方法が必要ではないのか。都内では、この4年だけで127軒の銭湯が潰れているそうだ。 このペースで減少が続いたらオリンピックが来る2020年には日本の都市生活の独自性を象徴する公衆浴場はほとんど残っていないだろう。

先日、東京湾花火大会をユースのメンバーと一緒に晴海地区で見た。来年からオリンピックの選手村が建設される場所だ。

帰りに月島駅までの道路沿いに並ぶ新しいタワーマンションを見上げて、「これが今の東京の現実なんだな」と実感がわいた。無縁社会。この地域の過剰開発にさらなる勢いをつけるために、これから巨大な公的投資が行われるわけだ。21世紀に人口の激減が見込まれるこれからの東京に空き家や廃墟の荷物を増やすだろうが、短期間で見れば経済の刺激、金儲けにはなるはずだ。オリンピックで新しいものばかりにこだわって経済成長を目指す東京は、いったいどのような将来像を描いているのだろうか。

全てがお金で回っているアメリカ社会からきた僕は、「お金より大事なもの」をそれなりに継承して守ってきた日本の価値観の良さを感じている。今後この国は人口減少、経済縮小、環境破壊の時代に突入し、そういうものを守り抜く姿を世界に示していけるのではないかと信じているが、少なくとも僕のお気に入りの銭湯に関しては、その願いが甘かったようだ。


A few evenings ago, I decided to take a break from working on my computer in the heat of my room and go wash off at the local bathhouse. Hopping on my bike, I turned off Hongo Avenue and descended down Kiku Hill about 600 meters to my nearest sento, Kikusuiyu. The bathhouse stands at the corner of a two narrow alleys, its tall smokestack looming over the building. The famous author Ichiyo Higuchi is said to have bathed here when she lived in the neighborhood in the early 20th century.

Under the arched tile roof of the entryway, two older women were standing and talking in low voices. I could tell from their tone that they were concerned about something. Then I saw the message on the umbrella stand.

NOTICE OF CLOSING. Thank you to all of our customers for many years of loyal patronage. Due to the aging of the building and equipment, rising costs, and the decline in customers, as well as the proprietors’ fatigue, we will be shutting our doors on September 30.

I guess it was only a matter of time…as I sat in the bath, looking up at the peeling painting of Mt. Fuji, I began to give thought to whether I, as well, should leave Japan at the end of September. Even if I don’t leave the country, perhaps I will look for another place to live. A neighborhood without a bathhouse just isn’t any fun.

I first visited Kikusuiyu two months after I moved into my share house. At my roommate’s suggestion, four of us wrapped towels around our necks and walked through the late night streets. Until then I hadn’t explored much beyond the main streets in our neighborhood, and I was attracted to the timeless atmosphere of Kiku Hill: the narrow stairs squeezed between old tenements, the difficult-to-place sound of a buried stream, the dark alleys lined with old wooden houses. The contrast between Tokyo’s surface and its depths is the city’s most fascinating feature, in my mind.

I have been accustomed to Japanese bathing practices since I lived in Niigata during high school, and have long been fond of onsen hot springs, but until than I hadn’t visited urban bathhouses very much. Perhaps because I grew up in the U.S., I was mostly content with a regular shower, and didn’t see much reason to incorporate a bath into my daily routine.

I started attending sento this January. At the start of the year I met the leader of Bunko Youth Architects, a group that was working on preserving and reinvigorating bathhouses in my local ward of Bunkyo. The architects had stumbled upon the topic of sento as part of their activity uncovering and documenting the history and charm of the area. Recognizing that the rapid disappearance of bathhouses threatened to erase an essential community gathering place from local neighborhoods, they were working to share the value of sento and find a viable path for the future. That day, I received a beautiful magazine they had created and a free admission ticket.

A few hours later I visited the bathhouse she had recommended, Tsukinoyu. It was a cold night with a light drizzle, and the glass doors from the dressing room to the veranda were clouded over. An old man sat alone on a bench and talked with the proprietor sitting at the counter as he slowly put his clothes back on. What a wonderfully relaxed space. There are no lockers here, only wicker baskets like the bathhouses of times past. As I entered the steamy, cozy bathing area, I was startled by the beauty of the Mt. Fuji painting by the late Toshimitsu Hayakawa.

After that introduction to sento, I began to visit bathhouses 3–4 times per week. On one occasion, I visited different bathhouses across Tokyo for ten days straight. I also began to work with Bunko Youth, helping to install an exhibition at an art museum and make records of bathhouses. Since they began their activities, two beautiful bathhouses in Bunkyo, Otomeyu and Tsurunoyu, had already closed their doors. And despite their best efforts to find a way to preserve it, Tsukinoyu, often called one of the most beautiful sento in all of Japan, closed its doors at the end of May and was knocked down. Viable ideas included making it part of a guesthouse for foreign tourists or collaborating with university dorms, but it was too late to put a deal together.

Once I began going, bathhouses became an essential part of my life. Why? Spending each day surrounded by hordes of people on the trains and streets in Tokyo, it is rare to actually engage in communication with strangers, or to even see their humanity. As a foreigner, one can feel even more isolated at times. Whenever I got worn out by this city’s tension and isolation, I began to be healed by the sento — the comfortable distance with others, the occasional conversations, and the relaxed space when one can sit and sip a bottle of milk.

Like smoke drifting from a chimney in the blink of an eye, Kikusuiyu will be the fourth traditional bathhouse to vanish from Bunkyo Ward within a span of just two years. A four-story apartment building will be constructed in its place.

There are many reasons why proprietors choose to quit, but considering the social value of bathhouses (including value that has yet to be realized), there ought to be a way to preserve at least some. In just the last four years in Tokyo, 127 sento have closed. At this rate, by the time the Olympics arrive in 2020, public baths, a quintessential element of Japanese urban life for centuries, may have nearly completely disappeared from the city.

The other day, I went to Harumi, the planned site of the new Olympic village, to watch the Tokyo Bay Fireworks with members of Bunko Youth.

Walking back to Tsukishima Station, I looked up at the towering apartment buildings lining both sides of the wide street. This is the reality of Tokyo, I thought to myself. A society without community. Now the government is planning vast public investment to further stimulate the excessive development in this area. It will almost certainly leave the Tokyo of the future, once the population begins to decline rapidly, with a greater burden of empty houses and ruins, but in the short term it is likely to stimulate the economy and earn profits. What future is Tokyo creating as it chases growth and relentless newness with the Olympics?

Coming from a society where money holds particular sway, I have appreciated Japan’s values that have managed in some ways to protect important social goods from the vicissitudes of the market. I like to believe that this country will set an example for the world of how to maintain those goods as it enters this era of depopulation, economic decline and environmental destruction. When it comes to my favorite bathhouse, unfortunately, it seems that hope was a little too optimistic.

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