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Struggling bathhouse turns to crowdfunding

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TOKYO >> A bathhouse owner in Sumida Ward, Tokyo, collected more than 6 million yen from a crowdfunding campaign to renovate a long-established sento, or public bathhouse.

Two years ago, Takuya Shinbo, 40, took over management of Kogane-yu, an 88-year-old public bath, when its elderly owner could no longer run it. He decided to spruce up the sento, and renovations began in February, but a delayed reopening has created more costs.

In May, he launched a crowdfunding campaign to cover the renovation. He set a goal of raising 3 million yen and ended up collecting more than double that amount.

Key to the enthusiastic response to his campaign was Shinbo’s dedication to local sento culture.

In 2012, Shinbo became the third-generation owner of Daikoku-yu, which opened 71 years ago. Several years ago, to draw patronage from restaurants and bar employees in the ward’s Kinshicho district, he began keeping the bathhouse open all night. It also became a popular spot with foreign tourists.

Then the pandemic hit.

Since public bathhouses are designated “a necessity for the health and hygiene of local residents” by law, they were not asked to close even during the nation’s state of emergency in April, and operating expenses such as gas, electricity and water continued whether or not customers came in. With fewer restaurants open late and tourists gone, business at Daikoku-yu fell by about 60%.

Even after the declaration was lifted in May, profits have remained close to zero.

“We attracted many new customers by using various innovative ideas, but the problem we are having now is something we’ve never faced before,” Shinbo said.

Motoko Konno, who patronizes a public bath in the ward several times weekly, donated 10,000 yen to Shinbo’s cause.

“As a sento enthusiast, I support the cause because I expect that (Kogane-yu) will become a place where people will say positive things about sento,” she said.

Kogane-yu has held DJ concerts and other events to attract new guests. After the renovation, Shinbo is planning to open a bar so customers can enjoy a beer after taking a bath.

“Through crowdfunding, I’ve realized that there are many people who want sento to stay,” he said. “We have to work harder than ever to preserve the public bath culture.”

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