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KAMAISHI, Japan (Reuters) - Since reopening just three and a half weeks after the March 11 tsunami, the Tsuru no Yu bathhouse in northeast Japan's Kamaishi city has been doing a brisk business, belying the general decline of once-popular public baths throughout the country.
Most Japanese still cling to their custom of soaking in a steaming hot bath before bed, but as homes are increasingly equipped with their own heated tubs, the tradition of bathing with neighbors and catching up on gossip at the local bathhouse has faded.
But in Kamaishi, hit hard by the quake and tsunami that left roughly 20,400 dead or missing across Japan, the bathhouse in the tsunami-hit town center has briefly returned to its former glory, providing comfort for many who lost their homes.
With a new boiler trucked in from the Tokyo area and fuel oil provided with help from the city, it draws evacuees as well as workers and volunteers helping to clear out the rubble that still litters lots and the insides of buildings throughout this coastal town of 40,000.
"As soon as the water and electricity were back on, we started up again," said Emiko Gotoh, who has run the bathhouse for the past year, ever since her husband retired.
"The city said they wanted us to open quickly."
Tsuru no Yu was one of only two public baths operating in this steel making and fishing town when the tsunami hit, down from 15 three decades ago. The decline reflects the town's shrinking from a peak population of more than 90,000 in the early 1960s, as operations at the local steel works cut back.
A third bathhouse that had closed its doors a year earlier reopened temporarily after the tsunami to serve residents who lost their homes or whose gas service was knocked out.
Tsuru no Yu was damaged by the wave, and Gotoh-san commuted from an evacuation shelter to clean up, replacing broken windows and hauling out mud. Water lines remain on the inside walls, nearly two meters high.
The neighborhood was still littered with piles of rubble when the doors reopened on April 4.
Entry was free for the first two months, but gradually returned to its regular fee of 390 yen ($5.10) though people in evacuation centers still get in for free.
Bathers get a locker for clothes and personal belongings, a shallow plastic bowl for scooping water or rinsing their washcloth, and a bath stool about the height of a basketball. They must bring their own towel, soap and shampoo.
They also get unlimited access to clean, soothing hot water, a luxury to many these days, from spigots and shower heads that line the tiled walls on each side of the bathing room and from the large tiled bath at the front.
The water in the tub is typically heated to a piping 42 degrees Celsius, a setting said to once have been required by local authorities who deemed it hot enough to kill nasty germs such as cholera.
Multiple signs implore customers to wash before entering the tub -- a rule sternly impressed on foreign bathers although Japanese are at times known to make do with a perfunctory rinse -- and not to take their washcloth into the bath with them.
Men's and women's baths are separate, and Gotoh sits at a central counter between the two entrances, greeting customers and collecting money.
The chatty, 60ish Gotoh fears the upswell in customers may well dissipate as the town recovers. Nearly all those who lost their homes are now in temporary housing with baths, and half the remaining customers are temporary, out-of-town volunteers.
"Everybody has a bath at home. They probably prefer having a convenient bath," she said.
Many bath houses, she noted, decide to throw in the towel when faced with costs running to millions of yen -- tens of thousands of dollars -- to replace boilers or drainage systems.
And while people living alone are still a key part of the clientele, coming for companionship as much as a bath, she worries that the tsunami will hasten the decline of Kamaishi's population, already aging, as young people leave to find work.
"Kamaishi could just become a place of old people," she said. "It would be great if another big company came, but who'd come here after such a big tsunami?"
As for the bathhouse, first built after the war and redone in the late 1970s, she fears the worst.
"I think it will eventually disappear," she said.
($1 = 76.245 Japanese Yen)
Editing by Elaine Lies