Bathhouse scrubs up to soothe tsunami-hit city

Thu Aug 25, 2011 9:52pm EDT
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By Ed Klamann

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.   Continued...