The sento, or public bath, has long served as a place to pause for Japanese people. As part of the tradition, many sento feature large Mt Fuji murals on the walls, the iconic mountain of Japan providing an extra dose of mental refreshment. When Mizuki Tanaka, 32, learned that the number of public baths is steadily decreasing, she resolved to become a sento artist as a way of helping to preserve the culture. Today, she is the only woman (and the youngest artist) to specialise in bathhouse murals. ‘When I started out, there were only two professional painters in Japan, including my master, and they are both in their sixties. I believe the tradition will be completely lost unless someone takes over.’
Tanaka paints four or five sento a month and does live painting events to spread the culture to a younger audience. She says there are no specific painting rules, however the mural should be completed in one day and there should never be a sunset scene since this might represent the business ‘going down’. ‘It’s usually fine as long as it’s Mt Fuji, but I often show some drafts to sento owners before I begin painting. One of the reasons is because I'm the youngest of the sento artists so I have less skill than the more accomplished bathhouse painters, but also because this way I can get a better idea of what they want to have on their wall. And sometimes it’s good to be the youngest, because they feel more comfortable about telling me what they want.’
Why is the image always Mt Fuji? Tanaka says that, back in the day, glimpsing Mt Fuji (even as a mural) was a popular form of entertainment, and every bath tended to have the mountain on the wall to make their customers happy.
Today, sento are regarded as one of the ‘old’ cultures in Japan, but Tanaka aims to develop and modernise the tradition by making subtle changes, while preserving the original painting style. In the past, when the painting caught people’s attention, the wall played a role in advertising for local businesses. Tanaka has kept up this business style, sometimes incorporating logos or mascots on the sento’s wall.
‘I want people who have never gone to a sento to visit and experience, ideally by themselves so they don't have to worry about anyone else. Once you step inside these retro facilities, it's as though you've been transported somewhere outside of Tokyo. And in the meantime, you're also getting used to public bathing, communicating with local people and finding your favourite sento in Tokyo.’
To discover more of Tokyo's public baths featuring Mt Fuji murals, read our feature 'The art of sento'.
For tips on the rules of visiting a public bath, read our column 'Onsen etiquette'.