If you visit Tokyo’s low-key, old-town neighborhoods, one place you definitely should not miss is the public bath. Public baths can serve a community for a very long time, gradually becoming part of the locals’ daily lives. A commonly seen characteristic of these public baths is the bath mural. Within various kinds of public bath art, this time I will focus on the murals depicting Mt. Fuji. Along with an introduction of several public baths, this article will talk about the original reason why Mt. Fuji began to be drawn on the walls of public baths, and also explore the different Mt. Fuji murals that can be found in Tokyo’s public baths.
Why is Mt. Fuji painted in public baths?
The public bath, a piece of everyday Japanese life, has been widely loved by people not only as a bathing facility, but also as a place of relaxation. The heyday of public baths was around 1968 when more than 18,000 public baths were open nationwide. As the numbers of home baths increased, the number of public baths gradually declined. According to a survey in 2018, the number of public baths nationwide was below 4,000. That means more than three quarters of the peak number of public baths closed.
Mt. Fuji painting in a public bath
When we hear “public bath”, we imagine several things like the bandai (reception counter), high ceilings, wicker baskets, and the Kerorin brand bucket advertisements. Among them, the murals have a special place in people’s memories. Why did murals become a popular way to decorate a public bath in the first place?
The first public bath to adopt a painting “Kikai-yu” (Chiyoda ward, Tokyo)
Painting on public bath walls started in 1912, the first year of the Taisho era. “Kikai-yu” (name of a public bath), opened in 1884 in Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo. During expansion in 1912, this public bath was the first to put a mural on the bathtub wall. For Kikai-yu, the intention was to make children happy.
There is an information sign marking the original location of Kikai-yu in Chiyoda ward, Tokyo
The painter of the Kikai-yu wall was Koshiro Kawagoe. Kawagoe painted Mt. Fuji, a symbol of his hometown in Shizuoka, marking what is said to be the first Mt. Fuji mural in a public bath. Mt. Fuji's beautiful shape, and the gradual slope of its hills into the surrounding fields have always been symbols for good luck for the Japanese. From ancient times, Mt. Fuji has been the focus of mountain worship and been revered by the people. Painting such a symbolic mountain on the Kikai-yu wall immediately became famous, and gradually invited other public baths to imitate the practice.
Introducing the background why Mt. Fuji painting started
Mt. Fuji murals in public baths are mainly seen in the Kanto area
Starting with Kikai-yu, Mt. Fuji murals began to be painted at various public baths. However, almost all public baths with Mt. Fuji murals are in the Kanto area (Tokyo region). There are likely several reasons, but the most important factor is likely the Kanto area's proximity to the mountain; in comparison to other regions, people of the Kanto area are more familiar with the mountain, and more often see it with a spiritual eye. For many people who were raised in the Kanto area and have seen Mt. Fuji since their childhood, the idea that “public bath murals = Mt. Fuji” might have been easily accepted.
There is no rule to the themes and motifs of bath murals; whether it be majestic images of nature, or depiction of the Seven Lucky Gods of Japan, the public bath can fill its walls with any mural it likes. In a sense, the mural is a representation of the bath house's individuality.
Painted Murals and tile art
Public bath art can be divided into two main categories: “painted murals” and “tile mosaics”. Painted murals are painted directly on the walls. The Mt. Fuji murals that many people imagine, are likely this type of mural. After a few years, the paint will come off due to exposure to steam, and the painting must be is redone every 2-3 years. To see a different mural at a public bath you frequented a few years ago and are just returning to, is not unusual.
Kodakara-yu, preserved at Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum in Koganei city, also has Mt. Fuji mural
Nationwide in Japan there are only three public bath artists. Kiyoto Maruyama is 84, the oldest painter. Also, another painter is Morio Nakajima, who had the same mentor as Kiyoto Maruyama. The only woman and the youngest artist is Mizuki Tanaka. I was surprised to hear that a Mt. Fuji painting taking up an entire wall, only takes 2-3 hours. Sometimes there is a signature or date on the edge of the wall. If you find a mural at a public bath, why don’t you try to check who is the artist?
Tile art is installing each painted tile to make a mosaic. It is rare to see this type of artwork in the Kanto area, but it is nothing rare in the Kansai area. The biggest advantage of this kind of art is that it hardly deteriorates from steam or moisture.
Let’s go a find Mt. Fuji murals, painted by a public bath artist
What kind of Mt. Fuji murals can we see in Tokyo? This time I will report about two public baths and their Mt. Fuji murals.
The first public bath is “Konaparu-yu” in Ginza. It was opened long ago in 1863, in the final years of the Edo era. As of 2020, this public bath will reach the 157th year since its establishment. It was originally a wooden bathhouse of its own, but was incorporated into a larger building as of its 1957 renovation.
”Konaparu-yu” in a corner of Ginza (photo: Konparu-yu)
The common image of Ginza is of a main commercial area with rows of luxury shops. Among the cutting-edge trends and changes that Ginza represents, Konparu-yu is one of the places having a more than 150 year history. The owner Mr. Yokoyama mentioned how Konparu-yu will try to keep its traditions for the future. He says, “I aim to create a space with a retro feeling, seasonal timeliness, and also the unchanging essence of Ginza”.
■Two Mt. Fuji murals by artist Morio Nakajima
In Konparu-yu you can see two Mt. Fuji artworks. On the male men’s bath wall there is a mural of Mt. Fuji, colored in burning red (referred to as "Aka-fuji"), and in the women’s bath can be seen a mural featuring Mt. Fuji and Miho-no-Matsubara (Miho Pine Grove). Both designs were decided after discussions by the painter Mr. Nakajima and the owner of Konparu-yu, Mr. Yokohama. Mr. Yokoyama said, “I thought it would be fun to see two distinct paintings of Mt. Fuji, side by side.” From the men’s bath, you can see the women’s bath wall’s painting too.
The red Mt. Fuji in the men’s bath (photo: Konparu-yu)
When people first see a red Mt. Fuji mural, they must wonder “why is Mt. Fuji red?”. During the early mornings of late summer and early autumn, depending on the positioning of the sunrise, clouds and fog, this red Mt. Fuji is an actual sight that can be seen. The auspicious red Mt. Fuji is presented powerfully on the male bath wall.
Female bath mural “Miho no Matsubara (Pine grove at Miho)” landscape (Photo: Konparu-yu)
The Mt. Fuji scene in “Miho no Matsubara” ( Pine grove at Miho) is one of the great Mt. Fuji landscapes familiar to many people. “Miho no Matsubara” is also registered as a part of the Mt. Fuji UNESCO World Cultural Heritage area, and its wonderful landscape with the ocean’s blue and white waves, pine grove greens, and prominent Mt. Fuji in the background, is praised worldwide. This is one of Japan’s representative sceneries that has been loved and drawn time and again by Ukiyo-e painters such as Hiroshige Utagawa.
Landscape of “Miho no Matsubara”
■Kutani porcelain tile mosaics can also be found
In addition to Mt. Fuji murals, at Konparu-yu you can enjoy tile mosaic artwork.
Tile mosaic expresses carp gracefully swimming (photo: Konparu-yu)
Here they are using Kutani porcelain tiles by Rineido from Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture. There is a mosaic of colored carp gracefully swimming close to the bathtub, and the washing area has a tile mosaic of "Shunju-Kacho"; a type of traditional Japanese artwork depicting the birds and flowers of spring and autumn. The vividly colorful tile art emanates an elegant atmosphere of its own, distinct from the painted art. Whether it be a painting or a mosaic, the murals of public baths will surely make a great companion to your bathing experience.
Address〒104-0061, 8-7-5 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo-to
Closed: Sunday, national holidays
Fee: Adult (older than 12 years old) 470 yen / Middle(elementary school)180 yen / Small (preschool) 80 yen
Amenities: Towel 130 yen / Soap 30 yen〜
*body soap and shampoo are provided except on second and fourth Fridays of the month
Access: 5-minute walk from JR Shimbashi Station / 5-minute walk from Tokyo Metro Ginza Line Ginza Station
Daikoku-yu (Sumida Ward)
Tokyo Skytree close up (Daikoku-yu)
This public bath in Sumida-ku has a palace-style building with a hanging curtain, retaining the old-town public bath atmosphere. The public bath “Daikoku-yu” is famous for having a view of Tokyo Skytree. After Tokyo Skytree was built in 2012, the area around Daikoku-yu underwent redevelopment and old houses gradually disappeared. Daikoku-yu was damaged due to losing their frequent customers. As a result, Daikoku-yu was also remodeled.
■ Two new features were born after renewal
Two big changes occurred in Daikokuya after the Renewal
newly born “dairoten” (big open air bath) after renewal
First, during remodeling a firewood storage area at the back of the bathing area was reborn as an open-air bath with a deck. A public bath in an old-town setting like this one, having an open-air bath is rare. While soaking and relaxing in the open air bath, if you look up you can see the tall Skytree stretching up into the sky, which makes for a rather peculiar, enjoyable experience.
A wood deck was installed at the end of the stairs next to the open air bath
They put hammocks and benches on the wood deck connecting to the open air bath. From here too, you can get a glimpse of Tokyo Skytree through a gap in the ceiling.
Tokyo Skytree from the stairs of the deck. You can see the chimney of Daikoku-yu on your left.
The second new feature is the variety of baths that can now be enjoyed. Not only is there an open air bath, but there are a variety of bathing styles such as a body massage bath, super jet bath, sitting bath, walking bath and more. Not many public baths provide this many options for your bathing experience.
Daikoku-yu received a well water hot springs certification before renewal. You can enjoy a slightly alkaline metasilicate spring, which is also a great point. Daikoku-yu is dedicated to providing a wide variety of baths. Aside from the natural hot springs, high-concentration carbonated baths and daily special medicinal baths are available. With the variety of baths you will never get bored.
The medicinal bath uses fresh fruits and herbs that are timely with the season. In April you can enjoy daily specials such as pomegranate fruit for beautiful skin and swell prevention, or a Japanese Mandarin orange peel bath that makes you refreshed with the citrus fragrance. Please check the daily medicinal bath schedule at Daikoku-yu’s website.
■The proud Mt. Fuji painting stands unchanged
While Daikoku-yu incorporated many new attractions with its renewal, it also kept much of what makes the essence of a Japanese public bath. The high lattice ceiling of the changing room, palace-style exterior, and importantly, the mural of Mt. Fuji decorating the bath walls was kept unchanged.
Mt. Fuji painted majestically on the wall is a sight to behold
The Mt. Fuji mural in Daikoku-yu was painted by Morio Nakajima, a public bath artist. I heard that Mr. Nakajima has been Daikoku-yu’s go-to painter for many years, and now we see the blue beautiful Mt. Fuji, repainted in 2019. Before there was a golden shiny Mt. Fuji. Since Daikoku-yu alternates its two baths daily between male and female use, you can enjoy the big mural from different angles according to the day you visit.
Edo Kiriko (cut glass) by Hirota Glass Corporation, Sumida-ku, lined up above the washing area.
Another good point of Daikoku-yu is the long hours it is open for.
In general, public baths are open from the evening and at the latest close at midnight. However, Daikoku-yu is open from the afternoon until the next morning at 10:00 am. For example, Daikoku-yu is perfect for people who travel on a night bus and arrive early in the morning, and want to refresh themselves at a public bath. Daikoku-yu is a public bath unlike many others, that owns a view of both Tokyo SkyTree and its own painted mural of Mt. Fuji.
Address: 〒130-0003, 3-12-14 Yokokawa, Sumida-ku, Tokyo-to
Open: [Monday, Wednesday~Friday] 15:00 ~ 10:00 of the following day [Saturday] 14:00 ~ 10:00 of the following day [Sunday, Holidays] 13:00 ~ 10:00 of the following day
Closed: Tuesday (Open when Tuesday is a holiday, then closed on the following Wednesday)
Fee： Adult 470 yen / Middle school 370 yen / Elementary student 180 yen / Preschool 80 yen
*With sauna use +200 yen
Amenities: Rental towel set 50 yen / Rental towel (large) 40 yen / rental towel (small) 20 yen
*body soap and shampoo are provided. Tooth brush, razor, cleansing soap are also sold at the reception desk.
Access: 6-minute walk from Oshiage Station / 12-minute walk from Kinshicho Station
Things to remember before using a public bath
Since public baths are places where locals gather, some people might be anxious that the baths have unique, unspoken rules. To wrap up the article, I will inform you on some customs to follow when taking a bath. If you remember these rules, even if it is your first time in a public bath, you should be able to comfortably enjoy bathing without disturbing other people. Please check these rules first, and then go to a public bath.
1. Sit down when using the washing area
When people outside of Japan wash their body, it is common to stand and use the shower. However, in Japanese public baths the custom is to sit and use the washing area. Please stay seated while you are washing your body or head, so you do not splash soap and hot water onto other people. Please use the stool or wash basin which are placed in front of the washing area or the ones prepared next to the entrance door.
2. Wash your body before entering the bath
The bath tub is a place for everybody to enjoy. Please wash your body before entering the bath
3. Please do not talk loudly
A public bath is a relaxation place for people. Behavior disturbing other people such as talking loudly or running around is prohibited.
4.Please do not put towels into the bath
The custom to not put your towel in the bath might be new for you. This is because the towel might contain miscellaneous bacteria which might make the bathwater dirty. Please avoid putting your towel into the water and instead leave it outside the bath, or use it to wrap around your head to hold your hair.
Check out the different Mt. Fuji murals in each public bath
The artwork painted on the public bath wall expresses each public bath’s individuality. This time I reported about Mt. Fuji murals, but there are various themes and styles of painting. When you visit, if you pay attention to the artwork then you will grow a deeper understanding of what makes public baths so widely loved .