Winters are cold in Japan’s northern prefectures, and the government is looking to heat things up the traditional way.
The prefectures of Japan’s northern Tohoku region (東北) are beautiful areas full of spectacular natural scenery, fascinating historical sites, and plenty of luxurious hot springs, and admittedly – being in the northern part of Japan – this region is also vastly underappreciated by the many foreign travelers who tend to hover around Tokyo and Kyoto. And so, looking to help Tohoku solve this problem and attract new sightseers to the region, Japan’s Ministry of Environment is undertaking a new project with three northern Japanese prefectures: Aomori, Iwate, and Akita. For this project, the government will be turning the region’s “konyoku” mixed baths into tourist destinations.
While shared communal baths are still extremely common in Japan, these days most facilities have clear a cut “men’s bath” and “women’s bath,” and the only exceptions to these rules are small children. But mixed baths, where anyone can enter into the same shared tub, are a long-lived Japanese tradition. Called “konyoku,” there are still a number of them scattered around Japan’s many onsen towns and hidden in corners of the countryside. But modern modesty means these mixed baths get less and less use as the years go on. At the first meeting of this new Ministry of Environment konyoku project, “onsen master” Kyoko Kitade explained that “in 1993, there were about 800 onsen bathhouses nationwide that offered mixed bathing facilities. Nowadays, there are only around 300.”
But it seems there’s hope. Facilities may be closing their doors, but as more mixed baths offer bathers the choice to wear a towel or coverup into the water (normally frowned upon in Japanese baths), interest in mixed baths among young women has increased. That’s a good thing since current statistics only see women as a small fraction of the total number of mixed bath users in Japan.
As times have changed and years have passed, it seems like konyoku culture has lost its place in modern Japanese society. But this project from the Ministry of Environment might just be the push needed to revive Japan’s love for mixed baths. So next time you’re planning a trip to Japan, consider adding a stop in Tohoku, so you can try out the region’s famous konyoku traditions!
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