Homeless long for pleasure of a bath


IN THE battered community of Rikuzen-Takata, about 9,000 people have been left homeless by last month’s earthquake and tsunami and what many want most is a hot bath.

“The thought of sinking into the warm water gives me tingles,” says Chie Okamoto (78), who sleeps on the floor of a cavernous high school gymnasium a kilometre above the ruined town. “We have food and water, a place to sleep, and my friends are safe. But hot water is still scarce.”

A daily soak is a hugely important ritual for millions of people in Japan, which has elevated bathing into an art. Onsens, or traditional hot springs, dot the cities and countryside and thousands of sentos or public bathhouses still survive from a time when most houses had no hot running water. However, with up to 300,000 people left homeless in the northeast by the March 11th disaster, baths are in very short supply.

In many stricken towns, Self-Defence Force troops have set up mobile bathhouses, giving 1,000 people a day their first wash in weeks.

Thousands of people have opened their bathrooms in the northeast to strangers, and local governments have been bussing in refugees to sentos and free onsens, which are operating around the clock.

In the Natsumushi hot spring resort in Sanriku, Iwate Prefecture, the buses pull up every half hour, ferrying exhausted people. Everyone gets 30 minutes, once a fortnight, thanks to a rotation system drawn up by the local town office. Only 10 people can fit in the communal bath at one time. Nobody, not even the people who run the resort, breaks the rule.

“If I did that, it would get around and the system would break down,” said Jun Ishikawa, a manager at the facility. “We have to show that we are in this together with the rest of the community.” He says the baths are an important psychological boost to people who are traumatised, especially the middle-aged and elderly. “They come away like new people.”

Shigeko Oikawa and her family – Natsuko (12), Hinako (10) and Masatsuga (8) are among about 40 people sleeping at the resort since March 11th. She says her children haven’t had a bath for over a week. “We had our first last week and it was heaven but we have to endure like everyone else. We’re among the lucky ones and my kids understand that.”