Insight into Isawa Onsen’s hospitality How post-war sento* entertain while enjoying their business
There is a sento named “Isawa Onsen” in Fuefuki City. The opening of this sento was a bit before the hot spring drilling boom in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Isawa Onsen, which is said to be the fourth bathhouse to have been established in the area, is a classic sento with a mural of Mt. Fuji in the bathroom. It has been offering different types of entertainment in accordance with the times and still keeps getting people’s attention even today. This month, we visited Isawa Onsen and had a chat with the couple who manages this sento.
Banto*, Isawa Onsen
Mr. Toizumi took over his father’s sento* called “Isawa Onsen” about four decades ago and has been running the business ever since. He’s an entertainer with a merchant spirit, who is always seeking different ways to keep customers happy. He built up the popularity of his sento in Showa Period to the point where people would wait in a long line to get in and his work has been also featured in a national newspaper before. It’s a unique sento with a welcoming home-like atmosphere.
*Sento … A Japanese public bathhouse where customers pay a small fee to get in to bathe.
*Banto … A manager/owner of sento. They also sit at the entrance of sento where customers pay the fees.
Isawa, Town of Entertainment
Sento“Isawa Onsen” is a public bathhouse that opened soon after the war.
“We don’t know exactly when this place opened. Apparently one day, my father was asked by one of his friends like ‘Can you buy this nine year old sento?’ and my father started the business. It was around the recovery period soon after the war and it was a time where there was more than one cinema in a village. There used to be many entertainment facilities in this area as well and Isawa Onsenwas one of them.”
Mr. Kazunori Toizumi, Banto of Isawa Onsen tells us how his family started the business.
It was in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s when they found hot springs in Isawa Onsen area. As the rumor about hot springs in the area spread locally, more and more people tried to find hot springs, which led to reckless drilling in the area. However sento, Isawa Onsen opened its doors a bit before that and it was the fourth hot spring facility to have be opened in Isawa area.
“This is a public bathhouse, you know. So back then most of our customers were locals. But probably the last two to three years, the number of customers from other prefectures has increased quite a lot especially on weekends. It seems like they find us on the internet and come visit here.”
Isawa Onsen is open from 15:00 to 23:00 (Closed on every Monday and the fourth Tuesday of every month). They change the bath water everyday and clean the bathtubs thoroughly as well.
“Our hot spring water feels very smooth. Once a customer even told us ‘’The smooth feeling of the water on my skin doesn’t come off even after washing with body soap’ (laugh). Your skin will become healthy and smooth”, says Mr. Toizumi’s wife, Mitsuko-san.
On the day we visited them, local regulars started to come in to enjoy the freshly drawn bath as soon as they open their bathhouse at 15:00, just like always.
Baseball pitching machines at sento
“Isawa Onsen has been featured on a national newspaper before”, says Mr. Toizumi. When being asked the reason, he tells us that they used to have batting cages at their sento! Moreover, their pitching machines were custom-made and you couldn’t find them anywhere else in Japan.
“I was thinking what I could do to make our customers happier and have them enjoy themselves more. Plus I had to think about the marketing side of things as well, then I thought instead of just having a bath and going home, if we had some kind of arrangement to get our customers to stay and do something or sit and rest for a bit after having a bath, we’d be able to increase our profit. Then I came up with the idea of setting up pitching machines.”
Mr. Toizumi tells us that he’s always been a big baseball fan. He set up three pitching machines on the rooftop at the timing of their sento’s renovation.
“Those machines we had were custom-made ones that couldn’t be found anywhere else in Japan. Usually pitching machines throw balls overhand right? But I made it so they throw balls underhand like they do in softball.”
Mr. Toizumi looked for a manufacturer in order to make the machines and he travelled to Osaka and Kyoto many times for that. They finally reached a finished product after numerous times of making and testing trial machines.
“After setting up the batting cages, there was a surge in the number of customers. There was always a long queue out the front. We were fortunate to be featured on a newspaper as a bathhouse with batting cages.”
They closed down the batting cages three years after they set them up as the machines deteriorated.
“It was hard to create machines as well as to operate them but it was a lot of fun. There were many people waiting in a long queue to come into our sento every day and we had many customers from other prefectures back then as well”, says Mr. Toizumi reminiscing about those days.
At present, Isawa Onsen has an adjoining eatery, which started with their wish to want their customers to relax after having a bath. Their specialty is ramen. It took them 10 years to reach the soup that they were finally happy with.
“Currently our son is in charge of the restaurant. He wanted to serve really delicious food and went to cooking school then also trained at a Japanese restaurant. He changes the menu in accordance with the seasons. I think his dishes are also well-received.”
“Elevator” - As you look at the menu, this name of a dish catches your eye. So what kind of dish is “Elevator”…?
“It’s thick fried tofu. When you put thick fried tofu in hot water, it sinks at first but it starts to rise up as it’s cooked, which looked like an elevator so we gave the dish that name. We serve it with a lot of chopped spring onion on top. It’s delicious.”
The good old Japanese bath culture. The reasons why “Isawa Onsen” is still loved by people.
Although there are many other hot spring facilities that are beautifully built in the area these days, Isawa Onsen’s regulars are very loyal and they’re also getting more and more new customers.
“My husband and I also talk about it like ‘Wonder what people like about our sento.’ But we thought perhaps they like this home-like atmosphere. Especially customers from other prefectures rejoice when we go have a chat with them in our restaurant or share some of the freshly harvested vegetables and fruit with them,” says Mrs. Toizumi.
“As each day at our sento ends, I feel quite tired but I want to see customers’ happy smiles after enjoying a bath here. It gives me motivation when I hear customers say they enjoyed the food at our restaurant as well”, continues Mr. Toizumi.
Isawa Onsen is a public bathhouse that is so dedicated to offering entertaining elements that they set up batting cages in the past as well as their current restaurant. Mr. Toizumi says, “Our customers choose to come to our sento so I want them to go home feeling happy.” As you can see in his words, their hospitality and love is the solid foundation of their business.
“Bathing” has become an essential part of Japanese culture and life. It can be said that those public bathhouses including Isawa Onsen were the starting point. Isawa Onsen keeps the good old features of Showa Period yet keeps improving their services in accordance with the times. Why not come and soak in their much-loved hot spring and enjoy the nostalgic yet somewhat new bathing experience?
＼Let’s go to see Mr.Toizumi／
Store： Isawa Onsen
Address： 1091-2 Ichibe, Isawacho, Fuefuki city
Tel： (+81) – 55 – 262 - 3441
Opening hours： 15:00～23:00
Closed： Monday, the fourth Tuesday of every month