Ofuro-n-pics make a splash: Sento bathhouses offer fun new activities

By Mieko Furuoka / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterOSAKA — All eyes were on the washbowl whenever it was set before a player holding the deck brush. The bowl contained shampoo and conditioner bottles, and had caster wheels attached to the bottom.

“Let’s oke [washbowl]!”

At that cue, each player pushed the bowl with the brush, like in the sport of curling, trying to score points by sending it as close as possible to the center of a target sheet placed on the tiled floor.

Welcome to the Ofuro-n-pics, an event featuring a set of fun, competitive activities held at a sento public bathhouse. Ofuro-n-pics is a word combining “ofuro” (or “furo,” meaning bath) and Olympics.

When the Showa-yu public bathhouse in Higashiyodogawa Ward, Osaka, organized the Ofuro-n-pics in June, about 40 people — mainly children and their parents — took part, and they were divided into 10 groups to compete in five “events” before the bathhouse’s opening hours.

The first competition is called “oke curling” after the winter sport. People cheered whenever a washbowl stopped right on the target or turned over.

In another event, participants had to alternate stacking empty washbowls and bowls containing hot water, seeing which person could make the tallest tower. Even adult participants were completely focused on stacking the bowls, because they would get drenched if any of the towers fell.

All five competitions “let me do things I’d get yelled at for doing any other time,” said Yamato Tsukamoto, a third-year junior high school student who lives in the neighborhood and was a member of the winning team in June’s Ofuro-n-pics. “I really liked this; it was so much fun.”

The Ofuro-n-pics are the brainchild of Masataka Tamaru, the third-generation operator of the Asahi Onsen public bath in Sumiyoshi Ward, Osaka, as a way of promoting sento as their numbers fall. There are 2,504 conventional public bathhouses this fiscal year, or just about one-seventh the peak of 17,999 in fiscal 1968, according to a national association for sento operators.

Tamaru, 35, has hosted concerts and other entertaining programs at his sento. He started the Ofuro-n-pics in June last year as an additional event offering activities available only at public bathhouses.

Tamaru and his fellow sento operators worked together to invent nine kinds of fun activities, including the oke curling and washbowl towers. There is also a golf-like competition that requires players to hit a ball into washbowls floating in the bathtub water, while in another, a participant sitting on the bathhouse custodian’s seat has to count up the charges for other people playing the role of customers.

Tamaru and his fellow operators have held the Ofuro-n-pics three times so far and are hoping to hold it in Tokyo when it hosts the 2020 Olympics, aiming to promote the event nationwide.

Coming to Kumamoto in Oct.

The Ofuro-n-pics will be held at a bathhouse in October in Kumamoto when the facility resumes its business after it closed following a series of earthquakes that hit the region last year.

The Yoyasu-yu, the event’s planned venue, had its boiler damaged, and its brick chimney collapsed due to the disaster. The 12-meter-high chimney had been in use since the bathhouse began operations in 1930.

Yuji Sakazaki, the third-generation operator of the sento, worked in Tokyo before returning home in 2014. Prior to the quakes, the 53-year-old had been trying to vitalize the local public bathhouse culture by holding rakugo storytelling events and opening a website for a sento association in Kumamoto Prefecture.

There used to be 17 public bathhouses in the prefecture, but four of them discontinued their business after the quakes. It is expected to cost tens of millions of yen to restore his bathhouse, but Sakazaki decided to rebuild it thanks to encouragement from his patrons.

Sakazaki learned about Tamaru’s Ofuro-n-pics program from an acquaintance and visited the Asahi Onsen at the end of last year when he was traveling across the nation to gather the needed materials for repairing his bathhouse. Hearing of Sakazaki’s plight, Tamaru suggested the Ofuro-n-pics also be held in Kumamoto.

When Sakazaki’s sento hosts the event, Tamaru will visit the bathhouse with his fellow operators, carrying a “torch” made from a washbowl. “I want to support his challenge of reopening his bathhouse despite the quakes in a time when more and more sento have been closing,” Tamaru said. Speech

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