Yoko Tanaka sits behind a wooden counter, talking wistfully of the history of the bath house her family has been operating for a hundred and seventeen years. The Tanaka family has roots in Matsumoto dating back to the Edo Era, when samurai still lived in the shadow of the castle. With the dawn of the Meiji Era and the end of Japan’s feudal system Yoko Tanaka’s great-grandfather bought a plot of land that had previously served as a samurai’s residence and got involved in the wood trade, importing cedar, cypress and pine from the Kiso Valley and turning the logs into lumber for local use.
Near the turn of the 19th Century a deep source of groundwater was discovered beneath the Tanakas’ land. This water was cool and found to be unusually rich in minerals like calcium, magnesium and sodium – the same minerals often found in the waters of the most valued of Japan’s onsen hot springs.
This water was initially used for drinking and cooking, but in 1903, possessing both a plentiful source of therapeutic water and plenty of wood fuel to heat it, Yoko’s great-grandfather established a neighborhood sento bath house that would become a popular and beloved meeting place for the Ote-machi neighborhood community.
Located along a narrow side road, Shioi-no-yu is not a place most people would stumble upon. The building’s “kamban-chiku” façade, however, is a rarity in Matsumoto and stands out to the eye of the observant. Yoko Tanaka says her great-grandfather incorporated European characteristics into the design of the Shioi-no-yu building to appeal to the cultural interests of the people of the time. This idea is further evident as you enter the changing room, with its ceiling laid over with decorative iron plates imported from Holland.
The atmosphere, however, is decidedly Japanese. From the entryway where you leave your shoes, through the stubborn and aged sliding wood and glass door, and into the spacious changing room, one gets the sense this place remains just as it was a century ago – minus the drink cooler perhaps.
Despite its long history, the future of Shioi-no-yu is uncertain. In 2018 Yoko’s niece, Makiko Kumajima, moved to Matsumoto from Tokyo with visions of taking over the bath house and continuing the community tradition. After a time, though, she decided to return to her family in Tokyo. As of now, Yoko Tanaka carries on without an apparent successor.
The story of Shioi-no-yu is, above all else, a story of community, depicted in the lives of the people who came to see this bath house as a second home, a source of comfort, and an irreplaceable wellspring of friendship. Just three weeks prior to this writing Japan’s NHK broadcasting station aired a documentary on Shioi-no-yu: its history, its people, and its important but now-tenuous place in the community. The 45-minute show offers a sometimes cheerful, sometimes melancholy, and thoroughly enchanting glimpse into the lives of the people of this one little slice of Matsumoto. Highly recommended by this adopted son of the town, it is available online through January, 2022.
The future is indeed uncertain, but for now Shioi-no-yu continues its role as the social center of the neighborhood. Semi-hidden across the street from the unmistakable pink and white face of Anryuji Temple, Shioi-no-yu offers an authentic Japanese experience that is increasingly rare and immeasurably worthwhile.
Shioi-no-yu is open daily from 3pm – 10pm (closed on Mondays), and charges a mere \400. Towels and shampoo are available only for sale, or you may bring your own.