A vivid blue paint fills the huge wall of the Sento, the public bath house, and in no time, bold brush strokes with great momentum create an image of Mount Fuji and crashing waves… As a long-standing tradition, Japanese Sento users have enjoyed many of these panoramic views on the walls of their beloved hazy bath houses which are an integral part of Japanese life. PingMag was lucky to accompany Sento artist, Toshimitsu Hayakawa, at work at the “Asahiyu” bath house in the Tokyo neighbourhood of Shinnakano – at 7am in the morning. What a rare incident, as you usually would have to go there as customer to get to see his paintings at all…
Written by Ryoko
Translated by Natsumi Yamane
Sento painting traditions
It was in 1954, when Toshimitsu Hayakawa was deeply moved by a Sento painter’s work in his local bath house and left his hometown of Fukushima to be apprenticed to the painter in Tokyo. At that time, he was merely 17 years old. Back then there were more than 2,500 public bath houses in Tokyo, and at least twenty artists made their living by painting public bath houses. However, the Sento in the capital have now decreased to fewer than 1,000 units. And regarding the painters, only three people remain in the esteemed business of Sento painting. Toshimitsu Hayakawa is one of those three remaining painters, and he told us of his hardships in his 54-year career as a bath house painter.
Toshimitsu Hayakawa says, “My master was an old-fashioned person so there was no compromising in his work. I had no choice but to watch and learn, because there was no such thing as a step-by-step lesson. The salary was really low; I couldn’t afford to go out on my days off, so I stayed at home and practised drawing. Come to think of it, that’s basically how my skills improved – and today I’m grateful for that.”
Getting ready with the colours and several paintbrushes.
Stunning! He is easily balancing on the ladder.
First thing in the morning, a Sento painter’s daily task begins with a careful planning; the actual painting takes more than half a day to complete. He has to devote his entire attention on the picture and move up and down the insecure wood scaffolding, all in the distinct odour of the paints. In his apprenticeship, Toshimitsu Hayakawa experienced numerous injuries, like falling from the scaffolding hundreds of times under such harsh conditions. But still he keeps saying “Falling is no big deal.”
1. Evening the wall which had some flaked off parts.
2. Drawing first drafts with chalk.
3. Painting large areas with a roller.
4. Painting spindrift by a beating painting style.
“It’s important to get used to the Sento’s size before starting with the work at all, as it iss impossible to draw a good composition without a good grasp of the space and the dimensions of the walls. Time is the crucial factor once the actual painting has begun, and there’s no time for contemplating afterwards,” Toshimitsu explains.
Though for example, pictures on Sento walls are common among bath houses of the Kanto area, they are a rare sight in the Kansai district. In this typically Eastern tradition of background painting, the picture of Mount Fuji is reputed to be the most representative subject. But according to Toshimitsu Hayakawa, Mount Fuji is also the most difficult subject in Sento paintings, as it requires more technique and experience. And, Mr. Hayakawa is known for his Mount Fuji painting skills. However, his favourite subject would be a rapid mountain torrent. As for motifs in general, a subject must be something auspicious to bring prosperity to the bath house. That is why motifs such as a sunset or autumn foliage are strictly forbidden – as they are believed to bring bad luck.
Sento pictures are drawn with high colour oil paints using only five colours! For example, a colour such as green can be easily obtained by mixing two colours – in this case, yellow and blue – so five colours are enough to express most hues. The tools used for painting include rollers, paint brushes and towels for expressing sprays of water.
The Sento painter’s work tools.
Only five colours are needed for a whole painting: red, blue, yellow, white and black.
Toshimitsu Hayakawa tells us of some anecdotes that reflect his long career as a Sento painter:
“In the days when there were many Sento users, I used to paint TV and Anime characters such as Q-taro, Ultraman and the monsters that were popular among children at that time. No one made any issue of copyrights back then, so Sento owners simply requested for pictures that were most popular then.”
Sento interior: a retro baby scale!
Cold drinks served by the vending machine await the visitors after the bath.
Toshimitsu Hayakawa’s 54-year career as a Sento painter comprises most of his life. He is the proof that diligence requires a strong determination!
The painting is nearly done and Toshimitsu Hayakawa is now busy with the details.
At last, Toshimitsu Hayakawa signs his work.
Toshimitsu Hayakawa contemplates: “The only reason I stayed in the Sento painting business is because there was nothing else I could do. I thought about quitting a lot of times, but I just liked to paint and it gives me such a great pleasure to see people enjoying my work. As I don’t have a successor, I will keep going on as long as my health permits. And of course, there’s nothing like a pint after a good day’s work, you see!”
The esteemed Sento painter, Toshimitsu Hayakawa!
The “Asahiyu” bath house in Shinnakano, Tokyo.
I hope you enjoyed Toshimitsu Hayakawa’s paintings, as usually you would only get to see these as a Sento customer! Mr. Hayakawa, thank you so much for your enriching story, and lots of thanks to the staff at the “Asahiyu” Sento for their kind cooperation! We really do hope that the Sento as such and its paintings keep on existing as one of the central parts of Japanese culture!