Translated by Greg
Lunch in a Public Bath? Art Space and Cafe Ōkura Shimizuyu in Taketa
All across Japan, public baths are being renovated into various kinds of shops, but very few have become cafes with the atmosphere of the former bath still largely intact. One exception is Art Space and Cafe Ōkura Shimizuyu in Oita prefecture.
Written by Norihisa Hasegawa
A Former Public Bath Becomes Art Space and Cafe Okura Shimizuyu
Today we introduce a shop called Art Space and Cafe Okura Shimizuyu.
It's in a former sentō, a special place steeped in Japanese traditional culture where customers pay an admission fee before entering a public bath.
Throughout Japan there are many sentos that have been renovated into cafes and miscellaneous goods shops, but there are probably few shops where the atmosphere of the former sento has been carefully preserved. This cafe is unique in that the outside is that of a storage facility, but once you enter the shop you actually step inside what was once the bath area and can also have a meal there.
A Sento Gets Renovated
This sento in Oita prefecture's Taketa city operated up until 1978, and then was converted into what is now known as Art Space and Cafe Okura Shimizuyu (from here on referred to as Okura Shimizuyu). The first floor of this eating establishment is where the meals are served and the second floor is used as a gallery space.
Prior to being a sento, this building served as a storage facility for rice, hence the word okura (large warehouse) is part of the shop's name.
Remnants of the Sento in This Unique Shop
The entrance area and the space separating the men's and women's baths remain exactly as they were during its days as a sento. Of course today there's no gender distinction and you can have a meal on either side of the first floor.
First Floor Eating Space
The bath tub, water faucets and retro-style signs all remain just as they were, and for those who would really like to get a feel for how the sento used to be, we recommend the former men's bathing area!
For those of you who would like to sit at a table and admire the artwork on display as you enjoy your meal, we recommend going to the former men's bath area on the first floor.
You can eat on either side of the first floor and also feel free to look around the entire shop and take in the atmosphere.
Second Floor Art Space
When you take the stairs up to the second floor, the atmosphere is completely different. Here you can see a spacious gallery area.
The second floor is primarily used as a gallery space. However mini concerts are also apparently held, taking advantage of the former sento's good natural acoustics.
A City Blessed with Nature and Exquisite Food
The secret to this shop's popularity isn't just its unique atmosphere and flavor, but also a menu that is particular about the ingredients that are used.
If you decide to go and eat there, one meal we recommend trying is the kisetsu no kobachi set (the seasonal set, 1393 yen). The udon noodles are hand made on the premises and you can choose either hot or cold udon. The small side dishes contain various fresh vegetables grown with pure water from the natural running streams near Taketa city.
Stepping into the bathtub and having a meal was a first-time experience and it created a rather curious sensation for me.
All the side dishes are lovingly made by hand.
This is home cooking at its best; gently flavored, superb dishes that are perfect accompaniments to the udon. It's surprising how many dishes there are and the set comes complete with fruit and green tea, so I was completely satisfied.
When you have a chance to visit Taketa city, by all means stop by at Okura Shimizuyu and have lunch in what was formerly the bathing pool. You can fully enjoy the specialty food made here with fresh, seasonal ingredients, not to mention a unique atmosphere that simply can't be experienced anywhere else!!