Sento Forever (@sentoforever) is a creative collective working to save an endangered culture: that of Japanese public baths or sentō (銭湯). In addition to its famous hot springs onsen, in Japan, there are still community baths in neighborhoods, a legacy of a time when bathing at home was not possible.
In many cultures and since ancient times, these spaces with water and steam where people could be together without clothes represented places of freedom. In them, a community emerged without the pressures of social performance from the outside.
Today, this social performance is demanded of us both outdoors and on the Internet. Constant exposure generates stress and loneliness. A place like sento seems like the perfect solution, but now that we have a bathroom at home, why bother going to a public bath?
Sento Forever organizes events and creates design items to change that perception and convey the importance of the sento to new generations. It also involves international artists to transmit this culture beyond Japan. I talked about it with the girls of Sento Forever and also with one of these international artists, the Spanish illustrator Núria Just (@nuria.just).
Chorareii: Please, introduce the Sento Forever project!
Sento Forever: Our goal is to ensure that the sento culture lives on forever through the creation of events based on public baths and saunas.
When people imagine the sento culture, they often think of older men or women. We want to bring in more young people to experience how cool and enjoyable sento can be through our modern design and events.
Somehow you feel that young people in Japan need to be reminded of how cool sento culture is …
Yes, we do. The number of sento houses has been decreasing over the decades, and it makes it hard for younger generations to visit and enjoy them.
Therefore, it is important to not only remind young people of the attractiveness of sento culture but also, conserve actual sento bathhouses and revitalize the community as well.
The Sento Forever events and the merchandise you create involve many young artists. Do the members of the team come from the artistic community as well?
We are a group of six gen Z designers, comprising graphic designers, architects, and others with a wide range of skills. We got together in 2017.
In your mission statement you say that ‘in a hot place like a sento, we can see people’s warmth.’ Would this world improve if we all went to sento?
Sharing warm water, warm air, and time passing slowly, without any disruption of digital devices or social judgment, makes you feel comfortable and that everyone is in the same community. This is because the sento is a place where you can relax from the bottom of your heart.
When we wear clothes and work, study, or do any activity outside, we receive a certain level of pressure and are exposed to judgment to some extent. In the sento, we are free, we are only humans that can feel safe and completely relaxed.
My friend, who is a total sento fan, told me that what she loves the most about sento is the feeling of sisterhood. Opposite to what society’s beauty standards imposed on women, at the sento every type of body is valid and respected, no matter if you are young or old. As Sento Forever is a project created by women, how do you feel about that?
We agree! Sento really gives you a feeling of a safe environment and makes you see that we are not so different. No one is there to judge you, everyone is there to relax their body and mind.
I believe, that when people are healthy and comfortable, the human body demonstrates sisterhood or brotherhood. Sento has the charm of individuals simply being themselves, and that’s the beauty of it.
Sento Forever has collaborated with many artists that are not Japanese nor based in Japan, such as the Spanish illustrator Núria Just.
Núria, is the sento culture inspiring to create art even when you are not Japanese?
Núria: I was a little afraid about that, I didn’t want to fall into clichés that I might have seen in anime or manga.
I have been to several sento and they are lovely, so I worked with my own experience and with what my colleagues at Sento Forever told me. We based the project on what sento brings, and how you feel when you go, leaving aside the more typical images. We mixed that wellness and ritual with a more modern feel.
In your career as an illustrator, you have done comics, and book covers, and even worked for the prestigious magazine The New Yorker. However, you’ve said that ‘Sauna Escape’ has been one of your favorite projects. Why?
It’s my first project in Japan and I was very excited. I have a list of goals in my illustration career. The New Yorker was one of them, but I was especially fond of doing something in Japan because of how much I love Japanese culture.
I have been wanting to go to Japan for a long time, so when I watched the Instagram lives presenting the collection, and people from Tokyo tagging me in the merch, it was like being a little bit there.
How has Japan influenced your work as an illustrator?
Some anime that have influenced my style would be Evangelion, FLCL, and Utena. I see the manga aesthetic in my illustrations, albeit with a mix of underground comics. I do compositions and use characters that are steeped in artists like Naoki Urasawa, Taiyo Matsumoto, Minetaro Mochizuki, and Kyoko Okazaki.
Japanese video games have also influenced my work. Besides the classics Final Fantasy and Tekken, the games that have most influenced my aesthetic are Bust-a-Groove and Jet Set Radio. I’m amazed by the outfits of those games, the music, and the graphics.
In general, Japanese culture is very present when I work, even in the street style of magazines like FRUiTS, or that technological aura that bathes the Japanese country.
This has been your first project in Japan, what other projects would you like to do in the future related to this country?
I would love to do an artist residency and also an exhibition. I have a couple of ideas already, one using the concept of RPGs in culture and another one working with risograph printing. Since I work a lot with risograph printing, and it is originally from that Japan, I would love to visit several workshops and work with them.
I would also like to edit a comic book in Japan. I’m working on it with a Spanish publisher, but seeing a Japanese edition would be a dream, really.
Most likely, once I get to Japan I will have so many inputs again, that new ideas will come out. That’s the magic of Japan!
Special thanks to Mathilde, my sento guru.