TOKYO (Reuters) – The COVID-19 pandemic has failed to kill Dai-ni Takara-yu, a traditional Japanese bathhouse located in a Tokyo alley where neighbors have soaked their worries since 1949.

But for third-generation owner Tokuji Ito, high oil prices are the next test.

With the colder months of the year, he has to pay 50% more than last year to heat the water in the bathtubs that are an integral part of life in his neighborhood in the west of the Japanese capital.

“It’s really tough,” said Ito, 53. “For a big business it might not be that big of a deal, but for a small family business like ours it is really tough.”

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Public baths, or sento, traditionally served people who did not have a bath at home, with bathers rubbing in separate male and female sections before soaking in hot tubs. They were also places of socialization.

Ito made his way through the repeated waves of coronavirus states of emergency in Tokyo: Sentos were to remain open, although the number of older customers at his home fell by about a third.

But he now faces bills of 450,000 yen per month (4,000 yen) in January and December for fuel oil to heat the boiler that supplies hot water to the baths, against 300,000 yen last winter.

The price of the bath is set by the Tokyo government, so it can’t ask for more, even though it says it won’t raise the prices anyway.

“Right after the pandemic, we were hoping to bring people back. So these high prices are difficult,” he said.

Japan’s public baths need no more problems. Their numbers peaked at 18,000 nationwide in 1968, but only 1,964 remain after decades of social change, including more home baths. Many sentos serve beer or have saunas to attract customers.

Ito hopes to hold out until the warmer months, when less fuel will be needed. A former oil trader who returned to the family business five years ago, he believes prices will fall short of previous records.

For now, customers are still queuing before the baths open at 3:30 p.m.

“I don’t mind even if he has to raise the prices,” said Shuji Yamazaki, 70, who comes three to four times a week. “Without these baths, I would be in real trouble.”

(Reporting by Elaine Lies and Akira Tomoshige; Editing by Peter Graff and Gerry Doyle)

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