YOKOHAMA: Masazumi Kato sighed deeply as he lowered himself into a tub at a public bathhouse in a Tokyo suburb, enjoying a return to a Japanese tradition largely off-limits during the city's coronavirus lockdown.
With the lifting of a nationwide state of emergency over the virus, Japan's onsen -- large bathhouses where patrons bathe naked in a series of warm pools and tubs -- are gradually reopening.
And fans like 52-year-old Kato have few qualms about returning.
"I believe they are taking anti-virus measures, like chlorine," he told AFP as he soaked in an outdoor tub, with other naked men submerged in pools nearby.
"I trust them and I like to use this place," said Kato, a frequent patron of the Yumominosato facility in Yokohama, outside Tokyo.
The five-storey bathhouse is typical of the hugely popular onsen that dot the country.
It hosts a range of indoor and outdoor pools, usually with spring water and sometimes equipped with jets to massage pressure points or mineral-rich water said to offer health benefits.
The facility is also home to a restaurant, massage rooms, a comic book library and various relaxation rooms. For many Japanese an onsen trip is a day-long experience, with bathing punctuated by naps, massages and lunch.
But most large onsen shut their doors when the government declared a state of emergency in April, initially in Tokyo and a few other regions but the closures eventually expanded nationwide.
The government designated smaller bathhouses called sento -- which in the past often catered to people with no bath at home -- as essential businesses, allowing them to remain open.
They were asked to increase ventilation in closed areas, maintain distance between customers and wipe down areas that people touch, including lockers and door knobs.
But Yumominosato was closed for around two months, and is now hoping it can convince customers it is safe to return.
Kato said he was not worried about the virus, despite the enclosed indoor spaces and impossibility of wearing a mask while in hot tubs.
"We already know how it transmits from a person to person and from objects to people. So you don't go out and touch everything in your sight," he said.
"I think individually I am taking the necessary measures."
Japanese infection experts have not specifically discouraged the use of public baths, though they have stressed that patrons should observe good hygiene practices and social distancing.
At Yumominosato, customers must now have their temperature checked before entering, and are asked to keep their distance in and out of the water.
They are also asked to wear face masks outside of bathing areas and use hand sanitiser located throughout the building.
Before the pandemic, the facility regularly welcomed up to 1,000 people in a single day, and demand is now gradually picking up again, said manager Hiroshi Saito.
Five hundred customers visited in the first two days after it reopened.
"First and foremost, I am relieved," Saito told AFP.
"Of course the coronavirus is not completely gone. The possible second wave of infections is also something that is in people's mind. So we have increased our sanitation efforts... so that our guests can fully relax and really enjoy our facility."
And that is just what businessman You Sasaki was doing as he sat in an outdoor tub, enjoying the early summer sun and a gentle breeze.
"This feels good. Feels great," the 50-year-old said, in a tub set up with a television set for bathers to watch while they soak.
He said he had adhered to "stay home" calls during the emergency, but had been counting down to the reopening of onsens, as an aficionado who visited public baths three to four times a week before the coronavirus.
"The last time I came here was the end of March. The onsen is always special. It's hard to explain in words. Dipping in a large tub is just so relaxing," Sasaki said.
"This is part of our lives. I don't think you can separate us from this, the bath. It's true for me. It's true for every Japanese."