Sento in Seattle: a visit to the historic Panama Hotel
by Ann-Lee Switzer
The worn steps led down from Main Street into the dark. Jan Johnson, the live-wire owner of the Panama Hotel, pulled out a huge set of keys, and without hesitation, fit one of them into the padlock. Click. Soon our eyes adjusted, and we looked around the dimly lit room with its tiled floor. Straight ahead sat a huge concrete tub. “You are looking at the only Japanese bath around,” said Jan to the small group of people gathered for a tour. “Feel these tiles”, she pointed to a few large tiles lining the ledge, “It’s tourmaline. See the shower in the corner? No one ever used it. You see, Japanese wash by dipping a small tub in the hot water.” Hardly anything has changed since the last bath was drained in the 1950’s: the numbered wooden lockers (one stood open, with some vintage clothing inside.), ads from local businesses lining the top. Next door, a smaller room held a smaller tub, the women’s section. The original plug sat in the corner. Jan explained that she wanted to leave things as they were, a “living museum” for all to see; the only Japanese public bath left in North America. It is for this reason that the Panama Hotel has been declared a U.S. National Historic Landmark.
Japanese began to immigrate to Seattle in the late 1880’s, and gradually a distinct Nihonmachi (Japantown), grew around South Main Street and Sixth Avenue South, which catered to urban residents and later supplied Japanese families living in rural areas. By 1900’s there was a need for more housing. The Panama Hotel was designed in 1910 by Sabro Ozasa, a Japanese architect and graduate of the University of Washington. Through the years it has served as a home for generations of immigrants, Alaskan fisherman and international travellers. By the time Mr. Hori bought the Panama in 1938 (at age 20), the Seattle Nikkei community numbered around 8500. Despite the wartime incarcerations and seizures by the U.S. government of Japanese residents and their assets, Hori was able to hang on to his ownership of the hotel.
Jan Johnson bought the hotel from Mr. Hori in 1986, and it has been her life ever since. After the tour she showed us some of her collection of artifacts: trunks, books, magazines, dolls, even an usu and kine (mochi pounder and base). These are mostly housed in a large tea room, in one of several shops on the ground floor, where we had enjoyed tea and green tea pastries while waiting for the tour, admiring the polished old wooden floor, and perusing the historic photographs on the walls. “This is something I received this spring, which makes me extremely proud,” Jan said, unrolling a small scroll of Japanese calligraphy topped by a gold seal: an award from the Consul General of Japan, dated April 21, 2009, praising Jan Johnson’s work of building “a bridge of friendship” between Japan and the U.S.
At her suggestion we were shown some of the rooms. At the head of a steep flight of stairs, a tiny office with sliding window was the original registration place. “Did you know,” asked Jan “ Charlie Chaplin’s driver lived in one of these rooms?” (how could we know? I want to look him up!) I notice a familiar-looking cat: not a real one, but an ink sketch, could it be by Mr Mirikitani’s (referring to the subject of the documentary many of us saw at the last film night, The Cats of Mirikitani)? “Oh yes,” said Jan matter-of-factly, “Jimmy always stays here when he comes. He likes my cat, Mocha. He was just here to celebrate his 90th birthday.” Small world!
The rooms are out of another era, with eccentric touches, each one a little different: on the original iron bedsteads are thick mattresses, fluffy comforters, and piles of pillows. Japanese themed prints hang on the walls, and on each dresser sits a globe and a bottle of Mt. Fuji spring water. “The armoires were created out of fridge packing cases, when lumber was scarce. I always put a freshly ironed yukata in there for the guests.” In keeping with Johnson’s authenticity, the rooms have been enhanced, not renovated. Although there is a small sink in each room, the men’s and women’s bathrooms down the hall are shared by several rooms. Steam heat is provided from original radiators, “So the comforters come in useful during the winter.”
Before we take our leave, Jan Johnson tells us about a book of fiction that had its launch in the hotel; The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford. We were standing in the hotel in question, of course. And of course I had to buy the book before I left town. With so much history wafting around the creaking wooden hallways, it is bound to be a good read.
More information about the Panama Hotel and Tea Room can be found on their informative website: www.panamahotelseattle.com. Be advised to phone ahead for the tour of the bathhouse, as they are held only as need arises.
Text reprinted from Victoria Nikkei Forum
Sign photo by Joe Mabel