Hidden Gems off I-5: Tiny town’s bathhouse is painstakingly restored

Barely 25 miles south of Sacramento, just when the monotony of Interstate 5 takes hold and you realize what a long drive to Southern California awaits, you see an exit for Walnut Grove. You could blow on past without a second thought, as you’ve done on countless trips. Got to make good time, right? No tarrying allowed for the hellbent traveler.

But you’ve heard about a place along the riverside, in the town-within-a-sleepy-town that is Walnut Grove’s Japantown, where time slows, stress recedes, and healing waters beckon. You take the turnoff and take the plunge, headed for a little-known oasis called the Miyazaki Bath House and Gallery.

Open for two years and restored with painstaking care and precision closely to its original 1916 look, Miyazaki is believed to be, in the words of co-owner Montserrat Wassam, “the only functioning historic Japanese bathhouse left in the country.”

The operative word is “historic.” A few Japanese bathhouses, or “ofuros,” dot the state – San Francisco, of course, boasts Kabuki Springs and, until it closed a few years ago, Osento – but none harkens to the pre-World War II days when Japanese immigrants found solace in a soak, and none has hewn so closely to the original design and ambiance of a practice that was more a cultural custom than a mere hygienic chore.

When you park along Walnut Grove’s narrow streets and cross the tree-studded community plaza to Miyazaki’s wood-slatted entrance, it’s as if you’ve left the 21st century behind. With two baths, warm and cold, a steam room, a tatami area for tea service and meditation, and an eclectic gallery that features Wassam’s paintings, a visitor can feel transported, blissfully removed from quotidian concerns.

“You come in for two hours, you get fresh hot ginger tea, the shades are drawn, the doors are locked, you get that area all to yourself for that time,” Wassam said. “It’s a wonderful experience.”

An experience that, frankly, some of Miyazaki’s regulars aren’t too keen to have publicized.

“Nobody who goes there wants anybody to know the place exists,” said Helena Montana, a Miyazaki regular who lives in Lodi. “It’s the best-kept secret in the Central Valley. Seriously, it is. I can get in fairly easily for now, but I guess I’ll have to share. It’s this little respite in the middle of this charming town. It’s like a two-hour vacation.”

For Wassam, 56, and her partner in business and life, Eugene Phillips, 61, it’s been an eight-year odyssey. Exhuming Miyazaki from decades of neglect and rubble has been a labor of love for the couple, who still live in San Francisco but spend quality and quantity time in Walnut Grove.

It’s also been a long, hard slog of salvaging the original wood, repairing the cracked and crumbling tub tile, and crafting arches and stairways from “ghost” remnants or historical photos. The pair worked with the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency, Sacramento historian Barbara Takei and photographs from an archive at UCLA and from noted photographer Pirkle Jones to hew to the exact specifications of the original facade and interior.

All of which Phillips, who studied at the San Francisco Art Institute and is an expert in Victorian home restoration, approached with unswerving zeal. As Wassam says, “This place took a lot of patience and tenacity.”

A tall, avuncular man in a gray fedora who looks like a younger Bruce Dern, Phillips needed every bit of both because, frankly, the bathhouse was a dump. Dilapidated is too good a term for it. Decades of neglect and absentee ownership (or even no ownership) made the spot almost unrecognizable.

Rebuilding from the rubble

When The Bee wrote a story about efforts to sell the rundown historic site in 2000 – $50,000 on eBay with no takers – the roof had collapsed over the bath area, parts of the floors were missing, the stairs to the second-floor boardinghouse were gone and there were pigeon-friendly windows that wouldn’t close. Vandals and scofflaws seemed to be squatting in the structure as well. One Bee photo showed a handsome redwood wall defaced with the spray-painted message “Tweekr.”

That’s what awaited Phillips and Wassam when they bought the place in 2003 for an undisclosed sum. Whereas others might find an unfixable mess, Phillips and Wassam saw potential beauty. OK, they also saw trees growing out of the tubs and plants snaking around the bathing fixtures. Wassam held out a photo from the couple’s early days; the tubs themselves are barely visible for all the overgrown foliage.

“It kind of looked like a Philippine jungle,” Phillips said. “But that’s what restoration is all about.”

Miyazaki visitors will be happy to know that the plumbing is new; the original pipes were obviously corroded from disuse. The tiling in the tub area is the original, beige with flowery green trim, patched with newer material where needed. The tile inside the two deep, spacious tubs was too far gone, but Phillips couldn’t find either unblemished originals or exact matches.

“You don’t want to create a false sense of history,” Phillips said.

When forced to rebuild, rather than resurrect, portions of the building, he said, he tried to use the same type of materials. So the gleaming Alaskan red cedar siding on the bathhouse’s interior walls was grooved to match the original cedar and redwood both on the outside and on the walls of the gallery. Back in the early 1900s, the gallery housed a soda shop that was connected to the bathhouse and run by the Miyazaki family.

Because Phillips had a $70,000 grant from the county’s housing and redevelopment agency to restore the outside, he had to produce records (either blueprints or photos) that showed what the structure looked like originally. The couple embarked on a history lesson for photos and information. They found that the bathhouse dates at least to 1916, when it was built after a fire wiped out much of downtown Walnut Grove. Because it was illegal then for Japanese immigrants, or any noncitizen, to own land, most owners in the city’s Japantown leased the land. After 1942, when Japanese were sent to internment camps during World War II, Sacramento County took over control of the buildings.

Wassam and Phillips, however, did find photos of the bathhouse from as late as 1961, when Jones, the photographer who was one of Phillips’ teachers at SFAI, took exterior shots for an exhibit on Walnut Grove.

“So we know for sure that it was (open) at least until 1961 and probably into the ’70s,” Wassam said. “We know the boardinghouse was (occupied).”

It took some detective work and educated guessing for Phillips to draw up the blueprints and feel assured he got it right. Some sleuthing was hard, some easy. For instance, the grand wooden arch that extends over the two baths like a canopy was found strewn on the floor. Phillips could see where it once hung and went about buttressing it to the restored walls. And while there wasn’t a skylight next to the arch above the baths, Phillips thought he could take such a liberty for the enjoyment of future clients.

“He had the vision, because I sure didn’t,” Wassam said. “I trusted him, knowing what he was capable of. But I learned how to Sheetrock and tile.”

They took to the water

The couple’s motivation was never vast riches, though that would be nice, nor pure historic devotion, though they certainly feel that, but rather this: They are water people. They are drawn to the ocean, to hot springs, to rivers and lakes and, yes, to bathhouses. The lure of the Sacramento River on one of Phillips’ road trips in 2003 led him to Walnut Grove, which led him to the erstwhile bathhouse.

“I’ll drive a long way to get to water,” he said “I remember I was coming back from Burning Man and didn’t want to go on any freeways, so I looked on a map and saw (Highway) 160 and the Sacramento River. I’d never been on it. Later in the afternoon, driving on the other side of the river, it was so beautiful and incredible. I remember passing Locke and that big boathouse, thinking what a great art studio it would make. Then I got to the bridge here (spanning Walnut Grove) and saw the old town. Down a little street, there were some buildings for sale. I was hooked.”

Buying the building and renovating the bathhouse wasn’t just some watery lark for the couple, though. While Phillips had his vision of resurrecting the building structurally, Wassam saw the whole thing as “a six-dimensional canvas” on which the couple could express themselves.

The finished product shows the couple’s abiding love of art and architecture as well as their respect for the bathhouse and its culture. Neither is of Japanese descent, but Wassam has had a longtime affinity for Japanese bathhouses and has studied the rituals of the practice and consulted with experts to add the right realistic touches.

“I created the environment and the feel,” Wassam said. “I think the locals were wondering, ‘Hmm, a bathhouse again? People from San Francisco?’ Maybe they thought we were crazy.”

Lynn Ortega, a lifelong Walnut Grove resident, has started teaching yoga twice weekly at the bathhouse. She’s not surprised that locals aren’t clamoring to use the bathhouse.

“Around here, it takes five years, five good years, for someone to come in and get something going and put roots down,” Ortega said, “and then, all of a sudden, local people say, ‘Gee, how long you been here, a month?’ You have to be around for a while to be accepted.”

Wassam is hoping that once people look inside, they will be converted. She has augmented the bath area with a floral arrangement of orchid, bamboo, Japanese maple and bromeliad – a nod, perhaps, to those wild plants growing out of the tubs when they bought the place. The tatami area in imbued with natural light, draped with sheer curtains and augmented with pillows and a futon. It stands adjacent to the art gallery, an expanse of original redwood and cedar painted white, though the ceiling remains the original weathered boards, some with exposed numbers written in ink to mark their place.

“We thought of painting the ceiling (white), too,” Phillips said. “But as it is, the ceiling is so strong and stark. You get a sense of the history.”

Most of the work was done upstairs, where the primitive boardinghouse has been re-imagined as a vacation rental with two cozy bedrooms (one with a steamer trunk that traveled from the United States to Japan now serving as a dresser), a sitting room with artwork adorning the walls and a surprisingly large kitchen and dining area, the refrigerator and dishwasher cleverly built into the walls because, as Wassam says, “no one wants to see a fridge in an historic inn.”

The upstairs is quite a change from the original era, during which time a lone sink and toilet serviced the guests.

These days, guests feel downright pampered, because there’s no rule saying that hewing to history means being uncomfortable.

“They give you the rose petals, lavender and the salt scrubs, the kimono and the tea, and you just lounge,” said regular guest Monica, stretching out the last spoken vowel. “It’s an old-fashioned rest. For a couple hours, you don’t want to be anywhere else.”

Especially not the freeway.