The tea house inside the Panama Hotel in Seattle's International District is one of the coziest places to spend an hour or so relaxing on a rainy afternoon. I dropped by yesterday on my way to meet a friend for dinner, and was pleased to discover a few new additions to what is one of the most serene spots in Seattle to sip an espresso or a cup of green tea.
The snacks are exquisite (try the green tea shortbread cookies baked in the shape of a tea pot), and now you can sip wine or a cocktail in addition to teas and coffees. I noticed that the Panama also is now offering public tours of its "sento,'' the only remaining Japanese public bathhouse intact in the United States.
By way of backround, the Panama Hotel was built in 1910 by Sabro Ozasa, a Japanese Architect and graduate of the University of Washington, in what used to be Seattle's "Japantown". It served as a home for generations of Japanese immigrants, Alaskan fisherman and International travelers, until closing in 1950. Current owner, Jan Johnson, renovated the hotel, and added the Asian tea house. Historic photographs cover the brick walls. Even the restrooms are works of art.
Former Seattle Times writer Paula Bock told the whole story in an article she wrote for the Seattle Times' Pacific Magazine.
Here's what she said about the bathhouse:
"At the base of the Panama Hotel is the entrance to what was once the center of daily life in Nihonmachi, Japantown, one of the most thriving communities of its kind in the country. Of hundreds of such communal bathhouses in Japantowns across the country, this is the only one preserved in tact, in place. The bathhouse served generations of Nesei (Japanese Americans) in the years before World War II. After work, after school, after dinner, after ball games immigrants came to soak at the Sento because life was hard, hot water was relaxing, bathing facilities were scarce and it was a traditional cultural activity. The two pitted marble baths are still in the basement, along with rusty shower heads (that nobody used, even then), neatly numbered wooden lockers and hand painted signs advertising local businesses perfectly preserved. "
Tours last about an hour and cost $11 for adults, $9 for seniors.