Walking around Tokyo, you may have noticed a number of tall, narrow chimneys rising above the skyline every so often. Such stacks are a good indication that you've stumbled across a sento, or communal bath house.

Long-time residents, however, will perhaps have noted that such chimneys aren't quite as common as they once were. While hundreds of sento have closed in the past decade, no new bath houses have opened in the capital over the same period.

"In the past, a sento was simply a place to bathe," says Teruo Shimada, owner of Akebono-yu bath house in Edogawa Ward. Akebono-yu, which was founded in 1773, is the oldest bath house in the capital.