Once the heartbeat of every couple of blocks of every suburban community in Tokyo, the institution of the public bathhouse is slowly drying up. In an article that had the ring of an obituary, the Yomiuri newspaper solemnly announced on May 8 that the Yoshinoyu bathhouse, in the Suginami ward, had pulled the plug. At the end of last year, there were 1,025 sento in the metropolitan area; the closure of Yoshinoyu brought the total to a symbolic 999. For generations, they were the setting for novels, films and slapstick humour. And at their peak in 1968, there were 2,687 registered bathhouses in Tokyo. But the gradual decline in their importance across Japan looks inexorable. They have fallen victim to the construction of modern apartments with their own bathrooms, fewer people wanting a career in the business, and also the rise of the urban super-sento, ultra-modern facilities that are purpose-built to offer a range of treatments, including massages, herbal baths and spas. In comparison, rows of plastic stools and bowls in front of taps set into tiled walls, with mirrors, appear dreadfully old-fashioned. The final nail in the coffin of many of the latest victims, however, has been the soaring price of crude oil in recent months. Three years ago, it cost as little as Y35,000 ($2,475) a kilolitre. That has now doubled, and some bathhouses are spending more than Y300,000 every month just to keep their water piping hot. Aware of the struggle that many operators are facing, Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara last week announced an increase in the bathing fee from Y400 per person to Y430, the first rise in six years, but a move unlikely to attract more customers. Prices in Tokyo were already the highest in the country, but the entrance fee for schoolchildren will remain unchanged as part of an effort to win over the next generation. Some local governments in the capital have also offered subsidies for fuel expenses. Shibuya ward even went as far as purchasing a failing public bathhouse so elderly people nearby can continue to bathe and meet their friends. Other establishments are introducing smoking bans in an attempt to promote their services as healthy, although that measure is unlikely to prove popular among some of their most hardcore customers, Tokyo's notorious yakuza underworld groups. Communal bathing is something of a tradition among Japan's gangsters, with different groups frequenting sento on their own patches. Ironically, both institutions are experiencing a downturn in business, possibly because both are throwbacks to an era when things were done somewhat differently.