Take a look at the zany world of capsule hotels, as I try one in Tokyo.
I was walking down the dark and dim lit corridors of my hotel. The calm and almost soporific atmosphere covered the floor like a warm blanket on a cold winter’s night, as I passed rows and rows of stacked capsules. For my last night in Tokyo, I had decided to try a “capsule” hotel, a slightly claustrophobic stay option for travelers on a budget.
Capsule hotels are probably one of Japan’s best known secrets, having been featured several times over the years in articles around the globe. Usually located around major train stations, these have been a cheap way for the traveler to spend a night, especially when having missed the last train home after a night out on the town. They usually comprise of narrow “capsules” or pods, each containing a bed, that are stacked one over the other like bunk beds. The first capsule hotel opened in Japan in the Umeda district in Osaka in 1979 and since then these bare basic hotels have been quite popular with the tourists looking for an unusual experience.
My capsule hotel, Green Plaza Shinjuku, was located near Shinjuku station, and was a short walk from the station. This worked out well for me, as I would leave early next morning to catch my flight back to India. After finishing a quick yakitori dinner at the wonderful Omoide Yokocho lane of quaint little yakitori joints, I got my luggage from the station and made my way to hotel.
Now getting into a capsule hotel is a pretty complicated affair. You begin by taking off your shoes and locking them in a shoe locker and proceeding to the check-in counter. There you handover the shoe locker key (so that you don’t run away?) and begin by choosing the type of capsule you want. These days it is possible to choose more modern capsules with charging points and wi-fi over the standard ones. After finishing the check in formalities, and leaving your bags at the baggage counter, you are handed your capsule “key” and a pair of “yukata” or traditional Japanese night wear.
The capsules cannot be locked, so then what is the “key” for? Well the actual key is for a locker where you can store your valuables and clothes (after changing into the yukata). The band on which the key is sits securely on your arm and has the number of your capsule and a bar code. The bar code serves to track anything you buy at the hotel, with the amount being added to your final bill as you check-out.
After changing into the yukata, I made my way to the floor that had my capsule. Each floor has a large communal restroom area and then rows upon rows of capsules. Within the capsule corridors, the atmosphere is quiet and calm, with dim lighting. Generally, guests are asked to avoid making noise or using electronic gadgets excessively so as to help other patrons sleep. The calm atmosphere definitely aids in getting a good night’s sleep in spite of the claustrophobic interiors.
Following the signs, I finally made it to my capsule, which was one of the lower ones. Each capsule was about 1.2 metres long, with futon bed inside. On the outside, it had a small wooden screen that could be drawn for privacy. For something that looked intimidatingly compact, the capsule was surprisingly roomy. I got the feeling of actually sleeping on a bunk bed in a dormitory rather than something that was more akin to a fibre glass coffin. And in spite of the the compact nature of the capsule, it did have a lot of goodies in it.
The capsule actually had a TV, a radio and a small little side table thingy. Apparently, one of the ways to get you to wake up is to have the alarm clock in the pod slowly turn on the lights and wake you up. I couldn’t make much out of the instructions for this. Instead I chose to use my fitness bands vibrating alarm to wake up.
After having explored the rest of the hotel, I turned in for a good night’s sleep. The next morning, I awoke fairly refreshed and ready to make the mad dash to the airport. As I left the hotel, I was happy at having experienced this part of Japanese pop culture and I’d definitely recommend it. If you happen to visit Japan, do give this unique experience a try.
Where to Stay
I stayed at the Green Plaza Shinjuku Capsule Hotel (rooms from about ¥4000) near Shinjuku station in Tokyo. There are other alternatives both within Tokyo and in other cities, such as the swanky and ultra-futuristic 9hours in Kyoto (rooms from about ¥4900, half price if you book 60 days in advance).
A few things to note though. Most capsule hotels are for men only, so you might want to check if they offer unisex accommodation. Also, apparently tattoos are frowned upon in capsule hotels as well. You may be asked at the reception if you have one and this might be a reason you are denied a room. Finally, if you are staying multiple nights, you will need to check out everyday and check in again in the evening, possibly because these hotels are geared for single night accommodation only
What to do
Besides getting a restful night’s sleep, most capsule hotels also offer other amenities. Do look out for the lounge where you can just sit and relax or check if the hotel has an attached spa or even an “urban” onsen to help you ease away those travel aches and pains. Do remember though that like in most of Japan, these facilities are likely to be communal.
Cover Credits: Carey Ciuro/flickr