Sleeping in a box: The capsule hotel experience
By Ben Cowles
NEXT to bedding down in a Ryokan with sushi-serving Geishas and views of Godzilla scaling Mount Fuji beyond paper windows, the capsule hotel is Japan’s most Japanese accommodation. Although they’ve now caught on in other parts of Asia, the Land of the Rising Sun is the true home of the snug little boxes that are capsule hotel rooms.
Capsule Hotels (カプセルホテル – pronounced Kapuseru hoteru) are found in most major cities in Japan, often located near major train stations (like this one in Shibuya) or entertainment zones (like this one in Shinjuku). In these comfortable coffins-like suites, the hotel experience is miniaturized, stripped back to the bare essentials.
The capsules are stacked up on top of each other, usually two or three high. On the inside you’ll find bedding, a coin operated TV (err… mostly showcasing Japanese porn), an alarm clock, air conditioning, a small light, a Wi-Fi connection, and a curtain to maintain your privacy. Despite the dinky doghouse size, the capsule itself is surprisingly cozy, offering up plenty of legroom for even the lankiest foreigner.
The average capsule hotel frequenter is the über-busy salary man or woman of Japan who, after 12 hours of hard graft attend mandatory piss-ups with the boss till the wee hours of the morning and miss the last train home. And for the intrigued tourist seeking out that distinctive Japanese bizarreness, a night in capsule should not be missed.
Accommodation in Japan’s cities is notoriously expensive and capsule hotels can be a good option for solo travelers on a tight budget. In Tokyo, expect to pay somewhere between US$20-50 per night, depending on quality, location and availability.
As with almost everything in Japan, there is a bit of a formality to spending the night in a capsule hotel. Here are a few things you should know:
First off, capsule hotels usually open for guests late in the afternoon / early evening. It’s a good idea to find out when and check-in then. It’s nothing like a mad rush to find a bed, but at night the places fill up fast.
Capsule hotels are split into male (男) and female (女) facilities, though most of them only cater towards salary men. So ladies, you’ll want to find out if your intended capsule hotel has female boarding before you arrive.
In an attempt to keep undesirable yakuza toughs out, some capsule hotels have a zero tolerance policy towards tattoos; that applies to ‘gaijin’ (foreigners) too. If you don’t have any other choice, then either hide them very well or don’t go in the public bathroom at all.
Once you’ve bumbled along in Japanese with the front desk and paid for the night, you’ll be given a locker key. Put your shoes in there and hand the key back. You’ll then be given another – usually attached to a wristband – for a larger locker. This is where you can dump you bags and heavier gear.
The bathing areas are communal, and can get busy in the morning. So if you’re not comfortable getting your bits out around others… sneak in closer to checkout time.
When you’re ready for bed, change into the yukata – found inside your locker – and head on up to whatever floor your capsule is on. Be sure to be quiet searching for your bunk. Climb inside, tuck yourself in and drift off to a comfortable sleep.
Checkout time is usually around 10am.
Ben has been living, teaching, traveling, writing and photographing in East Asia for the past six years. His travel scribblings and photos can be viewed at monkeyboygoes.com.