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I found myself in Tokyo without a place to stay. The hostel I was staying at was booked for the weekend and every other hostel I could find online in the Tokyo area was also booked. This was a condition I found during my entire stay in Japan. It didn’t make for very good seat of your pants travel. I had no desire to get something expensive, nor did I really want to pick up and move far away because I had two more days of things to do in Tokyo. The only place that had beds available within reasonable distance was the Akihabara Capsule Hotel. I had heard of the capsule hotel and I figured “what the hell”. It was reasonably cheap (for Tokyo) and at least I could write a post about my experience.
The Basic Premise
The idea behind the capsule hotel is to cram as many people as possible into the smallest space possible for very short term stays. The primary target of a capsule hotel are business men who stayed out too late to catch the train back home and are stuck in Tokyo. The subway in Tokyo shuts down at midnight, which sort of put a damper on the Tokyo nightlife. It is very common for Japanese businessmen (and in this case, they are in fact always men) to stay late at the office then go out drinking with their boss and coworkers. You’re hammered, you are far away from home, and the trains aren’t running. What do you do? The capsule hotel was created to solve that problem.
It is pretty obvious that the capsule hotel is directed towards business men the moment you walk into the door. In the lobby they sell ties, shirts, socks and mens underwear. Five floors are reserved for men, one for women. Space is at such a premium, you have to store your luggage in a communal luggage rack in the lobby. The provide a very thin wire with a lock on it for “securing” your luggage. (I think you could have bit through the wire it was so thin), and a very narrow locker for clothes and other stuff you can fit inside of it.
The actual bed is really nothing more than an enclosed bunk bed with a TV, radio, and alarm clock embedded in it. While the word “capsule” has a clostraphobic air to it, it really isn’t that bad. It was better and more roomy than some of the beds I’ve slept in on my trip.
If you stay for more than one night, you have to be out of the hotel between 11am and 5pm. There is no place to sit around and loiter. This isn’t a hotel in any traditional sense. It is closer to a homeless shelter that you have to pay to sleep in.
The Japanese Touch
So far, nothing I’ve described is intrinsically Japaese. Such a business could in theory fly in any country. However, there were some things which you would only find in Japan.
For starters, when you came in the building you had to take off your shoes. That is no big deal, because you do that everywhere in Japan. However, at the capsule hotel, they had small shoe lockers for everyone. You’d take off your shoes, put them in the shoe locker, then take the shoe locker key to the front desk which would keep the key for you. The key for your personal locker was on a velcro wristband you were supposed to wear around the building.
The biggest thing was the bathing. The bath and showers were communal Japanese style. I’m not talking about a bunch of shower stalls in a communal bathroom like you would find in a dorm room or at a campgrounds. No, I’m talking about a group shower like you would find in a prison or a locker room. (It should be noted that prisons and gym class are things you are forced to do. No one does them of their own volition) I did learn one thing while I was in the bath room. All through out Japan, every shower I used was a flexible nozle and there were always two holders for the nozle; a high one and a low one. I assumed it was for children. Many of the showers also had a small bucket in the shower and I had no clue what that was for. Well, it turns out that Japanese often sit down when the shower. The pail is the seat and the lower nozle holder is for sitting down. You learn something new every day….
Outside of the akwardness of a westerner in the Japanese bath, there was really nothing wrong or uncomfortable with staying in a capsule hotel. There were several nights in other cities where I probably would have been better off in a capsule hotel. I think most hostels would be wise to install capsule type pods as opposed to bunk beds. You could fit in more people, yet give more privacy. Just don’t adapt the communal showers…