My first night in Tokyo was spent in a Capsule Hotel (kapuseru hoteru). I remember being fascinated by these places when they were featured on BBC travelogue shows. My initial, rather loaded, question was: “What kind of culture treats its people like the Borg?”
Well folks, it isn’t all that bad. If you liked making a fort out of pillows as a kid, then this will appeal. Think of a dormitory with privacy and a dash of claustrophobia, and you’ve got a capsule hotel.
Cheap and convenient, capsule hotels are often used by people who have worked or partied late, and have missed the train home. Usually, capsule hotels are a male-only domain, but there are now some capsule hotels that cater for women (dorms are sex-segregated).
Check-in at my capsule hotel was quick and easy, facilitated by means of a bilingual tick-sheet. My first faux pas was not removing my shoes as I approached the front desk, but they were forgiving enough. As I waited for my friend to meet me, I caught a whiff of delicious-smelling ramen noodles from the office behind the reception. Had I wanted to, I could have bought a fresh shirt, socks and underwear at the reception.
The capsule hotel had great facilities, including sauna and baths and a restaurant. Interestingly enough, however, there was a blanket ban on tattoos, presumably to discourage Yakuza.
This being such a weird thing to do, I think it worth describing in some detail how I got ready for bed this one night.
Arriving back late from my first day in Tokyo, I didn’t have time to enjoy the baths or saunas, but got my standard-issue kit all the same from the front desk: two towels a pair of shorts and a robe. I was also issued with my locker key – locker 417, which was also my capsule number.
Taking a lift down to the fourth floor, I walked past some slot machines to the locker room and changed into the shorts and robe. Barefoot and clutching my washbag, I went to find somewhere to brush my teeth.
The communal washbasin room next to the locker room had eight basins. A sterilising machine held a dozen hairbrushes and there was soap, skin lotion and hair tonic at each sink. There were also some really fragile disposable toothbrushes. You really could just turn up at the hotel with nothing but the clothes on your back, some money and leave the next day ready for work.
I did encounter a few other residents that night as I got ready for the capsule. Everyone kept themselves to themselves and the floor was very quiet. It was eerie; I was getting ready for bed, a private act, in a public space with people I didn’t know. When the people weren’t there, it felt underpopulated: eight washbasins standing unused in a city as densely-populated as Tokyo just felt weird.
As I rounded the corner to the capsule room, I was greeted with this sight:
The room was eerily quiet as I padded along the carpeted floor to find capsule 417. Inside was a thin futon, a duvet and a pillow stuffed with what felt like plastic beads. Inside the capsule was a light, TV, radio and alarm clock. Contrary to my expectation, there was no door, just a roll-down blind.
Being 188cm tall, I was 12cm short of the total length of the capsule, so I had to sleep in the foetal position. I just slept fitfully, and woke to the sound of the TV in the next capsule. I suppose the resident had fallen asleep with the TV on.
When I got out of the capsule at 8am, almost every other capsule was empty, including that of the loud snorer opposite. I suppose they all had jobs to go to. But that’s OK, they could always grab a can of “Boss Coffee” on the way out.