The Night I Slept in a Tube: Japanese Capsule Hotels

The Japanese are known for efficiency. They pride themselves on it. So when it came to making a hotel as cheap and efficient, Japan found a way to make it surprisingly minimalistic. And shockingly homey. 

Ever walk into a hotel room that you’ve paid an exorbitant amount of money for and find its dimensions to be less than advertised? In most major world cities, space is tight, and hotels need to cram as many bodies in a building as possible to maximize availability, and in turn, profits.

Kurokawa had a bit of an obsession with capsules. I'm glad he did. This particular concept was a capsule apartment for busy salarymen.

Kurokawa had a bit of an obsession with capsules. I’m glad he did. This particular concept was a capsule apartment for busy salarymen.

Back in 1979 an architect named Kisho Kurokawa came up with the concept of a hotel where guests were housed in rows of tube-like bedding chambers that left little room wasted. The idea was that not every traveller needed a room; some just simply needed a place to sleep for the night. A sort of step up from a park bench, if you will. For a about $25-30, a capsule hotel is that step up.

A few years ago, long before moving to Asia, and in a half-dreaming state, I had seen some snippet on television about capsule hotels.  It made me smile at the time, and I made a mental note to try it if I were ever in Japan.

So on a hot August afternoon in Toyko I find myself standing on a busy street wondering where I can spend the night. As always, I hadn’t booked accommodations–I never quite know where I’m going to be when I travel, so I have a hard time limiting myself by booking hotels or hostels. And it comes back to me. The tube hotels. 

At a Starbucks near Sinjuku Station I find myself scanning the internet for the nearest and cheapest capsule hotel I can find. Do they even still have them? Are they all closed? Am I going to sleep on a bench tonight? 

KabukichōIt turns out I’m not far from a capsule hotel–in fact there’s one just down the street from the Starbucks where I’m staying. It looks pretty decent on the internet, only there’s one slight catch–it’s in Kabukichō, one of Tokyo’s best known red-light districts, and the largest one in Asia.

Walking through Kabukichō is another story altogether, which I’ll cover in more detail at a later date, but suffice to say there’s a slight creep factor when you’re walking around there at night looking for a hotel hidden among an enormous cluster of sex shops and brothels. But without too much trouble I find myself heading up an elevator praying that I’ve found the right place and that the elevator doors won’t open to a scene from Eyes Wide Shut. To my relief, there are no surprises.

The system might seem a little complex, but there are plenty of staff to help me through the process. I place my shoes in a box, and take a pair of slippers–no street footwear is allowed inside, but this is entirely common in many Asian countries. After placing them in a lockbox, I purchase my room through a vending machine. At the counter, I still have to give an attendant my passport information and she gives me a swipe card to use for the lockers. Here, I can stow my bags and head into the living area.

At this point I’m expecting that I’m going into a cramped hallway where I’ll need to jam myself into a tube, but it’s not quite so. As it turns out, there are lots of extra facilities that aren’t as prominently advertised.

For one, there’s a large sitting area with lazy boy chairs and a big screen television, there are bathroom facilities that also provide free razors, soap, shampoo, towels, and other amenities. And best of all, free access to their bathhouse, where one can scrub away the skankiness of spending the night in a red-light district (it rubs off on you, whether you use their services or not). Being a Seoulite, I’ve come to terms with Asian bathhouses, and it’s not a problem washing off while a few inquisitive Japanese men investigate the visitor.

Home for the night.

Home for the night.

A lot of people use these capsule hotels for different reasons. Sometimes they are budget travellers, such as myself. But mostly they are used by Japanese businessmen who live outside the city and might need a place to crash when out for a long night of drinking with their coworkers. In this regard, the Japanese have a lot in common with Koreans. And given the location of this particular capsule hotel, I’m sure at least a few just did something regrettable and can’t go home to face their spouse. I’m purely speculating here, but its safe to assume that someone is in this district for reasons not related to travel.

Room with a ViewAfter having a chance to explore the facilities, I finally make my way into the sleeping area. It’s on a separate floor from the rest of the amenities, and it’s very quiet. I can’t help but feel a slight tingle of excitement at checking out my tube. I’ve been assigned a number and find it without too much trouble.

Yes, there’s the slight air of one of those morgue body storage facilities about the place, but when I climb into the tube, I immediately find myself relaxing. Secure. Cosy. Almost as if I’m a child again playing on a bunk bed, although I’m sure the man below me isn’t going to want to stay up all night talking as my brother and I once did. I can see why dogs love their doghouses. There’s a nice feeling of security that comes with such small quarters. I can sit up, and lay down, but not much else.

I love a good dip-switch.

I love a good dip-switch.

To my right is a console that looks straight out of the original Star Trek series, with delightfully retro knobs and even dip-switches. Yes, fellow tech nerd…dip-switches. You can listen quietly to the radio, set an alarm, or watch TV. But here’s my favorite part (excluding the dip-switches, I really love those things): what I like to call the pornographic panic button.

The pornographic panic button.

The pornographic panic button.

At first I’m quite sure it’s a regular panic button or some way of calling an attendant. But it’s hard to ignore a little red button, even if there’s a chance it will launch some soviet-era warhead somewhere in Siberia, so I press it. No one comes, and nothing is launched, but miraculously Japanese porn is now playing on my TV. I’m sure there was a surcharge, but I’m sure it was worth it. Not for the porn–the porn was terrible, but for those few moments of mystery it provided.

In the end, I sleep well. Very well, in fact. While there are certainly more glamorous options when staying in Japan, if you need a place that’s cheap, comfortable and a totally weird experience, you definitely need to spend a tight tucked snugly in a tube.

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