Do you ever walk into a hotel room and notice something immediately wrong? Maybe the sheets are still dirty. Or there are double beds instead of a king. Or the room is too big. Maybe you just long for your room to be smaller. Like really small. So freaking small that you can’t even crouch. Like coffin-ish.
Enter: Japanese Capsule hotels. The concept is fascinating. The capsule hotel is a predominately Japanese institution that provides hundreds of sleeping pods instead of full-sized rooms. They cater mostly to businessmen who are on-the-go, price conscious, and know they are using the no-frills space for one thing: Sleeping. But lately, be it for novelty, cheapness, or some grander sense of curiosity, capsule hotels have become increasingly intriguing to backpackers. This backpacker included.
Inquisitiveness got the best of me on my last trip to Tokyo. Coming in on a late flight, I arrived at Capsule Hotel Anshin Oyado in Shinjuku, unsure of how this whole experience would go down. I was unprepared for what was to come, to put it lightly. Reading about the pods for the first time a few days earlier in the Melbourne airport, I’d envisioned Matrix-like cocoons. The space fantasyland setting of the Tokyo ward of Shinjuku – with a robot restaurant and enough neon to rival Vegas – didn’t help to dispel the notion I was walking into the future.
I received a locker upon checking in. I would learn later that your capsule does not close off or seal — so the hotel provides lockers for valuables, which is opened by using a wristband, issued at check-in. Also issued is a set of brown clothing similar to scrubs and brown slippers. This is when the first of the dystopian vibes set in. They would not be the last.
I threw my belongings in the locker (after a month in Asia I’d still kept everything to one medium sized backpack), and checked the time. Being on a massive ramen kick, I soon bolted to a nearby ramen hole. Nothing affirms that I’m living my best life quite like a bowl of tonkotsu ramen. It’s like a superpower akin to Popeye’s spinach. With renewed vigor, I reengaged with the capsule hotel, confident I would not be drafted into an unconscious energy sac for the machine army.
What I discovered entering the hotel for the second time was mostly rad. First of all, it was spotless. There was a bathhouse on the second floor where Japanese businessmen were downing their post bath milk. Unfortunately, for an undisclosed reason, folks with tattoos cannot participate in the bath activities. So I was out. I didn’t even get the milk.
On the third floor of the hotel, there’s a combination cafeteria/café/internet station and a seriously impressive animé dvd library. Even with my limited interest in animé – which isn’t much outside of a fondly remembered run of getting stoned and watching Gundam in college – I found myself drawn to checking out an entire anthology of DBZ and staying up all night to watch it. But I was on a mission and the show likely wasn’t subtitled. I traveled on, past the free fruit drinks and oddly expensive sandwiches.
Unlike hostels, capsule hotels aren’t “meeting people” places. Most patrons are insular, either working on laptops or dialed into their headphones. Like hostels, however, the bathrooms are communal (at least according to cis gender). Men and women are separated by floor. The bathroom – its cleanliness deserving of repeat mention – is on the same floor as your pod. You open the chamber doors with the wristband issued earlier. (The wristband itself bears a striking similarity to a house-arrest-style ankle bracelet.)
As I walked the aisle, I noticed a jostling figure in each pod — moving, shifting, rearranging. Each was trying to negotiate his confined space, to maximize comfort and limit awkwardness. This seems simple enough, but you don’t know the struggle until you know. One of the perks of checking in is they ask whether your preference is a top pod or a bottom pod. Since I don’t speak Japanese, my predilection was asked of me in a series of impromptu hand signals by the curious staff. The operation platooned to about three people and, with all three laughing pointing up and down, I finally succeeded in picking a top bunk.
It’s not a stretch to say the pod is coffin-like, though a coffin made for a large land mammal instead of a human. The challenge is to get in and get comfortable. A small ladder is attached to the pod row but only extends to the bottom rim of the top capsule — so it took a little bit of acrobatics to throw myself inside.
Upon entering my pod, I immediately noticed a plug for devices that also powered the small TV in the pod. There were two comfortable pillows. The entire floor of the pod was a mattress. I could sit up without impediment, which was a relief to my anxiety, though I could not stretch both arms out wide without hitting the sides. I was just shorter than the length of the capsule and it felt slightly roomier with my toes sticking out the end. Everything seemed to be in order, or at least in an order, except the closure to the capsule. This was a light bamboo shade, which some residents chose to use and others not.
I want to write that this experience was less like hostels — where snores and farts abound — but this was not the case. The snoring was out of control. Somehow the collective sound synched up in the area between pods and rushed down the aisle like a wind tunnel, both sides crashing into each other just outside the brittle bamboo barrier of my modest #526 pod and battering through it. This assemblage of reverb might potentially be offset by the free noseclips given out by the hotel, but this seemed to be a suggestion not taken seriously (by me included). Earplugs were on offer as well, as a courtesy. But I only learned about them weeks later, while reviewing the backside of the English pamphlet given to me at check-in.
I had to be up early to meet a friend across town, so I was curious if the ever-present hostel nuisance of “God is not even up yet,” early-as-shit alarms would announce the arrival of the day forthcoming. On cue, the chain of cellphone rings began between five and five-thirty and continued until I left at around seven-thirty. Incidentally, I was thankful for the assist. Tokyo is a big place and getting across town is an endeavor that takes a minute. So a couple alarms getting my ass out of bed and into the world is not the worst thing that ever happened.
Though I generally slept okay, I was glad to be back on the street, exploring the city. Pretty soon I started to get excited, as I realized that the money I’d saved by sleeping in a death trap would get me more ramen. Looking back, it was a very worthy tradeoff.