What’s with Capsule Hotels? You saw it here first!

Features Tokyo Life - November 6th, 1998
tokyoweekender_James Bailey

by James Bailey

If small is beautiful, then capsule hotels must surely produce swooning amongst all members of the “inn crowd.”

As you might have surmised from the name, cap­sule hotels are those in which the “rooms,” all of them singles, are capsules stacked on top of one another, their dimensions generally being midway between those of a coffin and a Pullman sleeper. As a rule, most encapsulated guests are there less because of choice than circumstances—specifically, their failure to catch the last commuter train home, their desire not to spend the night on a park bench and their limited budgets.

We here at The Tokyo Weekender have long had a special place in our collective hearts for these cut-rate lodgings, with their unique take on the term “downsizing.” It was, after all, our own Mark Schreiber who wrote what many have credited as the first article in an English-language publication about this phenomenon. It ran in the Jan. 16,1981, edition of this newspa­per, and was followed by stories in other international publications, with the ones in Newsweek and the Wall Street Journal giving full credit to our intrepid seeker after the weird and offbeat, Monsieur Schreiber.

You might think that once rates and rooms have been shrunk, all capsule hotels, while beautiful in their smallness, are pretty much indistinguishable from each other. Quite the antithesis: while the raison d’etre of this par­ticular division of the hospitality industry remains tiny, the number of amenities offered by competitors for the patronage of stranded commuters grows ever larger.

Guests at Dandy, in the Ueno area of our fair city, can avail themselves of six types of massage, from facials-only, to foot soles solely. On the premises at Kawasaki Big in (duh!) Kawasaki are eight kinds of baths, including herbal, cedar, unheated and sake. Sky Spay boasts a Paloma Picasso-design sauna, clearly inspired by the baths of ancient Rome.

For those whose failure to catch the last train home is work-related, there is probably no better place to spend the night than at the Ochanomizu Cockpit Inn. After the office is closed for the night, over­time workaholics can repair to this particular capsule hotel, where the entire second floor has been divided into work/study cubicles, com­plete with coin-operated fax machines.

Gourmet and gamesmen are catered to by, respectively, Wing and Business Inn Piro, both in Tokyo’s Kinshicho district. Guests at the former who choose the main dish in their seafood dinners from the hotel’s fish tanks are entitled to use its karaoke room. At the latter, Mah-jongg enthusiasts can stay in special “suites,” consisting of a quartet of capsules surround­ing a table set up with the board and 136 tiles neces­sary for their favorite pastime.

The very first capsule hotel opened in this country in February of 1977. Rates were unbelievably low, even then: ¥1,600 a night. Designed by architect Kisho Kurokawa, with capsules by the well-known furni­ture manufacturer, Kotobuki, the Capsule Inn Osaka is still in operation at its original location, on the floors above a sauna in the Umeda district of Japan’s second city. Indeed the fact that Capsule Inn Osaka guests have been able to avail themselves of a luxurious base­ment sauna has undoubtedly contributed to this particular establishment’s longevity.

Besides massages, saunas with views, work/study cu­bicles, scented baths and Mah-jongg suites, capsule hotels have also offered exercise facilities, karaoke and even pri­vate rooms. Indeed, in recent years, as the hotels have become less and less Spartan, more and more guests have elected to stay as either short- or long-time residents.

Although the manager of one such hotel conceded that monthly rent for an apartment is probably cheaper, these individuals prefer the convenience (no cleaning required) and the camaraderie. “For men who are away from their families,” he noted, “there are always people around, so it’s less lonely than going home late to an empty apartment.”