02 August, 2010

A Capsule fit for a Gaijin

Update Aug 2010: An expanded report on my capsule hotel experience was published on the Asia Society website, and is currently the Most Popular article there. Hooray. The slide show is also accessible via the "View more pictures..." link within the article.

Taking the early morning Narita Express from Shinjuku to the airport wasn't a problem. The problem was finding affordable accommodations near the train station in Shinjuku, one of Tokyo's busiest and most expensive areas. The budget traveller inside me, desperate for any means to control costs, began to consider one previously unthinkable option: capsule hotels.

Capsule hotels are basically hotels where you stay in tiny, coffin-like capsules, aka a "room". The capsules are stacked on top of each other, much like the dryers in your local laundromat, and look eerily similar to those, or if you spend more time in the kitchen, an oven. Height and width-wise, they're roughly the same size as those appliances, except for the length (slightly more than 6 feet). I know, probably not everyone's cup of tea, but at 3,500 yen ($40) a night, the price was just right.

Besides, in this age of convenient air travel that allows tourists to zip to faraway corners of the globe and seemingly overwhelm every destination, staying at a capsule hotel seemed like a quintessentially Japanese experience. In fact, capsule hotels are targeted towards Japanese businessmen, who are known to have a drink or two after work with their boss (shudder) and belt out their best Sinatra tunes for hours. After the festivities, once they realize that the last train back to the 'burbs had left the building, oh, about two hours ago, guess where the cheapest option is to rest your aching head for the night?

Capsule Hotel photo slide show

My web search led to the the Green Plaza Shinjuku capsule hotel, located just a few minutes walk from Shinjuku station. (Make sure you take the East exit, or you'll never find it). The Green Plaza is on the edge of one of Tokyo's red-light districts, Kabuki-cho, home to entertainment clubs, massage parlors, and bars. It's far from being seedy though, with mainstream restaurants and shops co-existing happily with the prurient offerings, and with hordes of tourists walking around seemingly at all hours intently ignoring the touts enticing you to step inside their establishment.

Finally, I found the capsule hotel and checked-in. They assigned me to a capsule (taking care to ask if I preferred a "top" or a "bottom"), a locker to put my things in, and handed me a pair of pajamas for padding around the hotel which was spread over six floors (!). The capsules themselves occupied only three floors, each of which had their own spotless (what else did you expect?) toilet facilities, but the communal shower and bath are on the 6th floor bathing naked in front of fifty mainly middle-aged Japanese men is an experience in itself), and there was also a spa on the 5th floor offering body and foot massages.

"Isn't it somewhat claustrophobic?", was the number one FAQ among my friends, once I mentioned my capsule hotel experience. Not really, the capsule was more spacious than expected - you can actually roll over on both sides while lying down on the bed, and it even allows for sitting upright to read. Each capsule is also equipped with a tiny TV (8 pay-per-view channels) and an alarm clock/radio. The instructions were only in Japanese though, so I never figured out how to operate the gadgets.

Luckily, it was a Sunday night when I stayed at the Green Plaza capsule hotel, so most of the capsules were unoccupied. I imagine the case would be much different on a week night, with all those inebriated clients making so much more noise. I slept peacefully (after pulling down the wooden curtain that serves as the "door", and managed to catch my train to Narita airport the following morning without incident.

Looking back on my trip, the memories from the capsule hotel always makes me smile, and it's one of many unique experiences in Japan that I will never forget. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words - so check out the slide show below to see more from the capsule hotel.

Capsule Hotel photo slide show

For more of my Japan trip blog posts, click here.

Feel free to contact me at hellonewman (at) gmail (dot) com

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