Kyoto hotel gives capsule concept a makeover
BY SOPHIE KNIGHT STAFF WRITER
The foyer of the capsule hotel 9 hours in Kyoto (Sophie Knight)A capsule pod at the 9 hours hotel (Provided by 9 hours)Pictograms provide easy-to-understand directions to the elevators. (Provided 9 hours)
A grid of glowing pods filled with sleeping bodies could be a scene from "The Matrix."
Yet this futuristic vision has been a common sight in Japan since 1979, when the first capsule hotel appeared in Osaka. Soon, capsule hotels were mushrooming in cities across Japan and as far away as Shanghai and Warsaw.
Japan, though, still operates more of them than any other country.
For those who are unfamiliar with the concept, capsule hotels offer sleeping space that redefines the word "tiny."
Many were erected during the late-1980s asset-inflated economy and are now showing wear and tear. Far from beckoning a futuristic vision, their grubby facades mark them as relics of the past.
But 9 hours, a designer hotel in Kyoto, is putting its own spin on the capsule concept in the hope of enticing a new generation of guests.
Located in the Teramachi district, the heart of the ancient capital, the hotel boasts a dazzlingly bright foyer. Guests could be forgiven for thinking they've just boarded a spaceship.
The gleaming white walls are bare but for simple, colorful pictograms that guide guests to the elevators, up to a sleek bathroom to shower and change, and finally to a hushed room full of dimly-lit pods.
Rather than simply providing a late-night pit stop for those too drunk or overworked to get the last train home, 9 hours aims to rejuvenate and revitalize visitors.
"There are no TVs or computers to distract people, so they sleep better," says manager Masashi Takenaka. "The lights inside the pod slowly dim to allow people to drift off gently, and gradually grow brighter in the morning until it's as bright as sunlight. We don't use alarm clocks. We want people to leave feeling rested."
The atmosphere outside the pods is equally soothing.
The pictograms negate the need for text explanations, which could be intimidating to non-Japanese speakers, while clean lines and subtle lighting of the rooms marry traditional Japanese minimalism with contemporary luxury.
Female guests are given peace of mind with the designation of different floors for men and women, with an alarm installed between floors to alert staff to anyone who tries to trespass.
Moreover, while many single-sex changing rooms in Japan are communal, each individual shower booth has room to undress and change, making it more discreet. All necessities are provided―pajamas, toothbrush, etc. But all personal possessions must be left in a locker. With no distractions, the quiet, cozy pod is the perfect place to drift into a deep, restorative sleep.
These features made the hotel a hit with foreign tourists, who accounted for over 30 percent of guests before the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11 led to 90-percent cancellation rate in reservations made from overseas.
While tourist numbers have dipped, the hotel gained some unusually loyal regulars in their place: around 20 people from Tohoku who lost their homes in the tsunami.
"They came here to start new lives," says Takenaka. "One guest found an apartment around the corner and a new job just the other day."
Inexpensive and accessible, capsule hotels have cornered a niche market by answering needs that business hotels or other establishments cannot. Often clustered around train stations to attract late-night stragglers who have missed the last train, they have even become a stopgap for so-called Net cafe refugees.
Although many end up staying overnight in an Internet cafe booth or a capsule hotel because they are unable to afford rent, some stay in capsule hotels on a long-term basis because they offer a cheap refuge from social interactions.
However, according to Takenaka, there have been no such customers at 9 hours.
"I think it's too bright and cheery here for them," he says. "This isn't the kind of place you can hide away."
With its focus on rejuvenation, the hotel offers a place to rest round the clock. For 1,500 yen ($19.50), tired office workers can get 40 winks between 1 p.m. to 3. p.m. The truly exhausted are permitted to stay for up to 17 hours, while the time-pinched can spend just four.
A nine-hour stay comes to an affordable 4,500 yen.
In general, however, 7 hours of sleep with one hour of showering and "preparation" either side is recommended.
Those feeling frazzled by information overload or the distractions of modern life could do worse than getting a good night's rest at 9 hours. After that, they'll be ready to face not only the next day, but the future.