Japan’s Capsule Hotels Go High Tech and High Style
By TIM HORNYAK
Published: November 18, 2011
EVENING was falling in the old Japanese capital of Kyoto, and I was tucking myself into a container slightly larger than a refrigerator. I pulled down the shade and, after a bit of contorting, lay down, the wall a few inches from my feet. It was a dainty little space, about 3 ¼ feet wide and 6 ½ feet long, charmingly traditional with rice-paper latticework and two woven-reed mats. I felt like an origami crane as I folded my 6-foot-2-inch frame into this “tatami capsule.”
The eight units at Capsule Ryokan (204 Tsuchihashicho, Shimogyo-ku; capsule-ryokan-kyoto.com) go for 3,500 yen a night, about $46 at 76 yen to the dollar. You don’t get a lot of real estate for your yen, though the box had plenty of modern conveniences: a small LCD TV, high-speed Wi-Fi, dimmable lighting and a wall-mounted alarm clock. The capsules are stacked in pairs, with chrome ladders at their entrances. Upstairs, the 32 en-suite rooms offer more space for sleeping — about three tatami mats’ worth — and the luxury of a compact rain shower.
Later, Keiji Shimizu, the owner, proudly showed me around his spotless inn, which opened last year a few blocks from Kyoto Station. “I wanted to bring some traditional style to budget accommodation,” he said, “so I combined the ryokan inn concept with the capsule hotel.”
Capsule hotels originally made their debut 30 years ago in Osaka and quickly caught on; today, there are about 300 in Japan. They cater to salarymen who miss the last train home, as well as the jobless, who rent by the month. Spartan and institutional, capsule hotels attract relatively few foreign travelers.
Mr. Shimizu, though, has incorporated into his capsule hotel features of the ryokan, the traditional Japanese inn: futons, tatami mats and a solicitous, kimono-clad staff. Demand, he said, has been brisk, though it is down about 30 percent from a year ago because of the effects of the Fukushima nuclear crisis that followed the tsunami in March.
Mr. Shimizu is not the only one to reimagine the capsule concept. Across town in the Teramachi district, Nine Hours (588 Teianmaeno-cho, Shijyo; 9hours.jp) is an inn, opened in 2009, that gives the capsule concept a sci-fi spin.
Nine Hours is housed in a slim, anonymous building; inside, sleek, contemporary design reigns. In the stark lobby, I was given a numbered key to a clothes locker upstairs. The clerk said little. Pictograms of male and female figures on the floor and elevators pointed the way to shower rooms. It was all very slick and simple. (A 12-hour stay is 4,900 yen, or $64.)
My locker held a bottle of water, black polyester sleepwear and slippers, all emblazoned with a small “9h” logo. After changing into the uniform, I headed into the dim sleep chamber; everything was a minimalist Muji-meets-“2001: A Space Odyssey” white. The fiberglass capsules themselves are rounded, and stacked vertically, but slightly offset to give the illusion of more space. I clambered into my numbered sleep pod and noticed there was no TV, only a few buttons that activate a gradual alarm-clock light — the “Sleep Ambient Control System,” which is meant to mimic the dawn, and work with my biorhythms.
I had nothing to read and therefore nothing to do in my cocoon but sleep. I tossed and turned. In the morning, I was happy to leave my white cell and feast my eyes on the old wooden temples and inns of the nearby Gion geisha district. After that sleep pod, the three-mat rooms of the Capsule Ryokan seemed like a resort suite.