Part of the allure of travelling around Japan comes from the weirdness that you see while you are there. A good example of this ‘only in Japan’ strangeness are the capsule hotels (or kapuseru hoteru as the locals call them) which are dotted around the major cities.
These hotels began to spring up in the late seventies as a cheap and convenient place for ‘salarymen’ (Japanese businessmen) to spend the night if they had missed the last train home after an evening spent boozing with colleagues. Somewhat sadly though, in recent times they’ve also become last-ditch, low-cost temporary housing for those ruined by the Global Financial Crisis.
Staying in a capsule hotel has been on my bucket list ever since a friend stayed in one last year, and last week I was able to make it happen during a holiday to Tokyo. There are at least fifty or so capsule hotels in Japan, and so it was hard to decide which one to stay in. In the end though the obvious choice was the Capsule Hotel Asakusa Riverside – one of the few that caters for both men and women, and therefore provided both myself and my partner and travelling companion the opportunity to sample this unusual slice of contemporary Japan.
After catching the subway to Asusaka station, we walked a couple of hundred metres to find the hotel, something which was easier said than done. There is actually no signage for the capsule hotel whatsoever, and you instead enter via a building adorned with signage for the Hotel New Gyominso which shares the same building and reception.
We stepped inside, a little unsure what to expect, and were met with a faded 1970s decor and the smell of stale cigarette smoke.The bloke behind the reception desk checked us in, and handed us our keys with a glint in his eyes that seemed to convey the uniqueness of the accommodation that we were about to experience. “I hope you enjoy it”, he said, half-grinning.
Shoes and socks safely secured in the ground floor lockers, and glorious plastic hotel provided slippers on our feet, we went our separate ways (men and women stay on different floors for safety reasons). I took the lift to Level 4, got out, and walked through the door that read ‘Capsule Hotel Entrance’.
Through a small common area with toilets and lockers was the capsule room itself, featuring two banks of half-a-dozen or so green, plastic capsules stacked two rows high. Most of them seemed vacant and aside from a couple of curious westerners the place seemed pretty empty.
Eager to try my modular plastic capsule out, I hopped inside and found it surprisingly roomy. I could comfortably sit up, however it was not very long and even my short 5 ft 8″ frame only fit with a couple of inches to spare. The capsule was furnished with a thin mattress, pillow, an ancient radio unit and a small television which offered up nothing but static, something which added to the eeriness of it all. There was no Wi-Fi, no power outlet, and no actual door – just a thin curtain that could be pulled down to give some privacy.
Elsewhere in the hotel there was not much to get excited about. There is a common room on Level 2 with nothing much of note in it save for a couple of gaming machines obscured by clouds of cigarette smoke. Up on Level 9 was a beer vending machine, a balcony with views of the Sumida River (you can see the Tokyo Skytree poking up behind a building), and the bathing facilities.
There are no western-style showering facilities at the hotel – just a Japanese-style onsen (communal hot bath) and sauna which I made use of after a long and weary day traipsing through Tokyo. In true onsen tradition, you have to leave your clothes at the door and the communal bathing all takes place in the raw. It is a bit weird but when in Rome …
After finishing up I dried myself down and put on the hideous green pyjamas that are supplied by the hotel before returning to my capsule for some reading before bed. With the light-bulb blazing and the cover down at the end it soon started to get quite warm inside and I had to switch the light off and open up the cover to let some air in before hitting the hay for the night.
What followed next was a fairly difficult night of sleep. The mattress cannot have been more than a couple of centimetres thick and sat directly on top of the hard plastic of the capsule. It took me a few hours to get to sleep and I woke up uncomfortably a couple of times during the night.
As poor as the quality of sleep may be, and as daggy as the hotel itself is, I cannot recommend a night at the Capsule Hotel Asakusa Riverside enough. It is a truly, truly unique experience and one that I would encourage any curious travellers to Japan to experience.