There are certain things which are distinctly part of the Japanese experience: riding the Shinkansen bullet trains, watching the crowds stream across Shibuya crossing, or participating in a traditional tea ceremony, for example. One increasingly popular Japanese experience is staying a night, or several, in Japan’s unique capsule hotels.
Japan’s work ethic is world famous. The average “salaryman” puts in crazy long hours at work before catching a drink or two at the nearest izakaya and then catching the train home just long enough for a quick “nap” before returning again to do it all over again. But fairly regularly, those working men would work so hard and so late that they would miss the last train home. What to do? Thus, the capsule hotel was born.
Capsule hotels are Japan’s unique solution to cheap accommodations for those who have missed the last train. Originally, those who were stuck overnight in the city could find a nearby capsule hotel, rent a bed and catch a little sleep and a quick shower before buying a fresh work shirt from a vending machine and heading back in to work.
These days the concept has developed a little. Fueled by growing interest from international tourists who were either curious to see a hotel room squeezed into a wee little capsule or who were looking to save on costs in one of the most expensive cities in the world, capsule hotels began to modify their formulas enough to maintain the original gimmick while also welcoming a greater audience.
While once the fairly exclusive domain of men, capsule hotels are increasingly open to female guests as well, albeit on segregated floors. This isn’t to be difficult or old fashioned, but rather to account for the fact that the concept of capsule hotels implies shared locker and bathroom areas. However, if you are a family with children, fear not! Some capsule hotels now offer family plans with slightly modified capsules or capsule areas to keep you near your little ones.
Basically, what was once a unique idea to help lost businessmen has now become a great option for low-budget tourism and a must-try experience for any visitor to Japan.
So, naturally, I had to try it.
Recently I had the opportunity to visit Kyoto. I had a week’s worth of time and was super excited to dig into a more traditional Japanese city, but when I started looking at all of my usual sources for cheap accommodation, wow, so expensive! There were, of course, a smattering of hostels for a reasonable price, in which I could claim a bunk bed in a dorm room of twelve people. That was cool and kind of exciting back when I was in college, but the idea just rather exhausts me now.
Then I stumbled upon listings for two different capsule hotels in Kyoto: The Centurion Cabin and Spa and The 9 Hours Capsule Hotel. Problem solved. I decided to give them both a try. I didn’t really need to switch hotels, but I wanted a wider experience than just one would give me. I’m glad I did. Both of these hotels were really brilliant! But considering they both represent what is essentially the same concept, they couldn’t have been more different.
My first several nights were spent at The Centurion Cabin and Spa right on the main drag of Shoji Dori. Take everything you are thinking about a minimalist cheap hotel and throw it out the window. This hotel takes everything you need to make you completely happy and comfortable, strips away the excess that you don’t need-like a ton of space and a random stuffy armchair in every room, and gives you the best night possible for ridiculously cheap.
Centurion manages to create an atmosphere that feels luxe and traditional without squeezing your wallet. Meticulously clean and well designed, the entire hotel features dark wood accents and the ambiance of old Japan. The gender segregated floors are accessed using your floor key to open sleek sliding doors into a surprisingly comfortable locker and bathroom. Each guest is assigned a half locker, which was plenty for all of my luggage. However, those guests with bigger, traditional rolling suitcases simply left them in the sleep hallways without fear of anything going amiss. Through the bathroom and beyond another quietly sliding door was the sleeping area. Guests are assigned a “capsule” which, in this case, means a miniature but fully functioning room behind picturesque sliding wooden screens. The “capsules” are top or bottom “bunks” and run lengthwise down the hallway. But behind the sliding screens…wow. Each capsule contains a comfortable mattress which was probably six feet long and at least three or maybe four feet wide. Far from feeling claustrophobic, I felt more like I was in a perfect little cubby, tucked safely away from the world. The pillow and bedding provided were more than sufficient. But my favorite part was that each capsule contained a surprisingly large television which was wired into headphones which were provided near the pillow. There were also lamps on a dimmer switch, a clock with alarm, multiple power jacks, a USB port, a drop leaf mini table and a small mirror. It was absolutely the perfect little nest.
Beyond the capsule itself, I was continuously surprised by the Centurion. The amenities seemed to be endless! Within the bathroom, they had provided everything I could possibly need. You could take complimentary yukata (traditional Japanese robes) to wear around the building. The sinks were each lined with a slew of complimentary all natural skin care products, including toner, face wash, face oil, face lotion, and so on. Forget your straightening iron? No problem! There were plenty of those available. This hotel even has you covered if it rains, with a bin of complimentary umbrellas to borrow by the door.
But perhaps my favorite part of this little hotel was the basement spa. Yep, you read that right. My cheap capsule hotel included a spa. Now, on the one hand, this will freak many westerners out. Because the showers here are included in the spa. So when you need to shower, you must go into the spa to do so. But more importantly, you will need to follow Japanese tradition to enter the spa…meaning that you will leave your clothing, towel, and everything but your skin out in a locker. Yep, you will walk into the room with the shower stalls completely nude. While the stalls themselves have closed doors, you will have to be naked to get there. And if you want to indulge in the hot baths or the sauna, you will be doing so, possibly with a group, entirely nude. If you can get past the body shaming to which too many of us have grown accustomed, this spa is fantastic!! After a long day of hard sightseeing, nothing beats relaxing in a beautifully appointed hot spa before slipping back into your yukata and heading up to snuggle in your comfy nest. You better believe that is how I ended every evening of my stay at The Centurion.
However, after a few nights it was time to move. And while I definitely regretted losing my spa and my sliding door hideaway, my next capsule hotel was a totally cool find as well! Just down the street and equally conveniently located (Shoji Dori feels like the main bloodline to the best of Kyoto) 9 Hours Hotel was an entirely different feel. Whereas my last hotel had been a vision of tradition, this new hotel was the definition of modern. In fact, the entire place felt a little like I might be preparing to board a space shuttle. The entire place is stark white with minimalist design. Your shoes are ditched right away into assigned shoe lockers for which you have a key. Just beyond the shoe lockers is the check in desk where you will complete your arrival tasks using an iPad before receiving your main locker key and capsule assignment. You are provided with a set of towels, a pair of house slippers and a set of lounge clothing, as well as a fresh toothbrush and paste. The lockers and bathrooms in this hotel are on a different floor from the sleep pods, and while they don’t have all the amenities that could be found in the first hotel, they did have two advantages worth noting. First, the lockers in this hotel were full size lockers rather than half lockers, which is definitely of use to those travelers with larger luggage. And second, many travelers would be pleased to know that the showers in this hotel were on the same floor as the bathrooms and could be used without any public nudity.
Now, if you are looking for something a little closer to the original capsule experience, 9 Hours Kyoto is your place. Rather than fully enclosed mini bedrooms, the sleep pods in this hotel were really just that: sleep pods. In fact, I have to repeat my earlier comparison to a space shuttle. These little pods really looked like something you would find in deep space as each space passenger was tucked away in a pod to wait out the decades of space flight. You enter each pod at the “foot” of the bed and climb inward toward the pillow. There are no sliding doors here, but rather a roll up screen that is pulled down and hooked for privacy. There is also no TV in these pods. These are really meant entirely just for sleeping. However, these pods are equipped with a pretty cool ambient lighting alarm system which will lull you to sleep and wake you back up more naturally with gradual dimming or raising of lights. Tucked away in my pod among the silent rows of pods, I felt ready to sleep away years and years.
I’m not entirely sure what I expected in a capsule hotel, but I have to say that I love what I found. For decidedly low prices, especially in Japan, I actually felt entirely comfortable for the entire duration of my stays. I genuinely did not feel I was lacking for anything, nor did I feel like my overall privacy was much compromised. The staff in both locations were exceptionally friendly and helpful. The locations simply could not be beat. And, truth be told, the tiny little capsule nature of the sleeping areas actually made me feel more cozy and comfortable. I would unhesitatingly jump at the chance to use these kinds of hotels again.
That said, I must point out one tiny thing that people should be aware of in capsule hotel travel. While my personal privacy was in no way lacking, there is definitely a lack of privacy for things such as phone calls. My birthday happened to fall during this week and in these kinds of hotels there was simply no where to have a real, long conversation with my family. Conversation is discouraged on the sleeping floors and even in the lounges one can feel rather on display when having conversations. So if you are going to feel particularly chatty during your stay, capsules might not be the best plan for you. Although both hotels did offer excellent wifi throughout the buildings if you DO decide to sneak in a birthday Skype, as I did.
So before you write off your trip to Japan as way too expensive or agree to share a room with seven other squealing people on a school trip, think again. Move over sushi and bullet trains, capsule hotels may just be Japan’s most fabulous invention yet