Staying in one of Tokyo's capsule hotels will save you loads of yen - not always an easy thing to do in one of the world's most expensive cities. But how do they work?
First, pick your hotel, and, if you feel unlucky, make a reservation. A comprehensive list of capsule hotels can be found here: http://gojapan.about.com/cs/accommodation/a/tokyocapsule2.htm . Alternatively, you can take a train to any major hub (such as Ikebukuro station, Shinjuku station, or Tokyo station) and wander the streets with your luggage, hoping to spot the word capsule on the side of a building, somewhere among the neon Japanese script. I happened upon the capsule hotel Asakusa Riverside, near the number 4 exit of Shinjuku subway, where I paid about 4000 yen ($40) for a night. By other budget standards this may sound like a lot, but remember: things aren’t cheap in Tokyo.
Immediately foreigners will take notice of the “No Women Allowed” signs displayed at the reception desks of most capsule hotels. These hotels cater to Japanese salary men who work long hours in nearby office buildings and can’t be bothered to go home, as well as the ones who’ve had too much to drink and missed the last train to the suburbs. Some capsule hotels, such as the Central Inn Gotanda, have separate floors for women, but the rule of thumb seems to be “boys only.”
Sort your luggage before check in: fill a man-purse (or, for those of you who don’t own a murse, a plastic bag will work fine) with your valuables, as well as any essential nighttime goodies: a book, an iPod, a bottle of water, an Ambien, whatever. Give the rest of your luggage to the clerk as there will be no room for rucksacks or rollers in your capsule. When you’ve checked in, the clerk will give you a capsule number and a locker key. Go to your locker, which will usually be on the same floor as the reception.
The next stage is a mixture of a Kurosawa movie and a high school gym class. Put your personal items in your locker. Now, grab a towel, take off your clothes, and head to the “spa” where you can wash off your travels. In the communal bath, as is the case with many things in Japan, everyone will know exactly what to do, except you. The order seems to be: nakedly sit on the little stools and clean yourself using the shower head at foot level; hop in the hot water pool; re-shower; towel off. Brush your teeth with the futuristic brushes they’ve got on the clean white countertops: just remove the plastic and scrub your choppers – no toothpaste necessary!
Head back to your locker and put on your sizzling blue kimono. Wearing this outfit is truly one of the perks of staying in a capsule hotel. Go up elevator to whatever floor your capsule is on (don’t forget your murse). Capsules are rooms like refrigerators dropped onto their sides, and stacked two high all around the room, allowing for maximum guest density – some hotels have as many as 1,500 capsules. Find yours and crawl or climb in, depending on whether you’ve got a top or bottom “room.”
There are many buttons and knobs in the capsule. You can watch TV, listen to the radio, and turn the lights on or off. At your feet, you can close your entry portal by pulling down the drape, but there’s no way to lock yourself in. Don’t let this worry you. Tokyo is a safe place for the most part, and besides, what could a thief do inside your capsule? There’s only room for one.
Get a good night’s sleep and, in the morning, enjoy all that Tokyo has to offer. When you’re tired of exploring, you’ll still have your cozy capsule to come home to. It’s an inexpensive way to stay in Tokyo, and it’s an authentic modern day Japanese experience, as evidenced by the tens of thousands of people for whom capsule hotels are less of a novelty holiday experience, more of a cost-effective and practical way to function in one of the world’s most fascinating cities.