Home Sweet Capsule

Tokyo on One Cliché a Day

Home Sweet Capsule

Tokyo on One Cliché a Day

Home Sweet Capsule
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Oct. 16 2003 5:07 PM

Tokyo on One Cliché a Day

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Today's slide show: Life in a capsule hotel.

Japan Cliché No. 4: Capsule Hotels

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson
Seth Stevenson, a regular contributor to Slate, spent two months in Tokyo on a media fellowship from the Japan Society.
Home sweet capsule
Home sweet capsule

Tonight, for no real reason at all, I'm sleeping in a capsule hotel.

No doubt you've read about these—rabbit warrens for salarymen to stay in when they've missed the last train home. Capsule hotels are a staple of "Those Wacky Japanese" reporting, but I wondered what it would be like to actually stay in one for the night.

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My taxi cruises into Akasaka at a little past midnight on a Saturday. Gangs of sake-fueled office workers wobble through the streets. As I step off the sidewalk and into the hotel lobby, the first thing I see is a cartoon drawing of a bellboy pushing away a shirtless man. Does this sign mean No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service? Closer inspection reveals elaborate tattoos on the shirtless man's back. This is a No Tattoo hotel.

You'll see this at lots of places—most hotel pools and most public onsen (baths) will have strict no-tattoo rules. I used to think it was some misguided theory that tattoos spread disease through water, but I've since been told that it's a yakuza thing. The yakuza (Japanese mafia) are known for full-body tattoos, and apparently these no-tattoo rules are the best way to deny them service. Why it's such a big deal to keep yakuza out of your hotel, I'm not quite sure. I'd sort of like to meet some yakuza. Ever see that Ridley Scott movie Black Rain? Those yakuza were cool.

Since I am not a yakuza and have no tattoos, I proceed to the check-in desk. I then turn around and walk right back out, because the clerk is frantically pointing at my shoes, which I'm still wearing. I forgot to take them off before I came in. I do this a lot.

Now shoeless, I am allowed to check in. It's 4,500 yen for the night (around $40). The clerk hands me a thick, bright yellow plastic bracelet, which has my capsule number written on it, and a key to my clothes locker attached. Clearly, most people who check in here are so stinking, stumbling drunk that it's imperative to put all this stuff in bracelet form. I imagine they often find passed-out guests sprawled across the restroom tiles, at which point the bracelet comes in handy.

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Sadly, I'm not that drunk. Four sober stories up by elevator, I open a door and enter a maze of capsules. Tiptoeing through the rows, I find my number. The only sound I hear is fitful snoring. It feels like a beehive.

Ah, this one's mine. Home sweet capsule. And actually not so bad. First of all, it's clean, which was my biggest concern coming in. I'd feared vomit-and-who-knows-what-else-stained mattresses and perhaps an unsettling stench. But my fears are misplaced. The capsule is spotless and quite cozy.

Inside are a mattress, a blanket, a 7-inch television, and a side panel with alarm clock, radio, and TV controls. Set into the ceiling is a tiny reading lamp. How high is this ceiling you may wonder. High enough, I say. I can sit all the way up and still have ample head room. So, despite minor claustrophobia, I am comfortable here. It's not a coffin.

Nothing's on TV (the scrambled channels are no doubt porn, but it's not clear how I'd unscramble them if I wanted to), and I'm sleepy, so I try to nod off. Not happening. The bed is fine, though I just barely fit lengthwise (if you're 6-foot-1 or taller, don't even try it). The problem is all those drunk salarymen wandering in, laughing as they drunkenly locate their capsules. This is the exceedingly rare moment where the Japanese are too damn noisy. Also, there's the snoring. And the guy in the capsule above me is making a weird, percussive sound. If I had to guess, I'd say he's brought a steel mallet and is hammering violently at the walls of his capsule with it. But this seems purposeless and unlikely.

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At 6:15 in the morning the first alarm goes off. Every 10 minutes thereafter another alarm goes off. Each alarm is followed by grunting flatulence and the loud self-extrication of a hungover man from a narrow tube.

These glassy-eyed, unshaven fellows slowly gather in a downstairs lounge, wearing the green paper, hospital-style robes that the hotel provides. Rows of reclining chairs face a big-screen TV, which plays a sports highlight show. There's a sort of bad-boy camaraderie in the lounge—you likely wouldn't be here unless last night was a real doozy.

A friend tried out the women's side of the hotel (there is strict separation) and said she loved it. Seems it's a very different vibe from the guys' side. Since Tokyo apartments are too tiny, Japanese girls use the capsule hotels to throw big slumber parties. Many pink pajamas. The women's side has a spa, too, so in the morning, instead of sports TV, it's hanging out in a hot bath.

I very much doubt I'd stay in a capsule again, at least not by choice. But should I ever miss the last train—and stink of sake—I'll know what to do.

Returning my yellow bracelet to the desk and retrieving my shoes, I stroll out into the glare of Sunday morning in Akasaka. It's time to go home. I really need some sleep.