I’d heard all about Japanese efficiency before coming to Japan: conveyer belt restaurants; auto-parking bike garages; toilets that do the clean-up for you; and of course, capsule hotels. So, after a few days in the country, I figured it was time to experience one of these most definitively Japanese hotels first hand.

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Capsule hotels consist of stacked rooms only slightly larger than the size of a coffin, specifically designed for thrifty Japanese businessmen, and apparently, curious foreigners. All there’s really room to do in your capsule is sleep, or do things you’d normally do in a tiny coffin-sized room: read, watch TV, pretend you’re Dracula, etc. It’s like a cross between your standard youth hostel dormitory (cheap, with bunk beds and shared bathrooms) and a normal hotel (expensive, but private and comfortable)… with a little bit of 2001: A Space Odyssey thrown in.

We stayed at our first capsule hotel right in the bustling metropolis of Shinjuku, Tokyo — and despite the claustrophobic appearance, it was actually pretty damn comfortable.

Checking In and Cleaning Up

The name of the hotel we stayed at was the Shinjuku Kuyakusyomae Capsule Hotel. If you’re ever in Tokyo and looking for this particular hotel, it’s on the third through eighth floor of a Shinjuku highrise — above a shemale club and below a karaoke bar.

The first thing we noticed when we checked in is all of the rules these places have. First off, they are male-only. Females need not apply. Also, people with tattoos are prohibited from staying at the hotel — apparently a precaution to prevent Yakuza gangsters from using the facilities.

There’s a certain, very specific order of operations that you must go through when you stay at this Capsule Hotel. When you arrive, you take off your shoes (like in most Japanese establishments) and put them in a numbered locker near the foyer. Then you take the numbered plastic tag from your shoe locker to the front desk, where you check in and exchange it for a wrist-band with a key and a different number, which refers to your personal locker and capsule. Since there’s no room to store luggage in your capsule, you must leave any bags larger than a briefcase or small backpack at the front desk. (They put the bag in the luggage room and assign it yet a different number, and give you yet another plastic tag so that you can pick up your stored luggage.) Next, you go to your personal locker, where you will find a relaxing robe, a towel and washcloths. At this point, you change out of whatever clothes you’re wearing and put on the robe, making sure to put the left hand flap of the robe over the right hand flap (doing the reverse is considered rude, and reserved for Japanese funerals). Then you go to the bath room / sauna area, where you must first wash up using the public sitting-on-a-stool-in-front-of-the-sink baths. After that, you can go into the sauna, the hot tub, or the cold water tub if you choose. It’s men only, and all nude. And incredibly relaxing. After you’ve had your bath, you dry off, put on your robe, and return your towels to your locker. Then you ride an elevator up to the proper capsule room, find your capsule, crawl inside, pull down the blinds, and go to sleep. Whew!

Not being versed in the proper capsule hotel order of operations, I made quite a few faux pas before I figured out what exactly what I was supposed to do, and in what order (by observing the other customers, and awkward exchanges with the employees). The Japanese sure do love order and routine.

And before I continue, let me say that Japanese baths are without a doubt the best in the world. The soaps and lotions they provide are amazing; the water is heated to the perfect temperature; the hot tub jets give an ideal massage; and the process of first sitting in a sauna (and sweating your brains out), then hopping into a cold water pool (and feeling your heart beat like there’s no tomorrow), and then hopping into a hot tub to relax…. Never have I felt so clean and relaxed in my life.

Inside the Capsule

The capsule floors are arranged in rows of capsules, stacked two high. They look something like this:

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Each capsules measure just over two meters long by one meter high, and, at least at the Shinjuku Kuyakusyomae Capsule Hotel, have a kitschy “space-age design” that would have been considered genuinely space-age in the late 1970s (which, by the look of things, is when the hotel was built). In that regard, the hotel is quite retro, and its white molded plastic and antiquated electronic dashboard made me feel like I was living in the Star Trek Enterprise of the original series.

For privacy, the capsules have a simple curtain to cover the door. On the inside of each capsule is the electronic panel with controls for the TV, alarm clock, radio, light controls, and maybe some other functions that I missed because the buttons were all labeled in Japanese.

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Although I didn’t spot it at our capsule hotel, I’ve been told that some also come equipped with a “red button.” Pressing this orders porn for your little TV, which you are billed for the following morning. If that’s not enough, the foyer on each floor comes equipped with stacks of pornographic hentai magazines (manga cartoon porn), which customers are free to borrow. This makes it abundantly clear that capsule hotels are for men only.

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Sleeping in a capsule was incredibly comfortable, and not the least bit claustrophobic. I fell asleep almost instantly…and slept for 12 hours straight.

Here’s me inside of my capsule:

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The Price

Let me reiterate that Japan is pretty much the most expensive country in the world. Capsule hotels are considered a “budget” option for business travelers, yet we paid $45 per person for one night. Regular hotels cost quite a bit more. You could stay at a guesthouse in India for a month for that price.

Capsule hotels are great once or twice for the experience, but I wouldn’t recommend them for the backpacker or budget traveler!

Then again, staying at a DORM in a youth hostel in Tokyo has cost us $25 – $30 per night. That’s highway robbery by youth hostel standards, but judging by the fact that every Tokyo hostel is always booked to capacity, the market is what’s driving the prices up.

I guess that’s just what you pay when you visit a modern city with as dense a population as Tokyo!