I tried to live in a capsule hotel in Tokyo for a week. Tried is the important word here, because it turns out that most capsule hotels only allow female guests during certain days of the week (in this case, only five of the seven days of the week). Also, by day five I was sicker than a dog and had to go to the hospital (spoiler alert).
So overall, it wasn’t a good experience. It was an interesting experience, though, and I guess that’s the main thing that matters.
The decision to live in a capsule hotel in downtown Tokyo was rather simple: we were broke and that’s all I could realistically afford. This was back in 2014, when we moved back to Japan as newlyweds. The money we had both earned working part-time jobs in college was slowly dwindling (and Ryosuke wasn’t set to receive his first paycheck until almost two months after job training started). And I wasn’t permitted to stay in a hotel room with my husband during training because… rules? I don’t know.
He was told training would only last two weeks, so I elected to stay with his parents in rural Ibaraki. “It’s only two weeks,” I told him. “It will be fine. I love your family.”
And I did love them. I still do love them. They’re wonderful people. But as ‘only two weeks’ slowly turned into ‘well, it’s been five weeks and my boss swears that we only have one more week, sorry!’ it got hard.
And living along with your inlaws (even if you love them) without your partner for five weeks… is rough. Throw in language and cultural barriers and it gets harder.
By week four, I missed my husband and missed my ‘alone time.’
As week five neared an end, I told his parents the company changed their mind and would allow me to stay in his hotel room (they were happy for me), packed a small backpack of essentials, and checked into a capsule hotel down the street that only charged $17 a night for a capsule, unlimited access to the public bath in the basement, and wifi.
It was a good deal.
First of all, what is a capsule hotel?
A capsule hotel is a hotel full of tiny little capsules, instead of traditional rooms!
To be honest, it kind of looks like a morgue (or at any morgues in those crime drama TV shows). Floors have capsules stacked atop each other (usually only two capsules high) – and are segregated by sexes. The capsule hotel I stayed at had only one floor for women and the elevator wouldn’t even stop on that floor unless you put in a special key.
Capsules themselves are typically large enough to sit up (even if you’re really tall!) and are fitted with a small TV and a row of outlets.
The “door” of capsules (I use the term ‘door’ very loosely here) isn’t exactly a door – mine was a thin screen of plastic, similar to blinds that reflect the sun in American windows. Other times it has been a sheet of thick fabric or roll of bamboo.
So if your neighbor snores, coughs, or is suffering from some sort of breakup and cries the whole night – you can hear it. Very, very well.
The first floor of my capsule hotel had the front desk, some lockers, and a common area. I spent six or seven hours a day in the common room catching up on my blog and other freelance writing gigs.
The basement of my capsule hotel had an old-style public bath, kind of like a tiny sento (if you don’t know what a sento is, click here). They alternated the hours for the different sexes (because there was only one bath!) – so women could use the public bath from something like 6am – 7am and 10pm to 12am (midnight), and men could use the public bath any other time. I took baths twice a day (duh, free sento) and made sure to time my bath well in the window, because I didn’t want to find out what happens when the clock struck 10am and it was time to change sexes.
Each capsule had an assigned locker, where you could keep about a backpack’s worth of stuff locked up at all times. I kept my valuables in there while I slept and when I left the hotel because while Japan is a safe country and I generally trust people, there’s not sense taking extra risks.
The clientele of a capsule hotel
My image of capsule hotels was a bunch of drunken salarymen (white collar workers) who missed the last train after a late night at the office or a drinking party. Crashing at a capsule hotel is cheaper (and more time effective) than taking a taxi home – so the find the nearest one, spend the night, and report for work early the next morning.
Mind you, I can only speak about the female-only floor and who I met in the common area (and if there were hordes of hungover salarymen, they were up and out by the time I woke up every morning).
I ignored all the other guests in favor of some good old “me time” for my first three nights in the capsule hotel. I would have kept actively ignoring people… except I started running into the same group of ladies in the public bath, bathroom, and capsules.
The morning of day four, I made small talk with a woman wearing a woman from Southeast Asia wearing a hijab. She accidentally dropped a shirt from her pile of belongings while walking to her capsule.
I called after her.
She was surprised I spoke Japanese… and we got to chatting.
She worked as a full-time cleaning lady at a small company (for wages that seemed well below the legal minimum wage). She had been living at this capsule hotel for almost a year and a half – she didn’t have the money (or ability) to rent a regular apartment.
“It doesn’t matter,” she told me, “it’s less expensive staying here.”
On the two days of the week that this capsule hotel closes, she will split a hotel room with her other friends. Through her, I met an elderly Japanese women, a woman from Korea, and a woman from Malaysia – all who worked part-time jobs. I don’t know exactly where they work, because when they told me their job titles, I didn’t recognize the words (and forgot to write it down to look up later).
They were all very nice (albeit a bit shy).
Every day there was a new group of foreigners hanging out on the first floor common area – many who inevitably roped me into helping them plan a travel itinerary for Tokyo. Or explain how the capsule hotel worked (and where the showers were), because they lacked the ability to communicate with the Japanese-speaking staff.
It was okay, though, I like to help. The majority were solo male travelers from Europe who were staying at the capsule hotel for the “experience” (and because it was freakishly inexpensive).
Thoughts after living in a capsule hotel for a week
Overall, it was an interesting experience. I’d like to try it again now, with the sole intention of chatting with the other people staying there. It seemed like everyone had a story they wanted to share, but at the time, I only wanted to catch up on my “me time” and not have to talk to people.
If I ever decided to spend an extended period of time in a capsule hotel again, though, I would make sure to spend at least 3-4 hours outside every day – and take better care of myself.
On day three, I developed a slight cough. I assumed it just had to do with the dry hotel hair, so I walked to the nearest convenience store and picked up a pack of masks. By the end of day four, my cough had become unbearable. At 5am, the morning of the 5th day, I had to call my husband to help me.
I packed up my belongings as best as possible and met my very tried and very worried husband at the door of the capsule hotel. He was not able to take time off of training to take care of me (of course) – lucky for us I could go back to stay with his parents.
Ryosuke rode the 5:15am train with me out to Ibaraki, helped me to the ticket gate (where his father was waiting with the family car), turned around and got back on the 80 minute train to Tokyo, and did another 12 day of training. He’s such a trooper.
I was in and out of the hospital for the next four days, with some sort of infection. This was the countryside, so of course no one spoke English, so I never really learned what I had. Oh well. I guess the exact diagnosis doesn’t really matter.
I later learned that poor or stale air in hotel rooms can cause a myriad of problems – so if you are planning on living in a capsule hotel (or perhaps any other budget hotel), make sure you go outside and get some fresh air for at least a couple hours every day!
Has anyone else spent time in a capsule hotel? I’m curious about your experiences!