One of the experiences I was most eager to try in Tokyo was staying at a capsule hotel. I know, I know, there are far more culturally unique and interesting things to experience in Japan. But something about the idea of staying in a micro-hotel modeled after a first-class cabin in a high-end airplane just caught my attention in particular. No other culture could make popular this reverse concept of luxury, capitalizing on the small size and minimalist décor of the accommodations rather than the large and grandeur. As with so many things that the Japanese do well, the capsule hotels are an expression of exquisite modern minimalist design, a concept so far outside the box that I couldn’t believe it unless I stayed in one myself. And so, in search of a proof of concept, I went to stay at a capsule hotel while I visited Tokyo last year. Here’s what it was like and what you can expect.
Capsule Hotels: What to Expect
It’s Tight Quarters!
There’s considerable variation between capsule hotels, but their common quality is the tight quarters. The idea of a capsule hotel is that you pay to sleep in a space that’s just the size of a bed. You don’t get all this extra space in the room as yours, and you don’t pay for that extra space either. Some capsule hotels really squeeze you in, giving you only the size of a sleeping bag with not enough room to sit up straight. The one I stayed in (First Cabin Tsukiji) gives you the size of a twin bed and enough height to actually stand up. Check out the photos and specs before you book it, especially if you’re prone to claustrophobia!
Noisy if You’re a Light Sleeper
Since you’re essentially sharing a room with dozens of other people, there’s the chance that it could get noisy. It’s the same problem you run into in a hostel. But based on my experience, there was copious signage to remind people to be quiet, and people really adhered to it! I almost felt bad unzipping my suitcase for fear that it would send sounds reverberating through the floor. Regardless, I didn’t experience any sounds disrupting my sleep. But if you tend to be a light sleeper, I might suggest you steer clear of capsule hotels!
Cheap for its Location
Capsule hotels are great because they’re space-efficient. I estimate they fit between 3-10 capsules in the space that would normally be set aside for one hotel room. So you can generally get a better price for a great location than you would if you stayed in a full hotel. The capsule hotel I stayed in was just a couple of blocks away from the famous Tsukiji Market, and if I had stayed in a regular hotel with a location that good it would have cost me three times as much! (More things to do in Tokyo here!)
Can’t Store Luggage in Capsule
The one problem with a “hotel room” the size of a bed, is that there’s nowhere to store your stuff! I travel light anyways (see my guide here!) so I just put my suitcase at the foot of my bed. But you may need to store it in a locker in a separate room, depending on the hotel.
For anyone that’s stayed in a hostel, you’re familiar with the shared bathroom experience. It’s one quick way to keep costs down, by sharing one bathroom between a floor full of people. The bathrooms of capsule hotels are, on the whole, significantly cleaner than the average hostel. This is especially the case as capsule hotels are subject to the same super high standards of cleanliness that you’ll find all over Japan. For those weary of shared bathrooms, rest assured that you’ll probably receive a pair of shower sandals to use which protect you and all the other guests.
Better for a Short Stay
I only stayed in a capsule hotel for one night because of my tight itinerary, but some capsule hotels require that you check out each day. This policy would seem to discourage long-term visitors and their clutter, perhaps instead favoring businessmen with a schedule to keep. It’s certainly not the rule everywhere though, so check the policies before you book.
Like a Hostel for Adults
I’ve drawn a few parallels already between hostels and capsule hotels, because they both employ similar tactics of shared spaces in order to keep costs down. But I would recommend a capsule hotel to my dad, where I would not recommend he stay at a hostel. Most hostels cater to a younger and more thrifty crowd, a group less interested in the merits of design and cleanliness in their accommodations as long as it’s a place to sleep in between adventures. The older crowd will not generally tolerate such lax standards, preferring to spend a bit more to be comfortable during their stay. I think therefore that capsule hotels can be likened to a hostel for adults, though folks of any age are likely to enjoy the experience!
Not all Capsules are Created Equal
I think I was pretty lucky to have chosen a great capsule hotel during my first visit to Tokyo. It was relatively spacious, very clean and quiet, and walking distance to the fish market. I’ve heard of other capsule hotels not living up to that standard, as friends of mine have stayed in much smaller and less friendly capsule hotels. As with any accommodation choice, you have to do your research to see what the place looks like and what the reviews say. Not all capsule hotels are created equal, but staying in one can be a really unique experience and I would definitely recommend it!