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Capsule Hotel Origin
Japanese capsule hotels are viewed abroad as a representation of Japan’s economisation of space and crazy commuter lifestyle and came about in the 1970s.
By the late 1960s, Japan had performed an “economic miracle.” Most of Japan’s major cities had been burned to the ground during the Second World War. The nation had suffered over three million military and civilian deaths. In less than twenty years, Japan emerged as the world’s second-largest economy.
Along with increased prosperity and consumerism came the development of the “salaryman” (サラリーマン). After graduating from higher education, salarymen would often stay with the same company for his whole career. In a typical salaryman's career, he would have to work long hours and participating in after-work leisure activities like drinking at hostess bars and karaoke.
On their commute to work in cities like Tokyo and Osaka, salarymen would be packed into trains cars by oshiya (押し屋 train pushers). Trains in Japan do not run 24/7. Hence, when salarymen miss the last train due to drinking, they require cheap, clean and convenient accommodation for the night. Thus, the capsule hotel was born out of the salaryman’s need for comfortable accommodation.
Kisho Kurokawa: Father of the Capsule Hotel
Architect Kisho Kurokawa built the Nakagin Capsule Tower in Tokyo in 1972, the first instance of modern Japanese capsule architecture design. The tower was intended to cater to travelling business workers in Tokyo during the week. 140 capsules are stacked 14-stories high and rotated at different angles around a central concrete core. Each capsule is 4 x 2.5m, providing sufficient living space for one person, and replaceable.
The tower is representative of the Metabolism architecture movement that arose in the 1960s and focused on adaptable design. It is not, however, representative of the classic capsule hotel. The Nakagin Capsule Tower appeals more to architecture buffs than weary salarymen.
Credit: How Stuff Works
The first case of a classic capsule hotel, also designed by Kurokawa, opened in 1979 Osaka’s Umeda district, the city’s central commuter hub. The hotel’s opening coincided with an increase in the cost of taxi fares, making the cost of a late-night, long-distance taxi ride less appealing an option. The price of a capsule for the night undercut business hotels and extended taxi rides.
Capsule hotels also became a standard accommodation option for salarymen on business trips with a limited per diem. Besides, because capsule hotels targeted salarymen as their customer base, they traditionally did not allow women.
Capsule Hotels Today
Over 300 capsule hotels are operating in Japan, with the average cost of a capsule running anywhere between 3,500 to 8,000 yen. Upon checking in, most capsule hotels give guests a wristband with a key and number on it. Guests generally put their shoes in a locker and luggage in a locker room before entering areas reserved for guests.
Often, they are given a robe or pyjamas to wear around the hotel and sleep in. Communal bathrooms are divided by gender (if the hotel is coed) and kept very clean. Many hotels also have lounges and Japanese style baths to provide guests with room to decompress before retreating to their capsules for the night. Standard capsules are as wide and as long as the bed, and tall people might find it challenging to sit up in their capsules. Often, capsules contain shelves and outlets for electronic devices, and perhaps a small TV. Each capsule has a light and some blinds to provide guests with privacy. However, the walls are usually thin, which would be inconvenient if your capsule is stacked close to a loud snorer.
Credit: Japan Guide
Capsule Hotel Customers
Capsule hotels have become an increasingly appealing option for tourists as well; some drawn by the budget-friendly prices, others intrigued by the novelty factor. The concept of efficient use of space has been gaining popularity in Asia and Europe. Hence, many capsule hotels are constructed in said continents.
The term “rekijo koka” (歴女コカ) refers to the increased demand from young female solo travellers with interest in Japanese history. Increased international and female-guest interest has led to the development of more upscale capsule hotels, elevating the accommodation from the salaryman’s last resort to a popular economical and authentically Japanese option.
While some may baulk at the lack of space and proximity to other guests in a capsule, it’s important to note that capsule hotels are typically immaculately kept and Japanese people are accustomed to politely sharing spaces. Space is a limiting factor throughout Japan, and the cultural tendency of minimalism makes capsule hotels a natural progression of a modern problem and a solution rooted in traditional Japanese principles.
Capsule Hotel vs Hostel
Given that capsule hotels are such a uniquely Japanese experience, likening them to hostels is a common form of explanation. Rooms in hostels, however, typically consist of dorm-like rooms with bunk beds accommodating several people. While capsule hotels also have shared bathrooms and other facilities, guests enjoy the privacy of an individual sleeping area with daily housekeeping.
Hostels also tend to focus on minimising overhead costs to accommodate those on limited budgets. The price range of capsule hotels varies significantly depending on the size and design of the pods. Most capsule hotels in Japan have baths, lounges and other shared spaces to enhance visitors’ experiences.
Credit: Japan Guide
Evolved Capsule Hostel
Unlike the original capsule hotels, modern capsule hotels, known as shinkakei capsule hotels (進化系カプセルホテル) curate more refined and targeted experiences. The rise in tourists in the past decades driving the cost of business hotels up, coupled with the increase in female customers, facilitated the development of the updated capsule hotel. While the traditional capsule hotel was, and continues to be, reserved solely for male guests, Nadeshiko Hotel Shibuya and Akihabara Bay Hotel are just two examples of the new female-only capsule hotels in Tokyo.
The Millennials, a capsule hotel chain that started in Kyoto, targets, as its name suggests, millennial customers. The capsules, bigger than the traditional ones, fit a large, remote-operated bed. The modern, evolved capsule hotel incorporates unique designs and features, offering customers an upscale experience at an affordable price.
Credit: The Millenials Kyoto
Where does SEN fit?
There are already plenty of modern capsule hotels in Tokyo; Sen is unique in its offering of modern amenities with traditional, Zen-inspired design. Most capsules are made of plastic but SEN’s pods gare made of wood. Guests at SEN are staying in a bustling part of Tokyo but sleeping in individual Japanese wood-scented cabins. SEN accommodates all genders and offers guests further insights into Japanese culture through live performances and other events.