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Capsule Hotels

August 10th, 2019 Culture & History

Credit: James Kelley Shutterstock

Capsule Hotel Origin

Japanese capsule hotels are viewed abroad as a representation of Japan’s economization of space and crazy commuter lifestyle, and came about in the 1970’s.

By the late 1960’s, 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). The salaryman would typically graduate from university and stay with the same company for his whole career, working very long hours and participating in afterwork 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). On nights when salarymen had been drinking and had missed the last train home (trains do not run 24/7, even in Tokyo), they needed a cheap, clean and conveniently located place to stay the night. The capsule hotel was born out of the salaryman’s need for convenient accommodation. 


Credit: Robert Half


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 traveling 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 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 main 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 long taxi rides. Capsule hotels also became a common accommodation option for salarymen on business trips with a limited per diem. In addition, because capsule hotels targeted salarymen as their customer base they traditionally did not allow women. 


Capsule Hotels Today

There are over 300 capsule hotels 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 before entering areas reserved for guests. Guests keep their luggage in a locker room, and are often given a robe or pajamas 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. Usually 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 some privacy, but the walls are usually pretty thin, which can be inconvenient when 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, with some drawn by the budget-friendly prices and others intrigued by the novelty factor. Capsule hotels have been built elsewhere in Asia and in Europe, indicating the appeal of the concept’s efficient use of space. In Japan, the number of coed and women-only capsule hotels has also increased. The term “rekijo koka” refers to the increased demand from young female solo travellers with an 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 balk 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 that Japanese people are accustomed to politely sharing spaces. Female-only capsule hotels are an excellent option for women travelling alone who want to stay in convenient locations for less. Space is a limiting factor throughout Japan and the cultural tendency towards less is more (LINK TO MINIMALISM) makes the capsule hotel 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 minimizing 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 Hotel 

Unlike the original capsule hotels, modern capsule hotels, known as shinkakei capsule hotels (進化系カプセルホテル evolved capsule hotels) 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, larger 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 are 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.    


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