View of some “rooms” in a capsule hotel
by JindaLee Lehmann
I have often suffered from claustrophobia in my life. There were even times that I couldn’t sleep on the top bunk if it was too close to the ceiling because I would panic at some point in the night, having nightmares that the ceiling would suffocate me. I couldn’t go down tube waterslides because I thought that someone would be at the bottom and somehow attach a cap on the end of the slide and I would drown. But through years of traveling, I realized if I remained under the power of this mental phobia I would miss out on some of life’s most rugged adventures. I merely had to suck it up and proceed.
I traveled to Egypt and walked into the middle of a pyramid’s small room where they pump air in so sightseers can breathe. I visited medieval towers with narrowing staircases in the middle of the stone heart of the structure. Through the years I have developed a way to manage, but sleeping in tight settings always seemed to be challenging.
I had heard of “capsules hotels” when I visited Japan several years ago, but I didn’t manage to stay in one until I moved there for a year. When I imagined the small container you sleep in, I immediately thought about the machines in the hospitals for MRIs and CAT scans. Mentally, I thought I would never be able to sleep in one, but then a moment arrived when I wanted to visit Osaka and stay in the city center for a cheap price. The Asahi Plaza hotel seemed like the key place. I waltzed in, put my shoes in one of the shoe boxes, retrieved my locker key, and shuffled down the carpeted steps to the basement floor (the women’s floor). The women don’t have access to the men’s floor and vice-versa, but I’m guessing both sexes are provided the same amenities.
There I put all my belongings into the locker and began to search through the halls for my capsule. The capsules are virtual holes in the wall. They are stacked on top of each other and packed for maximum use of the hallway walls. Some are length-wise against the wall and others go into the wall like a morgue drawer. If you put too much thought into it, the lettered and numbered capsules begin to look like prison rooms. I was capsule H23. I crawled in and was completely surprised by the amount of space inside.
I sat up with no trouble and even lying down my feet were still at least a foot from the end of the capsule. There was a small television on the wall, a radio, a light, some air conditioner vents, and a towel rack. I pulled down the thin blind and began to fiddle with all the knobs to see what they did. The mattress was soft and comfortable and the blankets cozy and warm. As the night fell I realized I would actually have to sleep. The capsule size was not the problem…the other customers were. The common spaces are equipped with a TV and some relaxing chairs. There were no restaurants or fresh food (on my floor at least), but there were a few vending machines and, well, central Osaka has more than enough 24-hour food options. Also on my floor, there was a sento/bath area, a sauna, a laundry room, and a whole toiletry area with sinks, brushes, toothbrushes, lotions, etc. Basically, everything to amuse weary business persons and the few drunken people — both parties of which were loud and didn’t care others were sleeping. This is annoying unless you luck out with a capsule further back in the halls. away from the common room racket.
When I got up in the morning, ready for a shower, the small sento bathhouse was closed. They close it for the entire afternoon. I felt ripped off… I wished I had known. The minute I got out of my bed a woman was pulling my sheets out and fixing it up. I felt rushed and sweaty, but I went about my day in Osaka regardless. The next night was the same. This time I was clean, but the noise of people walking back and forth, the television in the main room, and the doors opening and closing was irritating even with earplugs. Was it worth the 2700 yen a night? I left thinking I would probably not stay in this sort of hotel again.
JindaLee and friend show the closeness of the capsules
A couple months later a friend was visiting who had heard of the capsules and wanted to try it out. So, I got us two capsules for a night. This time was entirely different. The capsules were further away from the main area and actually very quiet. I realized that if you get a bed tucked away deeper into the maze of hallways and you take a bath in the warm sento and a rest in the wooden sauna before you go to bed at night (or before ten o’clock in the morning), you will sleep well and have big, wide open spaced dreams. I found myself booking a capsule stay for the last night that I spent in Japan. I had to sleep with my guitar in the space with me which, surprisingly, was not challenging in the least.
I spent my last hours in Japan in what seemed to express such a strong element of the culture. I was in this comfortable, innovative, efficient, small space with a strong sense of privacy tucked away in the center of a massive city. I felt that my last night was very well-chosen as a farewell sleep in Japan.