Best Japanese Capsule Hotels
Capsule hotels, a japanese invention copied around the world but not quite the same when experienced in Japan.
If you've only just heard of capsule hotels, they are pretty much what the name suggests. Taking a leaf from backpacker hotels with bunkbeds in a shared space, a lot of these capsule hotels feature sleeping pods and bedding with privacy screens. Some sleeping pods look like what you might find in an astronaut's sleeping quarters on a spaceship.
For the uninitiated, it is normal to have some form of anxiety when you encounter sleeping pods for the first time. Is it claustrophobic? Would you feel like you're in a coffin? How does it work?
Chances are, if you have been to Japan and stayed in one, or several, you won't need me to tell you it's one of the best backpacker experiences.
Here's a side story to digress. Back in 1997 as a wide-eyed young Singaporean lad, I embarked on my first solo backpacker experience, to Melbourne, Australia. Booked a ticket, made a phone reservation at a backpacker inn called Carlton Hotel, packed my bags and went. Little did I know what I was in for. Arriving at the footsteps of Carlton Hotel on Bourke Street, I was expecting to enter a hotel lobby front. I could not be more wrong. The small flight of stairs led into a pub instead. Immediately, The place reeked of beer and vomit. At 8am in the bleak of winter, there were already drunk people sprawled on the tables of the pub. Turns out, in Australia, the idea of a hotel is pretty much a pub, short for public houses.
Historically, due to liquor licensing laws requiring pubs to also provide accomodation, pubs evolved to become hotels, the equivalent of irish/british taverns. Drinking downstairs, accomodation upstairs. There are still a lot of these hotels around in Australia which are standalone buildings with backpacker accomodation upstairs. So, the next time a local aussie says to go to a hotel for dinner and drinks, you know it's a pub night.
What made matters worse, the toilets and bathing areas were all shared. Bathing doors were all broken, floors wet with a combination of colors no dog would even walk upon. Fortunately, today, the colors awash over the much upgraded Carlton Hotel (now called The Carlton) in Melbourne city is a far cry from yesteryears sans the accomodation. But, that mid-winter morning, I bolted out the door 15 minutes after checking in,
Fortunately I had bumped into an acquaintance at the airport in Singapore who happened to be on the same flight to Melbourne, travelling solo as well, but in much more style and budget. He was kind enough, after learning about the horrors of my risky situation, to offer me to crash over at his hotel room for the entirety of my trip. Incidentally, his hotel was the Carlton Crest Hotel near St Kilda.
I thought I would have sworn off backpacking travel forever. But Japan changed my life some 20 years later.
Here's a review of 3 of my favourite capsule hotels across 3 cities, Kyoto, Osaka and Fukuoka. You can find some these ones pretty much in most Japanese cities since they are part of a chain.
Well Cabin Nakasu - Fukuoka
I chose to arrive into Fukuoka flying in from Hong Kong. Just 3.5 hours flight on a budget carrier. The plan was to spend two nights in Fukuoka, meet up with my partner who was there on work assignment, and begin my solo travel from Fukuoka.
I stayed at the Well Cabin Nakasu just above the Nakasukawabata Station. Very convenient location near the original Hakata Ichiran Ramen Main Store as well as the Kawabata Shopping Arcade with Canal City and many other places of interest within a few minutes reach.
Capsule hotels have had a long history in Japan. Because of long working hours in Japan, many 'salary men' find it more convenient to get more rest staying the night at a capsule hotel rather than make the journey home. As a result a lot of these establishments are also referred to as business hotels. It is also very affordable, starting at around 2000 yen a night. Some establishments also come with an onsen for guests to use while staying overnight.
Well Cabin is one of the cleanest business hotels around, in my experience at least. Upon arrival, you are requested to remove your shoes and place them in an individual shoe locker right next to reception. You are provided with a key to lock your shoes. I had no idea there were slippers I could use, so I just walked around in my socks.
Comparing it to the one I stayed in Shinjuku, which was dusty, smokey, bordering on the industrial warehouse spectrum. Even though the Shinjuku one had an onsen, everything else was a pale comparison to one such as Well Cabin. An independent establishment, this capsule hotel was reasonably comfortable, with warm and dark wooden interiors, with heavy curtains to block out the harsh sunlight during the day, with an appropriate amount of interior amber low light to create a welcoming overnight abode for the short term traveller. Toilets are shared as most are but each bathing cubicle features a seperate dry and wet area with an additional sliding door to prevent any over-splash. Vanity areas come with good sized mirrors with a pleathora of personal use items such as toothbrush, tooth paste, comb, cotton ear buds, hair tonic, gel, face wash, face cream, shavers, shaving gel and after shave for men. Every sleeping pod comes with full linen bedding that is as comfortable as a decent 3 or 4 star hotel. Bath and face towels, pyjamas and comfortable slippers are also provided without any additional charge. Lockers for personal belongings are in a seperate room that looks very much like a gym locker room situation. The entire facility is carpeted through out with the exception of the shower and vanity area.
This capsule hotel is a fully male-only accomodation, unlike a few others who have seperate floors for men and women. But more on that later.
Sleeping pods are very, very comfortable. The only issue was an adequate amount of ventilation. Each pod comes with built in heavy curtains which you can close for privacy. But therein likes the problem. Most pods do come with a vent but mine for some reason did not work. Fortunately it was still rather cold in Fukuoka in mid-April so it wasn't as stuffy and warm inside. I also left my curtain a little ajar at the foot of my bed (cos no one wants to see my ugly sleep-face) that still gave me enough privacy. The sleeping pod area is very dimly lit and japanese people are also very quiet and considerate, so I was sleeping like a log on my first night.
You can of course hear snores from neighbouring sleeping pods. But earbuds are provided so you can get a good night's sleep. Each pod features it's own reading light as well as a built in alarm that you can set. Of course, WiFi is free and provided with each sleeping pod featuring a TV with remote. TV audio is only accessible via earphones which are provided as well.
I soon began to realise that this sort of 'luxury' is the standard in all capsule hotels. All essentials are provided. Some even call themselves a resort. And fairly so. Spending two days in Fukuoka at Well Cabin was such a great start to my 2 week stay in Japan.
Nine Hours - Kyoto & Shin-Osaka
Walking up to Nine Hours in Kyoto, my heart started to swell in excitement. The front floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors presented a very inviting elegant glow amid the hushed and sleepy neighbourhood when I arrived late into the evening. From afar, you might mistaken it for the Apple Store. Which is what was intriguing about this place. It's definitely a hat tip to the Apple retail aesthetic with a Japanese minimalistic Muji-esque vibe.
Upon entering, I was told to remove my shoes, as is customary at most establishments, and leave them inside the shoe locker by the reception.
The hotel sits across several floors. As far as I remember, about 6 floors. With seperate floors for men and women. The reception area is also the lounge area with standing tables to one side and proper sitting desks for those who want to work on their laptop. With another row of lounge chairs for guests. All parallel to each other in a neat OCD manner. It is generally very quiet and you're allowed to eat and drink here.
It will feel like you have signed up for one of those resident sci-fi experiments where they put you in uniforms and study your behaviour as you roam about in the facility.
I was initially worried that the fluorescent quality of the place would be an eyesore but it turned out to be rather pleasant. There is a no-frills philosophy about Nine Hours. Yet all the amenities provided were still as essential and generous as capsule hotels come. The usual WiFi, bedding, sleeping pods with privacy screens and reading lights. Towels, pyjamas and shower essentials are all provided. However, not everything comes free, such as earbuds and disposable shavers, which can be purchased for as little as 100 yen. Fortunately, I helped myself to some disposable shaver packs from the last capsule hotel, just in case the next one didn't provide any. (teehee)
I also stayed at the one in Shin-Osaka and the standard and quality is very similar. Each locker is accessible via what looks like a disposable QR code key card. Every locker is super clean with two jacket strength hangers. Each locker also features an upper shelf to hang your clothes and place personal belongings and a lower shelf to store your luggage or backpack. I love the lockers at the Kyoto store because the width of each locker is enough for a carry on cabin sized luggage. The Shin-Osaka hotel only features half the size (the top half only) of the Kyoto lockers, sitting above an open floor area to store your luggage. Numbered cable locks are provided to secure your luggage. But you will still need your own padlock to secure your luggage or bag if it doesn't fit in the upper locker. Honestly, it was not the most elegant solution. But that's the only issue with the Shin-Osaka branch. Everything else is pretty much the same. Both locations are also well placed within walking distance to the nearest Family Mart and Lawsons. The Shin-Osaka branch is right next to Lawsons! Who doesn't love some late night konbini bed time snack! The other wonderful thing about Nine Hours Shin Osaka is the amount of natural light you get at the shower area. It overlooks the train station with many breakout lounge areas to chill out at.
Both Nine Hours also feature seperate access levels for men and women.
If you're wondering, the name Nine Nours doesn't mean you are only allowed Nine Hours within the facility. The name is more about the philosophy of Nine Hours worth of rest as related on their website. Check-in times vary but start around 4 or 5pm and check out is 10am or 11am depending on each hotel.
First Cabin - Kyoto
On my second night in Kyoto, I decided to stay at a different capsule hotel because it was nearer to where I was heading to the next morning. And also, this was something quite different from most capsule hotels.
As the name suggests, the idea is that of a flight cabin. Imagine a first class cabin on a plane. Full sized bed with personal compartments for your belongings, reading light and table. Well, this is pretty much the picture for First Cabin. Instead of sleeping pods that stack on top of each other, First Cabin offers a sleep cabins as individual 'rooms' placed right next to each other. Each cabin is slightly wider than the size of a single bed with a high ceiling and blinds that you can close for privacy. Each comes with its own narrow bedside locker that has enough depth to fit quite a bit of personal items. Cabins are also upgradeable for those requiring more space or for couples who wish to sleep in the same cabin with a double bed.
I chose to stay over at First Cabin in Arashiyama, next to the famous Bamboo Forest. In similar no-frills philosophy to Nine Hours, First Cabin is a fresh take on the budget capsule hotel, that is also priced competitively. Most prices I've seen are just ¥500 - ¥1000 more than the usual capsule hotel. All the amenities provided are also very similar. Pyjamas, shower essentials, toothbrush, toothpaste, shavers, share bathrooms, vanity area are all provided. First Cabin was honestly a class above, in my opinion. My only unpleasant experience was a neighbouring cabin guest who was coughing his lungs out the entire night. The kind of phlegmy chesty throaty cough that makes you feel like you might be coming down with something by just in the audible vicinity of the source. It was just an isoltaed incident but I guess that comes with the territory of being in shared spaces such as these.
Mandatory Check Out Daily
As far as my experience goes, all guests at capsule hotels are required to check out every day by the stipulated check out time. Even if they are staying and booked for consecutive days. This practice has caught many unsuspecting tourists off guard. In fact at Nine Hours Shin-Osaka, an argument almost broke out due to the shock brought on by this unusual rule. Coupled with the staff's inability to explain adequately in English, the conversation went round and round much to the chagrin of the guest checking in. Fortunately by about 10 minutes, the guest finally understood the logic and the situation diffused itself.
The reason why capsule hotels have this weird rule is to facilitate the turning over of all bedding and clean the entire facility. Kinda like why some public sports facilities need to shut once a week so as to properly clean, capsule hotels are a tight concentration of beds, cubicles and pleathora of waste generated by a dense accommodation foot traffic. So as to be able to change all the sheets and clean the place to prepare for the next day, guests need to fully vacate the place. Of course, you don't have to take your luggage with you, as most establishments let you leave them inside your locker. Even if they require you to vacate your locker for cleaning, there is an area you can leave your luggage, usually at the reception backroom. Incidentally this is also usually the area where you can leave your oversized luggage if you happen to travel with one.
So, if you are expecting to take afternoon naps in capsule hotels, you might be out of luck. Although, I have heard of some capsule hotels who offer day time nap pods. Not sure how they'd juggle the cleaning and turn over for that one. But generally, between the hours of 10am to 5pm, you can't be hanging out inside your capsule hotel. Then again, if you're on holiday, wouldn't you be out and about anyway?
Hope this has been helpful to give you an idea of what to expect at capsule hotels in Japan. If you have not experienced capsule living, I totally recommend it.