Jetsons in Japan
How a clausterphobic guy like me can push past his fears and learn to love sleeping in futuristic capsule hotels!
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know I’ve heard it before. The doctor says take two and call me in the morning. Well I figured I’d take three instead. One was great, so why hold myself back with only two. What’s the worst thing that could happen? I’m sure people have done that before. I wouldn’t be the first. Three nights it’d be.
The name of the capsule hotel chain is “Nine hours” but I wasn’t holding my breath for a good solid nine. That doesn’t happen anymore, not even at home. Much to my surprise and delight, it was a good solid 8 hours for two of the three nights. They were perhaps the best deepest sleeps I had on the entire trip overseas. No worries if you do happen to sleep-in past your wildest expectations. The max is actually 20 hours because the earliest you can check in is at 2:00 pm, and the latest you can check out is at 10:00 am the next day.
The unexpected bonus about some of these hotels is that they’re also sleep labs. Through an ingenious sleep monitoring system embedded within your sleep pod, they know how you did overnight and soon you will too. Number of rollovers? Check. Respiration rate? Got it. Irregular breathing? Noted. Bathroom breaks? Uh huh.
An email report is sent to you afterwards so you can see how you did. You can opt out of this part, but I was all in. They said it may take a few days to receive the analysis, but I knew already that I slept shoddily on Wednesday night, but for the next two nights, I slept like a kitty in her favorite box for an astounding 8 hours, not counting the pee pit stops in the middle of the night. To heck with what the report says, it was awesome! I don’t sleep that well at home!
Depending on which level your pod is on, getting up to go pee may need to be a mindful task though. Careful if you’re tired or hungover. First you need to keep quiet. Don’t make any “thunk thunk” sounds or you might just wake up your neighbors in all of the surrounding pods (there were 24 of us in my pod cluster one night) and totally destroy any hopes of them getting an A+ on their sleep reports. If you're modest, you can put on the sleep robe they give you before pulling out of your pod, or you can just scurry in your skivvies over to the toilet without it. But first you gotta get out of your pod.
Again being quiet as a mouse, you roll up your privacy shade at the foot of your bed. If your pod is on the lower level then you just shimmy yourself out, throw on the provided slippers and off you go. But since I was on the upper level for two nights, I had to first navigate the ship's ladder. Balance, my friend. I’m sure one of the most egregious Japanese faux pas’ is to scream in agony in the middle of the night as you lie crumpled up in pain in a heap at the foot of your ladder. And, horrors, you wouldn’t have had time or the wherewithal to avoid another faux pas. You wouldn’t be wearing your slippers when all your friendly newfound neighbors poked their heads out and glared at you for being such a nincompoop. No, your slippers would be lying right by your head as you collected your groggy and hurt self and muttered “sumimasen” at least 24 times for waking them all up.
Barring all that, after safely descending the ladder, you’d be successfully off down the passage way towards the privy. A quietly closing soundproof door, which I’ll call the airlock, is designed to keep decibel levels in the pod clusters in the low 40s, like a quiet library. All noisy activities are to happen outside the airlock, including what happens in toilet closets. Yes, closets. Each individual toilet is in its own separate tiny room, complete with a washlet (of course) and an itty bitty sink. I can only imagine that the women’s version has a teeny tiny powder room too. But if you’re looking to do something other than use the can, say maybe take something out of your luggage or finding something in the rest of your stuff, I wish you good luck. It’s all the way down in the basement.
There are a number of Nine Hours capsule hotels scattered throughout Tokyo, as well as few other spots in the country. There are other capsule hotel chains too, but I originally picked Nine Hours because they were highly rated. I stayed in my first one in 2019 in a cute little artistic hideaway on the outside edge of the city. Tiny narrow streets, cute little shops, cozy places to eat, artists at work selling their wares, and just a great overall atmosphere. All of this coupled with a really strange, cool, unique, futuristic way to spend a night? Sign me up. After one night I was hooked; I even had a great view of a Buddhist temple straight out the end of my pod, all lit up at night. Sold! Bummer that it was my last night in Japan! When could I come back and sample more capsule hotels?! Well, it’d be a while…COVID hit a few months later.
One goal for the 2022 trip was to spend the last three nights in Nine Hours capsule hotels, move to a different one each night, get to know three different neighborhoods and to be able to compare the three. In planning for the trip, I was even dabbling with the idea of spending the entire vacation in capsule hotels, but then I paused and reconsidered when my wife scoffed, “why would you do that?!?!” Hmmmm….yeah, maybe not the best plan. That’d mean no onsen hot springs, no ryokens with their tatami mats and rice paper walls and doors, no small towns, etc. OK, scrap that idea. But for sure the last 3 nights in Tokyo, I’m going big! Make that small…
The newer capsule hotels are much more dialed-in than the original ones. Refinements include putting everything besides the sleep pods and auxiliary toilet closets on a dedicated floor. This “staging” floor, accessed by more airlocks and an elevator, is home to lockers, showers, sinks, and more toilets, all well supplied with complimentary things like shampoo, conditioner, soap, kleenex (rare in Japan), paper towels, blow dryers, toothbrushes and toothpaste if you forgot yours, a garbage can (also an endangered species), etc.
Your “room” key has your pod number which also corresponds with your locker number. To get into your locker, you scan the QR code and the door pops open. It’s in your locker that you’ll throw your luggage, food, drinks, and any other personal items besides what you need to strictly sleep with. There are a few shelves, hangers, and a shoe tray. But you better have packed light! In true Japanese style, and in full alignment with the minimalist ultralight travel community, capsule hotel designers made things small, narrow, and compact. Even the smallest roll-aboard carry-on won’t fit in the lockers. But a small 20 liter backpack fits perfectly :) Anything larger will need to be stored near the front desk.
Inside your locker, you’ll store your stuff next to the mesh goodie bag that they give you when you check in, including a sleep robe, bath towel, hand towel, bath mat, and the ubiquitous slippers. By design, you do all your pre-bedroom routine stuff on this dedicated floor til you're ready to nod off. Then you don your sleep robe, step into your slippers, grab your book, and head off to the elevator and airlocks. Take your phone, but be sure it’s in silent mode!
By the way, as with the onsens (natural hot springs), everything here is segregated. Separate floors and sometimes even elevators for the guys and gals. No, couples can’t shack up together. That’d be a tight fit anyway. You’ll only see each other in the lobby.
But anyway, up to your pod. A super silent elevator gently creeps up to the floor where your sleep cluster is. Nope, the elevator doesn’t ding, speak or squeak in any way. Shhhhhhhhh! Just read the numbers and get off at your stop. With a quiet swish-swish, you’ll find yourself at another airlock ready to tiptoe over to your pod. As you walk through the banks, be mindful of pods with closed shades. Someone’s sleeping. Shhhhhhhh!
Inside your pod, you’ll find just what you need to make it through the night, but not much else. There’s a dimmable light, but of course the knob doesn’t click as you move it from the “off” position. Shhhhhhhhh! There’s also a power receptacle, USB port, futon mat, comfy comforter, a pillow, and a couple of little molded shelves. Oh yeah, and WIFI. The sneaky sleep monitor is hiding away somewhere too.
Now, breaking from my usual practice, I don’t book these “rooms” last minute. Capsule hotels are usually the only thing over here that I book more than a day ahead of time. With three or four days advanced notice, you can book a pod for anywhere between $30 and $50 per night, depending on location and night of the week. But if you postpone and wait until the day of, or just a few hours before you need it (for all the late night partiers or commitment-phobes out there), the price can climb to north of $150 per night. That’s where they make their money.
For some of you, all this sounds like a bunch of hassle. But I love ‘em! The price is right. I sleep solidly. I don’t need or miss a TV. The common room, very monk-like in its sparse furnishings, is all I need and they can be quite nice. I love the science (can’t wait to read my sleep reports). I love the streamlined sleek simplicity. And it feels like this is somehow a peek into the future. The Jetsons in Japan.
Well, time to head for my flight soon back to the states soon. Now, if there were only sleep pods on airplanes, I’d be stoked. Oh, wait. They have those now in some first class cabins. But I think they’d be more than $30 per night…