Tiny pods designed for the overworked are now gaining traction with tourists in Tokyo. Can our featured contributor Paula Froelich hack a night in one?
Thanks to a series of bizarre events during a trip to Tokyo last spring, I found myself inside an immaculately clean, morgue-like pod that was only 6’3” x 3’3″ x 4’1” … roughly the size of a back of a hearse.
The walls were paper-thin; I could hear several people snoring, one man talking in his sleep, and someone else doing god-knows-what. I couldn’t see them—thanks to a privacy curtain that came down when I enclosed myself inside the capsule—but without noise-blocking earphones, I could hear every single one of them.
I shoved the noise blockers on, and despite flashbacks to the Ovion larval harvesting scene from Battlestar Galactica: Saga of a Star World (before the insectoids are interrupted by Starbuck, the 1980 fictional precursor to Ryan Seacrest), I tried to sleep in one of the hundreds of cubicles inside one of the many capsule hotels popping up across Japan’s major cities (watch my video of the experience).
To be fair, these capsule ‘cells’ weren’t devised with tourists in mind. They came about several years ago to cater to the stressed-out, sleep-deprived office workers that fill the glass skyscrapers of Tokyo, Okinawa and Japan’s other large urban centers—where it’s the norm to work over 100 hours of (unpaid) overtime a month. Where the cost of living is so high, you have to live in a tiny box apartment or miles away from your job. Where the subways stop running at midnight—when you’re still bent over your desk. Where working yourself to death (via strokes, heart attacks or suicides) happens on such a regular basis—a Japanese woman recently died from working over 159 hours of overtime —that the government has declared it a national health crisis. And where this phenomenon is so common, there is even a name for it:Karoshi.
The Japanese commitment to work (or rather, the company’s … ) has been blamed for Japan’s staggeringly low marriage and birth rates.
“There aren’t a lot of great jobs available (in Japan),” my friend Tatsuro Nishimura, a Japanese photographer who now lives in New Jersey, told me. Employers have the upper hand too, he says. “When you sign the employment contract, many of them will have 20 hours of overtime in the contract … but the reality is much more.”
The Japanese commitment to work (or rather, the company’s … ) has been blamed for Japan’s staggeringly low marriage and birth rates—because how you are going to find a mate and have sex when you’re at the office all the time? Overwork is also blamed for the high suicide rates and deaths directly related to lack of sleep.
But when you’re exhausted and on a budget, sleep trumps claustrophobia.
While the government is aware of the problems—in April it (unhelpfully) capped the legal overtime limit to 100 hours, put suicide prevention bars along the subway stops, and took other measures that don’t actually address the root of the problem—the private sector’s answer, over the past decade, was to invest in capsule hotels. These hotel cubicles offer overworked, stressed-out Japanese businessmen and women who can’t make it home, coffin-like spaces to crash in at rock-bottom, hourly prices.
But these days, they are also attracting tourists, drawn to the incredibly low prices (an average night is between $30-$50 USD) and conveniences which include high-speed Wi-Fi, showers, and entertainment.
I visited the Anshin Oyado capsule hotel in Shinjuku—Tokyo’s version of Times Square—partly for convenience but also out of curiosity. On a major thoroughfare, the hotel has strict rules—no tattoos, no smoking (inside), no ‘loud noises’ on the sleeping floors (besides snoring), and no inappropriate behavior—despite the ‘entertainment’ on offer.
According to the hotel’s website, they offer: “a dance show by men, women and transwomen dancers at a theater restaurant Roppingi Kingyo … It will offer a superior performance consists of beautiful light and darkness! The special dancers and the stage move around (of course, dancers, and even the stage will be moving!) will give you great experience in Tokyo. You will see great performance themed everything called Neo Kabuki. After that, you can enjoy conversation with many fascinate actors.”
I’d love to tell you about my night hanging out with ’transwomen’ dancers, karaoke and neo-Kabuki floorshows, but I checked out after about an hour.
In the light of some of Tokyo’s dubious entertainment offerings, many capsule hotels have had to take action. To combat sexual harassment, unwanted cubicle guests, prostitution, and other issues that could conceivably come up in a room jam-packed with hidey holes, capsule hotels are almost all single sex—or have separate floors for men and women.
But when you’re exhausted and on a budget, sleep trumps claustrophobia. At least, initially. I’d love to tell you about my night hanging out with ’transwomen’ dancers, karaoke and neo-Kabuki floorshows, but I checked out after about an hour. It seems I can ski in Afghanistan, take a bus tour of Iraq, and ride camels through the Sahel, but apparently my psyche draws the line at feeling like I’m being buried alive.
According to the Japan Tourism Bureau, over 2.7 million international tourists visited the country in 2016—that’s up 16.8 per cent from the previous year. But even with ample hotel rooms for most of the year, Japan is still a pricey country, so capsule hotels are trying to become a viable option. And if you don’t mind cramped spaces, they are certainly a cheap, clean, option in one of the world’s most expensive cities.
Alas, I just couldn’t hack it. But if you don’t mind the whole industrialization of humanity/harvesting/Matrix-feel, then you should absolutely go for it. I’m just not going to go with you.