A strange alternative
In 1979, a weary-eyed man checks in at a hotel reception. Within a minute, he trundles off to find his room number; which, down a series of gloomily lit corridors, is a far cry from the hotels he is used to. That is because instead of a room, he is greeted by a 1 by 1 meter hole in the wall, beyond which is a windowless void with a bed and little else. He eagerly pulls himself across the threshold and manages to catch the light switch as he collapses into the compartment. This is the beginning of the capsule hotel Phenomenon.
Capsule hotels are a form of hotel accommodation where small, communal compartments suitable for a single person; replaces larger, more private rooms. Starting from that first hotel in Osaka in 1979, capsule hotels proliferated across Japan, most of the continent of Asia, and eventually beyond — even here in the UK. Despite their seemingly enclosing and primitive form of accommodation, they are a practical solution to a uniquely Japanese problem.
To understand the cause leading to the appearance of capsule hotels, we have to understand Japanese culture. Specifically, the Japanese work culture. This in truth could be an entire subject matter in itself, one which stems from Japans rigid social Hierarchy and collective emphasis.
The problem that has arisen originates from two main contributing factors; consequently, influencing the need for capsule hotels:
- Long working hours
- After work drinking
On average, Japanese people will work at least 9 hours a day but 12-hour days are considered common. This equates to 60 hour working weeks — many will however put in overtime beyond that.
Now, working long hours is not really a uniquely Japanese problem; although, the extent to which they do as well as the reasons for doing so could be considered such. There seems to be a general rule that:
The longer you stay at work, the more committed you appear.
This thought process often means staying late, and nobody wants to leave the office first out of fear of looking undedicated to both the company and other colleagues. There is a Japanese phrase osaki ni shitsureshimasu which basically means “sorry for leaving before you”.
You can begin to see how this works.
After work however, it is also customary to go out drinking and socialising with colleagues many nights of the week, known as nomikai. More often than not this is a compulsory after work activity; declining which will result negatively in your status within a company and your boss.
Both of these scenarios result in incredibly late-night finishes that may even run into the early hours of the morning. Here we finally get to the problem.
For many Japanese workers (historically Japanese Salarymen) it will be either too late to return home, they missed the last train or will be too drunk from nomikai to make it home safely.
At this point there is the argument that hotels already exist as well as taxis to get home. These in reality are not a feasible option, both of which are expensive, especially to those who would need to rely on them maybe three or four times a week. A cheaper, more convenient solution was needed.
On paper, a windowless capsule of (in metres) 1.2W x 1.0H x 2.0L/D seems like a terrible idea yet turned out to be exactly what was needed.
Born from the vision of the Japanese architect Kurokawa Kisho, the capsule hotel was the product of necessity rather than extravagance and as such was stripped of all but the essentials for an overnight stay.
The design by Kurokawa was in fact a variation of a project that he had completed previously; the famous Nakagin tower in Shimbashi Tokyo, intended for permanent residence and convenient office space.
The result of this design meant that a vast number of capsules could be squeezed into a small space and could accommodate many workers, with prices also being slashed compared to other forms of accommodation. Once placed around central areas and business hubs in the cities, Japanese salarymen could continue their work obligations without the worry of getting home.
Prices for a capsule can be a low as 2,000 yen a night (currently about £13) which is certainly a far cry from the average price of a standard Tokyo hotel of 10,000 yen (currently around £65). It was actually so affordable that many people in low incomes rent them on a month-by-month basis as permanent residency.
Despite the focus on the basic functionality of sleeping; almost all capsules will include a TV, charging outlets and an alarm; and many also including air conditioning and heating. Even outside the capsule however, there are community facilities that are often a good standard and well-maintained. Bathroom facilities, lockers, lounges, restaurants and laundrettes for example, extend the convenience and accessibility for Japanese workers.
Capsule hotels proved to be incredibly successful solution, and their popularity sparked an explosive new tangent in the hotel industry. Their proliferation across Japan had begun, but along with it was the identification of new target markets.
One new focus was towards the increasing appeal to travellers — both domestic and international — for similar reasons; those who wanted basic respite after late nights and drunken adventures, and those who just wanted a quick stop-off without blowing the budget.
As we get further towards the present day they are promoted almost as an experience themselves.
Different kinds of capsule hotels begun to spring up to appeal to this new wave of interest; and so, themed capsules and even luxury capsules have evolved out of the — at one time — basic necessity. The original concept has been well retained even with these new variations, with stays still typically cheaper than other accommodation.
The effect of capsule hotels is still being felt and their concept still being built upon; pods are now becoming a new take on convenience with the further exploration of personal space. Furthermore, many other countries have begun to recognise their potential and implement their own variations of the ‘caspule’ or ‘pod’.
This is where things get interesting for us living outside of Japan.
Experiencing the capsule concept
Almost 30 years after the initial appearance of the capsule hotel in Osaka, the concept has started to make its way onto the UK shores.
Their introduction has not been as swift as is the case in many other countries, yet as time moves on the roll-out seems to be quickening; to the point that we now have some viable options that take direct inspiration from Japanese predecessors.
Here are a few of the hotels, spaces, and quirky variants that offer a glimpse into that capsule life.
Yotel was the first company to create a capsule-esque style hotel in the UK. Under the brand of YotelAir they opened in the UK’s two biggest airports, first in Gatwick in 2007 then Heathrow in the following months.
One thing to notice from the word go with YotelAir and a handful of others on this list is that it is a private cabin with its own door. This means you have your own space, but it is extremely compact and comes with a small bathroom space.
The standard cabin bears the most resemblance to a capsule with a single bunk bed you must pull yourself into. There is standing space but barely enough to move around in; consequently, it certainly feels like the bare essentials we’re after and that it’s the beauty of it all. It’s a cosy space that caters to a brief stay, and nothing else.
Bloc is a hotel chain consisting of just two sites and has been noted to have studied Japanese capsule hotels prior to the company’s conception. Currently situated in Gatwick airport and Birmingham, they offer a variety of room types from tight, space-saving cabins to larger more traditional hotel rooms.
Here the ‘sleep’ room provides the most basic necessities, consisting of; a double bed that is squeezed into the full width of the room; a TV on the wall; and a personal wet room instead of a communal space and little else. Interestingly the concept of being windowless is retained in this room, but the ‘Vista’ option is the same room with a window — just more expensive.
The difference with bloc is that it is a well-finished compact space, possibly aiming for a similar experience to a luxury capsule feel. Modern finishes, mood lighting and tablet control systems help to come to this conclusion.
This is an interesting concept.
Pop and rest itself is not a hotel but instead is the provider of shed-sized pods that are constructed in unused office spaces and other vacant areas. Their primary use is for very short-term naps and breaks during the day but can also be used for an overnight stay.
The pod is suitable for one person and so consists of a just a single bed, a bedside table, and a curtain for privacy. Arguably this is even less than you would get in a standard Capsule in Japan. In a similar fashion however, you would use the buildings existing facilities such as the toilet which is essentially a communal space.
You may be saying at this point, these are all well and good but they’re not truly a capsule experience.
Well in that case, head to St Christopher’s inn Village at London Bridge, as its currently the only place in the UK that offers that authentic experience of a true Japanese capsule.
St Christopher’s inn has decked out one its dormitories with 26 Japanese style capsules that resemble a space station. Regarded as a ‘party hostel’ it certainly aims to appeal to a younger audience with the quirky theme, fluorescent lighting and contemporary artwork inside each capsule. Along with charging points, plug sockets and blackout curtains for privacy, it ticks all the right boxes for a short inexpensive stay. The only thing missing is a TV (but who intends to use that much anyway).
Here is proof that even established hotel companies are taking note of the capsule phenomenon. Premier inn — the UK’s biggest hotel chain — has created it’s own take on the ‘just essential’ accommodation.
Branded as Zip, the sole location at present is in Cardiff and features large communal spaces not typically seen in its other hotels. The rooms are incredibly basic with a bed, tv, sockets, and a small bathroom. What’s interesting here is the bed layout is similar to what you might find in a motorhome or boat cabin; two mattresses are present but can be kept sperate or slid together on a track to form a double.
Again, don’t expect much in the way of standing room and don’t bring too much as there is no storage. Where else though can you get an overnight stay in a private room for about £20.
The introduction of capsule hotels, some 40 years ago, continues to influence the hotel industry. In a sense, it has highlighted the popularity and demand for basic necessity and practicality; yet there is of course still the need and desire for indulgence and home-from-home accommodation; nevertheless the added choice of paying for only what you need is a welcome solution in this financially conscious age.
We must not forget however that this was a solution to a very specific problem and an idea (I believe) that would be tossed aside in many other countries. The Japanese have often been quite experimental and imaginative in their problem-solving endeavours and shows the value of thinking outside the box — so to speak.