Though I spent my first two nights in Tokyo at Khaosan Original Hostel in Asakusa, I felt that no trip to Tokyo would be complete without staying at least one night in a capsule hotel. I first came across this concept years ago while reading William Gibson’s cyberpunk classic Neuromancer (which has since become one of my favorite books), where the down-and-out protagonist, Case, is staying in one at the beginning of the novel because he can afford nothing better.
Now there are tons of capsule hotels in Tokyo that cater mainly to salarymen who have stayed out too late (or gotten too drunk) to catch the train home. Some are actually quite luxurious with tons of amenities, while others are very basic and a bit seedy. I apparently had the misfortune to find the seediest one in all of Tokyo.
A quick google search turned up a place called the River Side just down the street from my hostel, so I was headed there until another traveler, John, mentioned another place nearby. After figuring out the name (Hotel Kawase) and scribbling a simple map on a napkin, I wandered over with my backpack to check it out. When I got there the owner, who spoke practically no English, told me it a capsule for the night would be ¥3500 as opposed to the ¥1800 listed on HostelWorld, so in the interest of saving money, I went back to Khaosan Hostel to use their wifi, booked online, and then ran back to the capsule place to check in. [Sidenote: this probably strikes non-travelers as a huge waste of time, but I find myself doing some ridiculous thing like this practically every day on the road. Even simple things can be an adventure. Plus it only took about 15 minutes.]
The guy at the desk was unfortunately not in a better mood when I came back, probably because he realized I had outsmarted him by booking online to save myself seventeen bucks. In any case, he gave me the key to a locker and sent me upstairs in the rickety elevator. I think that was about when I realized I had landed in the worst capsule hotel in Tokyo.
The lights in the hallway and dorm-style room were all dim and flickery, and the capsules looked dirty and old as opposed to the bright yellow that the pictures online showed. The lockers, standing in pairs next to each bed, were so narrow that I had to unpack half my bag to get it to fit in there. The bathroom looked like some place you would commit a murder. The whole scene made me a bit nervous, but I figured it was just a little age and grime and in any case would make a good story later. So I finished locking up my stuff and headed out to meet back up with my friends at the hostel.
Except when I went past the front desk, the guy (now glaring at a newspaper) told me that when I left I had to give him my key. I assumed that he meant when I checked out by “left”, but apparently that was not the case. He expected me to surrender my locker key to him every time I stepped out of the building so that he could hang it on the wall behind the desk and then give it back when I returned. Um, what? Please explain to me the point of locking up my belongings if the key to them is hanging up where anyone can get it? A little dirt isn’t enough to turn me off of a place, but security is a big issue and this made me seriously uncomfortable. We argued back and forth for a while, but with serious language barrier issues, I wasn’t getting anywhere. “Cancel?” he finally asked me, and I agreed, got a refund, and went upstairs again to pack up my stuff. It took a few minutes, since I’d taken practically everything out of my bag in order to cram it into that tiny locker, and the guy was so annoyed with me that he sent his wife up to keep an eye on me and hurry me along. I wanted to tell him that it was okay, I didn’t want to be there any longer than necessary either, but it would just have been lost in translation.
Backpack on, I headed out into the evening once more, this time to the other nearby capsule option, the Asakusa River Side. Literally a block from my previous hostel. Obviously I should just have gone there first and not listened to John, damn the few bucks’ savings. The River Side seemed much nicer, though it was still an experience. There was a whole system in place: you go in, choose a small locker with slippers, and exchange those for your shoes which you then lock up. Then you give the key to the shoe locker to the receptionist, who assigns you to a capsule. Coin lockers on the second floor cost ¥400 for 12 hours for a huge locker — big enough to fit something at least twice the size of my backpack. Unfortunately I never ended up getting pictures of this place, but their photos on HostelWorld are actually fairly realistic. I only took pictures of the capsule at Kawase because it was so horrifying that I was motivated to whip out my camera.
The capsules at the River Side also only had a pull-down shade (I never ended up seeing any with an actual door, but maybe those don’t exist and I was misled?) but at least the hallways were well-lit and the bathroom was cleaner than most hostels I’ve been in, so it was a definite improvement. I locked up my backpack (this time in a secure coin locker that only I had the key to!), exchanged my slippers for street shoes again, and headed the one block back to my hostel (why did I wander all the way around Asakusa again?) to meet up with my friends for dinner and nightlife in Shibuya. In the end, we ended up staying out so late that I never actually got to sleep in the capsule, returning around 8 am just a few hours before I had to check out. But that’s another post…