Nicholas Jones

Nicholas Jones is the New Zealand Herald’s education reporter.

Japan: Living with Tokyo's pod people

Nicholas Jones tries a different type of accommodation in Japan, testing his ability to cope with small spaces... and smelly feet.

Tokyo's capsule hotels are mostly used by workers who miss the last train home. To get a good night's sleep you may need earplugs to block out the noises coming from other capsules. Photo / Nicholas Jones
Tokyo's capsule hotels are mostly used by workers who miss the last train home. To get a good night's sleep you may need earplugs to block out the noises coming from other capsules. Photo / Nicholas Jones

The first thing I notice when I lie back and relax in my hotel is the pong of my own feet. That's almost a relief because I had feared the onset of claustrophobia.

The room I'm staying in is a fibreglass pod tall enough to sit up in and measuring 2m long by 1m wide - one of a row of 12 stacked two high (picture a human kennel).

It's one of Japan's capsule hotels, situated in Tokyo's busy Asakusa district, which I'm trying out to see if it's something budget-conscious travellers should sensibly consider in this city with a worryingly expensive reputation.

Normally filled by salarymen who miss the last train home, the uniquely Japanese hotels offer a place to flop for as little as $30 a night.

To us they might seem the stuff of science-fiction but this place's dated brown and cream panelling is a reminder that the first capsule hotel opened in Japan in 1979 and locals take them for granted.

These days the hotels are making efforts to attract foreigners. On the English language version of the website, for instance, I noticed much emphasis on a special fabric spray which supposedly nullified such odours. Unfortunately it doesn't seem able to cope with my feet.

The only other foreigner in the men-only dormitory is a backpacker from Hungary and we greet each other with the dumb grins of fish well out of water.

Each capsule has a reading light and tiny television, which I don't bother turning on, assuming the accompanying coin slot means it's pay-per-view.

Later I find translated guest instructions and learn the slot is actually for an adult movie service - a disturbing thought given the walls are thin enough to hear a cough from three capsules away.

And when night falls that proves to be the biggest drawback: the hoicking and bizarre grunting at all hours providing a reminder that the future will still be annoyingly human.

In the morning I enter the bathrooms - similar to a sento, or public bath - to disapproving stares from four naked Japanese men.

Dismayingly, the showers are two shower heads at about knee height with tiny child-sized plastic seats next to them. I take one next to a soaped-up businessman, whose increasingly loud grunts of disgust at the gangly-limbed round-eye next to him mean it's had in record time.

Noise and lack of personal space mean Tokyo's capsule hotels have the same drawbacks as old-fashioned hostel dorm rooms, though they do offer a shade more privacy.

So would I recommend a capsule to a budget traveller heading for Tokyo? I think I'd suggest first scouring websites for deals on single hotel rooms, which while more expensive and not much bigger, offer much more convenience and comfort for a multiple-night stay.

But, for one or two nights, capsule hotels are a cheap, clean, safe and most of all memorable place to crash (just pack some earplugs and a spare pair of socks).

And, if you are on a budget, remember that Tokyo's neon-lit streets, parks, shrines and ancient and modern shopping districts provide endless entertainment for free.

All of them are linked on an easy-to-use and cheap underground system, whose tidal flows of commuters are itself an essential experience. And, as a bonus, after 11pm you can gaze in amazement at the sharp-suited businessmen collapsed in drunken heaps dotted around the platforms.

When hours can be spent wandering Tokyo's streets or simply watching the flow of people at an intersection, accommodation really is just a place to sleep.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand has five services per week to Tokyo (Narita Airport) and economy class airfares commence from $2031 per person return including airport and government costs.

Where to stay: Capsule Hotel Asakusa Riverside offers male and female capsule dormitories and its friendly staff speak some English. The hotel is one minute's walk from Asakusa train station and its common areas have views over the Sumida River that belong in a different price bracket.

What to do: Make an early-morning visit to the Tsukiji fish market, where hundreds of alleyways are filled with every imaginable creature of the deep - including whale. Afterwards pull up a seat at one of the market's sushi restaurants for melt-in-your-mouth sashimi.

On weekends head to the tree-lined grounds of Meiji-Jingu, one of the finest Shinto shrines in Japan, to see wedding processions snake their way underneath copper-roofed temple buildings.

Nicholas Jones visited Japan as guest of Air New Zealand.

- NZ Herald

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