If you went to Japan for the first time, where would you stay? I wanted to try the famous capsule hotels, a concept that sounded both weird and intriguing when I first heard about it fifteen years ago. Also, after weeks in train carriages, hostels and on couches, it was time to treat myself to a room of my own, even if it only measured 2 square meters. So, I took Booking.com up on it’s special offer, and, for my first night in Tokyo, stayed at the “Centurion Cabin & Spa”, a female-only capsule hotel close to Akasaka Mitsuke subway station.
The hotel is located in a very narrow building, which gives it a cozy feeling that borders on cramped. The capsules are located on the third floor - they are essentially bunk beds, where each bunk has its own “walls” and a curtain to close the “entrance”. The upper bunks, one of which I had, are open towards the ceiling. None of the bunks are sound or light proof, but the walls and curtains do convey a feeling of privacy, even though you can hear every heavy breath your neighbor takes. Each of the capsules is outfitted with a TV, tablet PC, electric outlets and a night lamp - hermits and nerds must have been the customers the Centurion had in mind when designing those. Quite comfortable, I have to say. The only drawback is that you have to sleep in a sea of crumbs should you decide to have dinner in your capsule.
Traveling on a budget, of course I had to take advantage of the “ and spa” part of the Booking offer. The first floor of the hotel houses the bath and sauna. Through hand signals, the staff conveyed that I wasn’t supposed to undress completely, but to wear a pyjama-like brown garment to the sauna. After scrubbing myself thoroughly in the shower and taken a bath, that is. The showers are certainly a novelty, coming from a European spa experience. Naked, you take a seat on a small stool in front of mirror. A shower hose and head are attached next to the mirror. To the left and right of your seat, other women are lathering on soap and vigorously scrubbing every inch of their body, gaze firmly fixed on the mirror. I tried to copy them, making sure that no dead skin cell was left on my body before lowering myself into the hot Onsen, a cross between a whirlpool without the bubbles and a giant bath tub (but healthier, since it’s spring water with lots of minerals).
Toweling off after the bath, I donned the pyjamas which looked fairly ridiculous and would have been great selfie-material, had I brought my camera to the spa. I then entered the sauna and was surprised to find the benches covered with some sort of bath mats, plus cushions to place your head on. The walls were decorated with plastic flowers and one giant TV that featured a Japanese talk show. Everyone in the sauna looked very fresh, civil, and interested in the programming. A stark difference to the sweaty, naked bodies that usually adorn the wooden benches of European saunas. This felt like a living room where someone had turned the thermostat way up. I enjoyed it.
To me, the capsule hotel resembled a hostel for grown-ups. You still have a bunk bed and hear every sound your neighbor utters, but you get nicer lighting, pyjamas and a sauna on top. As I found out afterwards, quite a few hostels in Tokyo actually use the same “capsule” principle for their dorm rooms. This gives everyone more privacy, even though the typical dorm smell is still quite pervasive. Personally, I really liked the concept. Should I ever open a hostel, it would have llots of capsules, each with at least three electrical outlets (essential for any traveler), stable WIFI and a common area with a giant fridge that’s cleaned daily. Budget-traveler heaven.